Surry County Commissioner Paul Johnson is “a distraction and a disgrace,” according to fellow commissioner Larry Phillips.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Surry County Board of Commissioners Phillips claimed that Johnson was fueling the debate over a proposed Family Dollar store in Westfield in order to detract from the commissioner’s own legal struggles, which include four indictments on charges of obtaining money under false pretenses, issued in February by a Surry County Grand Jury.
After citing a number of projects in which alcohol is served or sold on which the board has given its approval, Phillips said Tuesday “of all the dollar stores we’ve approved this is the first time alcohol sales has been raised as an issue.”
Phillips said that his assessment as to why alcohol sales has been a point of contention in the recent rezoning matter is that Johnson, who is accused of four felony counts of obtaining property by false pretense, is using the matter to detract from his own legal battles and in hopes of winning the allegiance of county residents who could serve on a jury in Johnson’s case.
“Why is this (alcohol sales) an issue now,” asked Phillips. “I can answer that. We have a member of this board accused of four felonies. His legal defense fund hasn’t filed the paperwork mandated by state law and this member is facing a civil suit from the county to recoup taxpayer dollars he stole. This is just an attempt to deflect attention from himself.”
Phillips went on to say Johnson was “playing the church card.” “It’s an act of deception to try to bait a possible jury,” remarked Phillips. “He’s a distraction and a disgrace to this county.”
Phillips, who is a pastor at a local church, told stories of his attempts to help alcoholics recover in his years and said, “the church has a lot more compassion for a drunk than a thief.”
Johnson was not in attendance at the meeting. Board Chairman R.F. “Buck” Golding cited medical reasons for Johnson’s absence, but Johnson had sent an email to fellow commissioners asking that they continue the discussion to the board’s next meeting. However, Westfield resident Paul Covington, who spoke in opposition to the rezoning effort, said that Johnson had not been a driving force behind the rezoning opposition movement.
Johnson, who responded to a phone call later in the evening, echoed the remarks of Covington. “I don’t know how I’d be using this as a distraction,” said Johnson. “It (the rezoning matter) doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.”
Johnson said he was also taken aback by Phillips’ remarks. “For Commissioner Phillips to do his ranting and raving while I wasn’t there to defend myself is telling of the caliber of person and the kind of preacher he is,” said Johnson.
“I wasn’t aware Commissioner Johnson wasn’t going to be present at the meeting,” said Phillips. “I was going to read that statement regardless. He’s doing everything he can to deflect attention from himself, but what would be refreshing is if he (Johnson) took some responsibility for his actions.”
While commissioners eventually approved the rezoning from residential to business by a unanimous vote, about 15 area residents showed up to hear the discussion regarding the rezoning measure that will pave the way for a Family Dollar store at 3416 Old Westfield Road. Wade White outlined the concerns of many residents in the public hearing for the rezoning.
White said Westfield area residents made a number of requests to Family Dollar. The requests, according to White, included no light pollution at the site, that the signage at the store be “reasonable and in keeping with the rural setting,” that the business would be closed from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. every day and be closed on Sunday mornings, that the store front be altered to be more rustic in nature, and that the store not sell alcohol.
White said the terms were not agreeable to Family Dollar. “They expressly oppose a prohibition on any alcohol sales,” said White. White also asked commissioners to once again continue the discussions until the next board meeting so that the movement opposing the rezoning effort could rally more support — a request commissioners did not grant.
Paul Bell, the developer in the Family Dollar matter, said that the corporation had already made some concessions. “Family Dollar has agreed not to advertise alcohol sales and has redesigned the store front to look more like a rural general store,” said Bell.
Bell added that the effort to redesign the store front will come at a significant cost to Family Dollar.
Property owner Christopher Sevilla said that he believes the Family Dollar will alleviate the costs associated with traveling to larger towns to buy groceries or paying higher costs at other locally owned stores. Sevilla said that the issue is one of economic development and that the new store could create a dozen jobs.
Sevilla also told area residents that the power to regulate alcohol sales is in their hands. “If there’s no demand then it (alcohol) won’t sell,” said Sevilla.
Phillips said that Sevilla hit the nail on the head in his remarks. “The focus should be on turning around the economy in this county,” said Phillips. “We don’t have enough jobs for our residents.”
Phillips also said that the rezoning matter is a matter of consistency. “We must be consistent when making these decisions. We’ve approved many similar projects,” remarked Phillips.
Like Sevilla, Phillips said that area residents still hold the power to ensure alcohol isn’t sold at the location. “You hold the power of the purse,” said Phillips. “If you don’t like alcohol then don’t buy it.”
After explaining his personal and religious opposition to the consumption of alcohol, Phillips said, “I shop at Wal-Mart. They sell alcohol. I feel no compulsion to go down the beer aisle when I’m there.”
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer for the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or [email protected]