Tuesday, April 16, 2024

School board incumbent under investigation for removing political signs

Nelson Beaulieu pulled a political sign out of the ground outside the NHC Board of Elections on Oct. 21. (Courtesy Chris Sutton).

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — “Hey, Nelson, what are you doing there, buddy?” a male voice speaks out in a video currently circulating social media.

It shows local Democratic school board candidate Nelson Beaulieu pulling up a political sign from the ground outside a polling place over the weekend. The incident has prompted an investigation with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. 

READ MORE: Board of elections likely to order another full hand-to-eye recount in school board primary

The report was filed against New Hanover County Board of Education incumbent Beaulieu on Oct. 21, the day after early-voting began. New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jerry Brewer confirmed a deputy was dispatched Friday to the board of elections building on Military Cutoff Road in response to a 911 call. Someone reported seeing Beaulieu removing a political sign, just as the video shows. 

In the footage, the sign the candidate removes alleges: “Nelson Beaulieu voted against teacher raises.” 

Another sign posted on the polling grounds states: “Nelson Beaulieu did not support our sexual assault victims.” 

Beaulieu claims the signs are libelous and the statements untrue. 

“I have never voted against a pay raise for our teachers or our staff,” he said. 

In 2022-2023 budget talks, Beaulieu stated he would not support a plan to use non-recurring Covid-19 funding to cover a $17 minimum wage without cutting any employee positions. He did not want to issue raises the district could not maintain.

In a conversation with Port City Daily, Beaulieu said the county’s rejection of the school board’s request for an extra $2 million in May left the district unable to include higher wages in its budget. Wages were increased to $15, the state minimum, in June. 

In recent months, people have spoken out against the district’s Title IX definitions, which specifies fondling as “under the clothes.” Beaulieu, who chairs the policy committee, voted against expanding the definition to include over-the-clothes touching. 

Yet, Beaulieu said, he has “worked with the last board to fundamentally change the way this district responds to issues surrounding sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

In the video recorded and shown to police Friday, Beaulieu can be seen returning the sign to where it was placed. He is then confronted by the videographer, a campaign volunteer, who asks Beaulieu why he is against free speech after telling him he is breaking the law.

A subsequent video shows Beaulieu talking to a sheriff’s deputy. Though most of their conversation is inaudible, he can be heard telling the deputy he put the sign back, which is what he reaffirmed to Port City Daily Tuesday.

“I didn’t take the sign,” Beaulieu said, and admitted he was the figure shown in the video. 

Beaulieu, who teaches political science at Cape Fear Community College, said he is filing a complaint with the State Board of Elections claiming the signs are “legally questionable.” He said they violate state law. 

“These signs did not identify who was paying for them, were illegally placed, are libelous in nature, have absolutely no basis in fact and have no place in this election,” Beaulieu said in a statement shared with PCD.

Beaulieu is referring to general statutes 163-278.39 and 136-274(a), which regulate political advertisements and defamation, respectively. He argued the signs should be labeled with disclosure statements on who paid for the ad. However, the statute only stipulates disclosure statements for print, radio and television ads: 

“It shall be unlawful for any sponsor to sponsor an advertisement in the print media or on radio or television that constitutes an expenditure, independent expenditure, electioneering communication, or contribution required to be disclosed under this Article unless all the following conditions are met.” 

The general statute regulating political signs, 136-32, prohibits removal of “any sign that advocates for political action.” The statute states it is illegal “for a person to steal, deface, vandalize, or unlawfully remove a political sign that is lawfully placed under this section.” The subsection does not detail content regulations of the sign. 

Violations are Class 3 misdemeanors and are punishable by $1,000 fines pending no more than three prior convictions. 

Signmaker Neal Shulman, who is listed on the police report as the victim, told Port City Daily he was called to the northeast library on Oct. 21 after someone phoned him about what Beaulieu was doing. Shulman told the caller to dial the sheriff’s office. 

“The only person who can take that sign is a duly sworn code enforcement officer,” he said, also clarifying he is an unaffiliated voter. “Otherwise, it’s considered larceny.”

Shulman described signmaking as his First Amendment right to speak out. 

“What is the most important thing in the Pledge of Allegiance?” Shulman asked. “Liberty and justice for all. If there is no liberty for Nelson or justice for Nelson, there is no liberty for you or me.”

He said he has completed around 15 signs focused on Beaulieu and received many complaints they were being stolen. He said the next sign he makes will include “Nelson Beaulieu is a thief.” 

The outspoken community member has made signs for other candidates as well, including Julia Olson-Boseman during the primaries. Olson-Boseman had Shulman removed from an Oct. 3 New Hanover County Commissioners meeting after he questioned the chairwoman’s business practices during the public comment period. 

“Who in here would enter into a business agreement with Julia Boseman and give her 50 thousand dollars?” Shulman asked.

Shulman said he is seeking legal action for violation of public meeting laws.

Lt. Brewer confirmed no charges have been filed through the sheriff’s office regarding the sign removal. The office is still investigating the report, which lists Diane Zaryki and Ashley Strand as others involved.

According to report notes made by Deputy MacDonald, who arrived at the scene to assess the incident, Strand showed the officer the video of Beaulieu and then said he called Shulman and Zaryki, the sign owners.

“I also spoke to Neil, who stated that Nelson was seen yesterday at another polling location,” McDonald wrote in the notes. “All parties involved were advised that a report would be completed and forwarded to detectives prior to any charges being filed. Nothing further to report.”

Shulman confirmed he is pursuing charges.

Reach out to Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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