Saturday, June 25, 2022

Pender county candidate, resident at odds over political signage, head to court

Pender County resident is accusing commissioner candidate Jerry Groves of defacing one of Ramsey’s signs. The sign was criticizing Groves and posted at 801 S. Walker St., near the early voting site. (Courtesy photo/Ken Ramsey)

PENDER COUNTY — A Pender County resident and commissioner candidate are both set to appear in district court next month over a political sign debacle.

Resident Ken Ramsey said his political signs have been destroyed multiple times over the last few weeks — a class 3 misdemeanor. To catch the perpetrator in the act, Ramsey set up a “dummy” camera in plain view and a second hidden camera near a sign posted at an early voting location. 

Ramsey is accusing former high-school classmate and Pender County commissioner candidate Jerry Groves — running against incumbent George Brown for the district 3 seat — for destroying one of his signs at the site. The sign attempted to dissuade residents from voting for Groves. 

A spokesperson for the N.C. State Board of Elections confirmed the office does not regulate content of political signs.

“Only signs greater than 50-square-feet require disclosure of the sponsor and authorization on the face of the sign,” public information director Patrick Gannon said.

Ramsey sought a criminal summons on Groves May 11. The following day, May 12, Groves responded by taking out a criminal summons on Ramsey for stalking.

It’s not the first time the two have come to blows over campaign signs.

“He’s upset with me from Alan Cutler’s campaign,” Groves said, referring to the current Pender County Sheriff.

Groves, a part-time deputy, retired from the Pender County Sheriff’s office full-time in March 2021 after 15 years.

During the 2018 election, when Sheriff Cutler ran for office, he was up against six other Republicans. Ramsey supported Randy Burton (also running unaffiliated in the 2022 election), while Groves campaigned for Cutler.

“Groves, or his family did, made up signs: ‘Do not vote for Randy Burton,’” Ramsey explained. “We realized there’s nothing you can do; it’s political opinion and protected by the First Amendment, so we let it slide.”

Ramsey said, since the verbiage was approved during the last election, he mimicked it for use this go around.

At the beginning of May, Ramsey posted a sign near the Pender County Cooperative Extension auditorium on Walker Street in Burgaw, one of two early voting sites. It stated: “Do not vote for Jerry Groves. We have better choices.” 

“That evening it was damaged,” Ramsey wrote in an email. “We repaired it, but over the next week, it was damaged and repaired several times.”

A matching sign was posted at the Hampstead Annex, the second early voting location. Ramsey said it disappeared within a day or two.

According to the state board of elections’ statutes, complaint political signs are permissible, starting 30 days before the start of early voting and ending 10 days after election day. For this election, the time period is March 29 to May 27.

On Wednesday, Ramsey said he caught footage of Groves slicing his name off the sign from a hidden camera he planted to discourage vandalism. He also said Groves put one of his own campaign signs to block the “dummy” camera.

“I’m not saying I did or didn’t do it,” Groves said. “Someone else could have did it. He doesn’t have my face doing anything.”

Ramsey used an old game camera to capture the images, which only include still photos, not video. The photos show two people, but their heads are not in the shots.

Burgaw Police Department chief Jim Hock confirmed officers spoke with both Groves and Ramsey, at different times, at 801 S. Walker St. Wednesday.

“[An officer] spoke with Mr. Ramsey and advised him of his rights to take what evidence he had and go to the magistrate’s office to talk about taking out charges,” Hock said. “It’s customary to do so when there’s a misdemeanor that doesn’t happen in the presence of law enforcement.”

Following advice from the officer, Ramsey sought legal action against Groves, who in turn, did the same.

“I felt threatened at the time,” Groves said. “I plan to pursue a restraining order. He totes a gun, and he’s a dangerous person.”

Ramsey is a retired California highway patrol officer and coaches his son’s 4-H shooting team. He said on occasion he carries a gun, following shooting practice with his team.

“I’ve not even laid eyes on Mr. Groves, except for when he walks in where I’m at,” Ramsey said. “It’s only happened three times over the last six months.”

Ramsey said he changed his morning routine of eating breakfast at Hardee’s with friends because Groves started showing up about three months ago.

Groves accused Ramsey of following him to see where he posted campaign signs and placing anti-Groves signs alongside them.

“Every one of those signs is in my truck now,” Groves added. He said other residents have been collecting them on his behalf.

Pender County Board of Elections director Susan Williams said, like the state board of elections, her office does not police the signs.

“All I can do is maintain signage in the 50-foot buffer zone,” she said. 

She added every candidate receives a paper copy of the political signage statutes — also listed on the board of elections website — when filing for candidacy.

According to the general statute, the definition of a political sign “means any sign that advocates for political action.” 

Groves and Ramsey will appear in Pender County district court June 29. A guilty class 3 misdemeanor could be penalized with a maximum of 20 days in jail, as well as a $200 fine.

Update: This article was updated to reflect the pending charge as a class 3 misdemeanor, not class 1.

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