Haywood commissioners reject misinformation at meeting
When a small group of concerned citizens turned up to the most recent Haywood County Board of Commissioners meeting, it sounded as though they were intent on ambushing commissioners with misinformation about everything from COVID-19 to county HHS board operations to needle exchange programs.
Commissioners fought back with facts, but lawyers say there’s not much more that local governments can do to combat the growing number of outright falsehoods offered by members of the public during local government meetings.
“A lawyer uses the word ‘actionable’ to mean that the behavior provides the factual support for a lawsuit or other legal proceeding,” said Haywood County Attorney Frank Queen. “Standing up at a public hearing and reciting, falsely that Haywood County has the highest opioid overdose rate in the state is ignorant for sure and likely malicious, but it isn’t actionable.”
As with most other local governments, regular meetings of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners always begin with a public comment session. Statute requires governing boards to offer the opportunity to comment once a month, at minimum. Haywood offers the opportunity at every meeting, adding up to twice per month.
Speakers can sign up prior to the meeting and are allotted three minutes to address the board.
On Aug. 15, Deanie Brooks took to the podium to avail herself of that right, but almost everything she said was false.
“I’m wondering why is Haywood County the number one county in the whole state of North Carolina for opioid overdose deaths?” she asked.
It’s not. In fact, it’s not even close.
Commissioner Tommy Long had just returned from a North Carolina Association of County Commissioners conference, where he received a report citing N.C. Department of Health and Human Services data from 2020.
That report says there were 1.91 opioid poisoning deaths per 10,000 residents in Haywood County. Of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 80 of them had more opioid poisoning deaths per 10,000 residents than Haywood did. Jackson County had 4.8, Macon County had 4 and Swain County had 4.9. The worst, Pamlico County, had 7.9.
“One’s too many,” Long said after Brooks’ assertion, adding that he wasn’t trying to downplay the situation and that Haywood definitely has a problem with opiates. “I need to follow up with you to see where you got your information after the meeting, because the state gives this data out. And so as far as deaths per capita, we’re really down there.”
Brooks then asked another question based on a false premise.
“Why is Haywood County number one county in the whole state of North Carolina for property crime?” she asked.
Again, it’s not close.
According to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, there were 822 property crime offenses reported by the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office in 2020, the last year for which data are available. During that same year, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reported 35,674 property crimes, meaning Haywood was nowhere near number one in the state.
Even assuming Brooks meant “property crimes per capita,” she’s still way off the mark. Mecklenburg residents see 32.57 property crimes per 1,000 residents, while Haywood sees 13.7. In 2019, the FBI reported a national average of 21.1 property crimes per 1,000 residents, a 24% decrease from 2010.
Brooks continued by saying that “Haywood County is handing out free needles under the name of the needle exchange program.”
Haywood County Manager Bryant Morehead said that’s not true.
“The syringe exchange program first started with the linkages to care state grant. After nine months, it was clear that the program wasn’t working here in Haywood like we had designed. We decided to go a different direction, got out of the contract with the Harm Reduction Coalition, and we worked with Meridian,” Morehead said. “We’ve been more successful in actually linking people to care. That contract with Meridian doesn’t include a needle exchange program.”
Commissioner Brandon Rogers said basically the same thing.
“As far as the health department is concerned, we are not handing out any free needles,” Rogers said. “We ended that some time ago.”
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick reacted to the comments by saying he doesn’t like to “contradict people when they get up there speaking when I’m not certain about the fact, but I was almost certain that we don’t provide any needles anymore because we had that discussion, I believe, over a year ago. And we decided not to continue to fund that and stopped any kind of needle exchange. None of your tax dollars for Haywood County are being utilized for syringes in Haywood County.”
Haywood County Health and Human Services director Ira Dove provided answers to a series of questions by The Smoky Mountain News, with credit to Health Director Sarah Henderson and Health Education Supervisor Megan Hauser.
“Haywood County Health and Human Services Agency staff do not distribute syringes for any reason and do not operate a syringe services program,” Dove said. “Haywood County contracted previously with a group that did operate a syringe services program as part of a larger linkages to care grant and that contract ended in December 2020.”
Brooks also said that “our town leaders are inviting more homeless addicts here.”
Nowhere in municipal or county government minutes does it say “town leaders” are inviting more homeless addicts.
She also said that she’d “discovered” that when an increasing number of people with substance use disorder are reported, grants and government funding can be increased. Dove told SMN that while credible data is used in a funding application process, it’s not tied to the number of individuals in a community with substance use disorder.
Brooks continued by asserting that “82% of the folks that die from drug overdose are in the needle exchange program.”
No verification of this statement could be found by SMN, or by Dove. Indeed, Dove said the claim may not be true, because to collect that specific set of data, someone would have to contact needle exchange programs about people who have died and ask for health information that would in all likelihood be private.
Instead, a 2021 report by the Pew Charitable Trust says that despite community concerns about needle exchange programs, “more than three decades of peer-reviewed research has instead shown them to reduce rates of HIV and HCV [hepatitis] among PWID [persons who inject drugs]” and that the programs actually increase proper disposal of used needles, increase participants’ engagement with treatment options and do not cause an increase in crime.
Brooks was followed at the podium by Jeff Sellers, who said he has a background in both law enforcement and social work.
In 2020, Sellers was a candidate to fill a vacancy on the Board of Commissioners left by Rep. Mark Pless when Pless was elected midway through his commission term to the North Carolina General Assembly. That appointment, made per statute by the Haywood County Republican Party after a prolonged and transparent screening process, ultimately went to current Commissioner Jennifer Best.
Sellers explained that several months prior to the Aug. 15 meeting, he received a call from Paul Turner, who was at the time the chairman of the Haywood County Health and Human Services Advisory Board, encouraging him to apply for a seat on that board.
“One thing [Turner] said, and this is a quote that I wrote down,” Sellers told commissioners, “he said, ‘I prefer you not to share this with just anyone. We don’t advertise this, but we are all pro-vaccine and we’ve got to keep those anti-vaxxers off the board.’”
Turner told SMN on Aug. 19 that after meeting Sellers at a Republican Party event, they’d talked about Sellers’ experience in social work and that he had indeed encouraged Turner to apply for a seat on the HHS board, but that he doesn’t remember ever saying, “we’ve got to keep those anti-vaxxers off the board.”
On Aug. 4, 2020, near the height of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Turner’s HHS board issued a statement with unanimous consent of the board, stating, “The Haywood County Health and Human Services Agency Board unequivocally supports the immunization program of the Haywood County Health and Human Services Agency and encourages all eligible persons to get vaccinated.”
Turner worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 33 years and was the director of Mississippi’s immunization programs and has other extensive experience in the public health field. He’s seen the results that immunization programs can have on small pox, polio, measles and rubella and said he’s unabashedly 100% pro-vax.
“Since one of the major pillars of public health is immunizations (vaccinations), I personally don’t see any value in having an anti-vax person on any board of health or consolidated board,” Turner added on Aug. 20. “Vaccines are one of major keys to prevention and a major tool to bringing outbreaks under control. What would the world look like today if immunization programs for smallpox, polio, measles, rubella, DPT, etc. had not been conducted? How much suffering and death has been prevented?”
Turner said he believes the board selection process is fair, and that they’d never even asked applicants about their views on vaccination. He also said he’d fielded several calls about Sellers’ statement from people who felt that Sellers had thrown him under the bus.
“Well then, that’s an honor,” Turner said. “Because if that means I care about kids and keeping them and adults healthy, then I will be glad to be thrown under the bus.”
Next to address commissioners was Barry Peppers, who claimed to be a retired Air Force officer and pilot for American Airlines.
“We have 14 schools in Haywood County, seven elementary schools. And my understanding is those schools do not have — at least the elementary schools — full-time school resource officers,” Peppers said. “They may rotate, but I don’t know about that. In my opinion, the day and the time has come to stop this insanity of not having armed police in our schools.”
Peppers is mostly correct, according to Haywood County Schools Associate Superintendent Dr. Trevor Putnam.
Putnam told SMN on Aug. 19 that among the 15 schools in Haywood County, including eight elementary schools, seven school resource officers rotate and provide coverage. Haywood Early College shares an SRO with Haywood Community College.
“There are no full-time SROs at elementary schools,” Putnam said.
“I think we looked at that about six or seven years ago,” said Republican Kevin Ensley, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. “It was going to be about a penny on the tax rate … about $20 to $30 per taxpayer is what we figured at that time. And I remember that because Bill Hollingsed, who was the chief of police at Waynesville, said that he would be willing to pay an extra $20 or $30 to make sure a resource officer was in every school. I agree with him, but I didn’t have the support to pass that, but it would be about a penny on the tax rate.”
Peppers then told commissioners that Neighborhood Scout, a real estate data firm, says that Haywood County and Waynesville is the number one town in North Carolina for violent crime per capita, behind Fayetteville and Charlotte.
Going back to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, neither Haywood County nor the Town of Waynesville is anywhere near the top of the list for violent crimes per capita.
In 2020, Haywood County reported 77 violent offenses, good for 1.24 per 1,000 residents. Waynesville reported 54, which works out to 5.3 per 1,000 residents. Mecklenburg reported 8,238 violent offenses that year, or about 7.5 per 1,000 residents. Fayetteville reported 9.9 violent crimes per 1,000 residents.
In addition, an abstract from a 2001 FBI report cautioned against using such “ranking” websites like Neighborhood Scout because they simply compile data and rank jurisdictions without any context.
“ … these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses which often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents,” the report reads.
Sellers then brought up the immigration crisis at the nation’s southern border, saying that “over 2 million people came across our border in 2021 alone.”
While that is true , what Peppers didn’t mention is that nearly all migrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol in 2021 that were subsequently classified as single adults were expelled or deported — about 57% of all migrants, numbering more than 1 million individuals.
Peppers went on to say that “our jails, because of COVID, have been largely emptied.”
Kirkpatrick said during the meeting he didn’t think that was the case. Stats provided later by Haywood County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Christina Esmay show that at no time in the past year has the detention center been below 73% occupancy.
Another claim by Peppers, that “87,000 armed IRS agents are going to be hired” doesn’t have much relevance to county-level government and is also deeply misleading. The Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS has employed armed agents since 1919, and is currently looking for around 300 more, according to MarketWatch.
The Annenburg Public Policy Center’s factcheck.org project says that the $79 billion included for the IRS in the Inflation Reduction Act will indeed go toward hiring about 87,000 new employees over a period of 10 years, the overwhelming majority of which will be neither armed nor agents.
Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury, said in an August letter to IRS commissioner Charles P. Rettig that “… audit rates will not rise relative to recent years for households making under $400,000 annually” and that “contrary to the misinformation from opponents of this legislation, small business or households earning $400,000 per year or less will not see an increase in the chances that they are audited.”
The claim that 87,000 armed IRS agents will be hired all at once to come after average Americans was spread by Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Following Peppers was Walnut Street resident and business owner Sharon Walls, who complained that “people” were harassing her customers and begging for money.
Waynesville Police Chief David Adams told SMN on Aug. 19 that since January, only five calls for service were dispatched to her business at 147 Walnut St., none of which were logged for her nearby home.
Walls said that she’d “recently found out that our health department is encouraging the drug problem.”
Dove said that claim is counter to the mission of the Haywood County Health and Human Services Agency.
“HCHHSA is dedicated to enhancing the health, safety and full potential of our community. Encouraging more illegal drug activity goes against our mission,” he said. “Our efforts past and present have not been to encourage the problem—but rather to help those who have substance use disorder. The Health and Human Services Agency works diligently to bring awareness to the topic of substance use disorder and to find solutions.”
Walls also said that the HCHHSA tells callers “how to get free syringes.”
Dove replied that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has a variety of resources on its website, including but not limited to syringe services, as does the CDCP and that goal of the HCHHSA is “to meet the needs of the community and provide our citizens with reputable resources such as those.”
Walls then told commissioners that the county offers “a mobile program to deliver them to users who need them.”
Dove reiterated that HCHHSA neither runs nor financially supports syringe services programs, mobile or otherwise.
Walls concluded her remarks by asking, “If you have a child with a drug addiction, what kind of help would you want from our health department and our supposed experts who work there? Maybe some guidance on how to find a rehab program, or maybe how to talk with your child about his or her problems?”
That’s exactly what HCHHSA does, by providing info on locating substance use disorder treatment, including to Meridian.
Finally, Janet Presson appeared at the podium. Presson’s no newcomer to public comment sessions and has been active in spreading debunked theories about vaccines and masks, which she said are “poison” and “useless,” respectively.
Presson’s public comments came under further scrutiny when it was revealed that she was an appointed member of the nonprofit Haywood Healthcare Foundation’s board of trustees.
Shortly after Presson was appointed to that board, she helped host an anti-vax movie screening featuring a documentary film filled with misinformation. During that event, Presson attempted to prevent members of local media from recording or photographing the presentation, which was held at the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville and featured a “who’s who” of disgraced medical professionals peddling discredited medical theories.
In October 2020, Presson promoted another private movie screening in Haywood County featuring the widely discredited views of a former physician who ushered in the modern anti-vax misinformation campaign with a fraudulent study claiming that vaccines cause autism.
Presson’s public appearances prompted calls for her removal from the HHF board. Trustees had a “ lengthy discussion” about removal, but in the end took no action. Presson wasn’t renominated once her term expired in February of this year.
During the Aug. 15 Haywood Commissioners meeting, Presson railed against the fact that syringes are given away in Haywood County by nonprofits and that the HCHHSA will indeed provide information to callers on where to get them.
She referred to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition and Down Home North Carolina — both of which engage or engaged in the practice — as “idiot groups” that enjoy “enabling drug addicts to basically kill themselves.”
Down Home no longer has a chapter in Haywood County, but Morehead reiterated what Dove has already said about the syringe service programs.
“North Carolina Harm Reduction is still operating in the county, but it’s with no county funds,” Morehead said. “They’re not using any county resources. If we are giving information out to addicts or users, I’m guessing that it’s from a communicable disease standpoint because sharing needles does spread hepatitis and other types of illness.”
Ensley said the needle exchange legislation was passed by a Republican legislature and signed by a Republican governor to curb transmissible disease.
“The reason was because they were trying to cut down on HIV incidences and hepatitis. When those cases come about through usually Medicaid cases it usually overwhelms our hospital and there’s no really no money for the hospitals to be paying for that,” he said.
Presson also told commissioners that the county doesn’t have “a free mobile syringe delivery service for diabetics, just for addicts.”
Dove again said that the HCHHSA does not run or financially support a syringe services program, mobile or otherwise, for anyone.
In closing, Presson implored commissioners to “stop our health department from enabling this program.”
Dove reiterated that the HCHHSA does not purchase or distribute syringes and does not operate a syringe services program.
Despite the dubious or deceitful nature of comments directed at Haywood commissioners during that meeting, several lawyers told The Smoky Mountain News that there’s almost nothing that can be done about it.
“Speakers at town meetings are not under oath, as they would be in court, so there is no legal obligation to tell the truth,” said Martha Bradley, Waynesville’s town attorney. “If they were to slander another person by making false and defamatory statements about another individual, the person who was slandered has a civil cause of action against them to recover damages, but the Town itself would have no recourse.”
David W. Owens, professor of public law and government at UNC’s School of Government, concurred with Bradley.
“If the local government is holding an evidentiary hearing (such as one on a special use permit application), the speakers are under oath and limited to testifying truthfully as to relevant topics for which they have personal knowledge. They are subject to criminal penalty for perjury if they knowingly make false statements,” Owens said. “But speakers at a general comment period are not under oath and not subject to a legal obligation to speak truthfully.”
Kristi A. Nickodem, assistant professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, also concurred with Bradley and Owens, and said that even false speech is largely protected by the First Amendment.
There is a misdemeanor offense in North Carolina for knowingly or recklessly making “derogatory reports” on candidates in any election, although the constitutionality of the statute is under litigation. There’s also another statute that prohibits a person from falsely representing themself to be a law enforcement officer or a county, municipal or state employee.
There is, however, at least one thing elected officials can do when confronted with misinformation from the public.
“All that being said, a county or municipality could take steps to combat misinformation in public meetings through providing a truthful and fact-based response, such as through press releases, statements on social media or statements made in the meeting itself,” Nickodem said.
Watch the meeting in its entirety on Haywood County Government's YouTube page.
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“Vaccines are one of major keys to prevention and a major tool to bringing outbreaks under control. What would the world look like today if immunization programs for smallpox, polio, measles, rubella, DPT, etc. had not been conducted? How much suffering and death has been prevented?”
This si nothing but an attempt to pass off the Wuflu shot as safe and effective, which it is not. The current Polio vaccines are also dangerous. It should also be pointed out that vaccination programs were not the major influence in ending the spread of the major killer diseases. Sanitation was what did the job. Some vaccines have been important, like Smallpox. I had to take Typhus and Typhoid shots in the military and as a military dependent going to Germany in the 50s and 60s. Those diseases are also rare now, thanks to good sanitation.
Anyone telling you the Covid vaccines are safe and effective is lying. They aren't even in the same class as the earlier vaccinations and have serious side effects. They aren't worth the risk.
Thank you and the officials that provided truthful statistics. I’m sad that the county doesn’t support the harm reduction program any longer. Decreasing disease by providing clean needles and syringes to those who use IV drugs is important work. Donation of hard plastic containers by residents to the health department was a win win. Addiction is a difficult disease to combat. We have to continue to try, and to remember that IV drugs is just one addiction. Alcohol, cigarettes, food, and spreading falsehoods in the public forum for a personal high may also be addicting.
It is telling that they spewed the same nonsense one after the other. I'm sure we have all met people who are either talking or waiting to talk; never listening. Sounds like they congregate at these meetings.
Do you know how to make a lair mad ??
Keep asking them Questions
So keep holding the Gang of 5's feet to the fire
When people are so ignorant to make these outlandish comments what makes us think they will understand when given facts to disprove their false comments? It is better to just listen, shake your head and move on!
The gang of 5 elite which has weaponized the govt and teamed up with corporate media/ SMN to intimidate and silence those who dare to disagree with them.
Thank you Cory, and Smoky Mountain News, for writing this fact-based article. The internet has created incredible opportunities for public education, entertainment, and the sharing of information broadly. It unfortunately has also provided a means for the widespread dissemination of falsehoods, conspiracy theories and misinformation. We must always be critical and discerning when we read or watch ANYTHING on the internet, just as we should be when we watch television or attend a live event.
I applaud our public officials when they are open-minded and provide regular opportunities for members of the public to question them, or share their thoughts on matters effecting the community. This latest example from the County Commissioners meeting is a great example of that. It is, however, unfortunate that some citizens are less interested in listening or advocating for a positive cause, and more interested in simply sharing and spreading ill-informed grievances.
As always, our best chance to improve our community is to intelligently educate ourselves on the issues of the day, and to then roll up our sleeves and work together in a collaborative way.
The Haywood County statistics, of highest opioid overdose deaths in the state, as well as highest property crimes in the stated were given by the Waynesville Police Department, to a group that attended the community meeting that they half called, a few months ago. They provided. A Lot of new information to us. As stated in your biased article, the stats on Haywood County standings, were from 2020. The Waynesville Police Department also informed us that these current stats have us on the radar of Global Drug Cartel, to usher in More drugs to Haywood. Why do you, Cory, want to cover this all of this up?