By Matt Tomsic
Published: July 22, 2009
News of Saturday’s Rural Tour in Pittsylvania County has done laps around the Web after county sheriff’s deputies asked members of the Danville Tea Party Committee to leave the farm where the forum was hosted.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Pittsylvania County last weekend. They toured Piedmont BioProducts and hosted a community forum at a local farm. The tour is visiting different rural areas around the country to talk with local residents about government programs for rural communities and to listen to each area’s concerns.
Sgt. M.C. Davis of the Virginia State Police said that the security detail with the secretaries of energy and agriculture brought the local authorities’ attention to a group of people, which included Bobbie Conner and Nigel Coleman, during the community forum. Coleman is the chairman of the Danville Tea Party Committee, and Conner is its vice chairman.
“Obviously, you look into these things when people act differently than the rest of the crowd,” Davis said.
Conner and Coleman were standing beside a block of seats, about six rows back. The group talked audibly to each other during the forum and looked upset at times with the secretaries’ answers and some questions. They left just before the question-and-answer session ended.
Sheriff’s deputies approached them after seeing the group pull protest signs out of their car, said Capt. Donald Motley of the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office.
“When they were approached by law enforcement, the event itself was over,” Motley said. “They told them that if they were going to put those up, they would have to leave.”
Organizers held the event on private property, which allowed the property owner to decide whether law enforcement could remove people.
Buddy Mayhew, who owns the farm where the community forum was held, said he hadn’t heard about the incident until afterward.
Mayhew talked to sheriff’s deputies before the community forum began Saturday about whether they should ask anyone to leave his property. He said that if protesters were there and behaving, then they could stay.
“But if something occurs that is of a disruptive nature, that has no place to be there, you have my permis-sion to ask them to leave,” Mayhew said he told the deputies.
The state police followed up on the incident Monday when a trooper visited Conner’s house.
“They were questioned about their actions during the meeting,” Davis said. “We were trying to inquire that they were asking a question and didn’t know how to go about it.”
The trooper got the information he needed, and the investigation ended.
“As far as I know, it was over with,” Davis said. “They were satisfied with the answer they received.”
The Monday police visit to Conner’s home and the request for the Tea Party members to leave on Saturday have led to other allegations from the committee that the event was staged. Organizers and those who asked questions deny that claim.
Diane Arnold, director of the Danville office of the Longwood Small Business Development Center, at-tended the event and asked a question. Arnold said that she was invited to the forum after a news article about her organization earlier in the year attracted the attention of politicians in Washington.
“I was called and told that folks in D.C. were very tickled to see a group like ours,” she said.
She said that they told her the government was planning a tour of Southside and that they would like her to come to it. Arnold said she got an invitation from the local Chamber of Commerce and then got a phone call from Secretary Chu’s office on July 15.
“She said that if you want to ask a question, just be sure to get close to a microphone,” Arnold said. “She called out of courtesy to make sure we knew about it.”
Arnold added that she was not asked what her question would be, and no one asked to preview her ques-tion.
“I don’t feel like it had been planned, or we would have gotten different questions,” she said.
Two other community members who asked questions also said they were not approached by anyone and were not told to have questions prepared. Ray Emerson Jr., of Pittsylvania County, said he stood up three or four times before the girl with the microphone noticed him.
“As far as something being preplanned between me and the secretary of agriculture is ludicrous,” he said.
Eloise Nenon, of Chatham, also had the chance to ask a question. She asked about solar energy.
“No one asked me to speak, but the people who know me, know that I don’t have to be asked,” she said.
Coleman and Conner said they thought the event was staged after talking with someone who was there. The two men said the person was called in advance about the community forum.
“That leads me to believe it was all set up,” Conner said.
The forum gave cabinet members of President Barack Obama’s administration the chance to see Pittsylvania County and to directly interact with its residents. But that one interaction between law enforcement and the Tea Party Committee has overshadowed the forum, forcing everyone to spend the last four days figuring out what happened and turning the focus away from the Rural Tour’s impact on the community.http://www.godanriver.com/gdr/news/local/danville_news/article/tea_party_attacks_rural_tour_in_pittsylvania_county/12652/