OV petition leads to harassment claims

Susan and Richard White might have expected that there would be some fallout from taking out a full-page advertisement in support of their rally to gather signatures on a petition to request a state audit of Ocean View’s finances, or from the concerns Susan White detailed to the Coastal Point in the days leading up to that rally. But the couple didn’t expect some of the response they got this past week, including a suspicious piece of mail and a phone call.

“These kinds of things are unnerving,” White said Tuesday, the day after receiving in the mail a copy of her own ad, marked up with critical comments, in an envelope postmarked Aug. 9 in New Jersey but without a return address or signature. “We feel threatened and vulnerable.”

The couple called Ocean View police Monday after receiving the envelope and deciding they were concerned about it.

“The police came out and picked up the piece of mail,” White explained, saying officers had told the couple not to touch the envelope or its contents again and had collected it in order to obtain any fingerprints or other information it might provide in their complaint of harassment. “We asked the police to take the mail and see if they can determine who sent it,” she said.

“They had written things around the ad, underlined some comments and written their own comments around the ad,” White said. “There was no return address and no signature,” she noted, saying police told her that it appeared the person who sent the item had attempted to disguise their handwriting.

Mid-week, Ocean View police said they didn’t believe that the mailing had risen to the level that would justify a criminal charge.

“While it’s still under investigation, our initial assessment is that a crime has not been committed,” Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin said Wednesday. “Obviously, it came anonymously and was postmarked from outside the area. But I don’t know that it’s reached level of a criminal act. At this time, still looking into it,” he cautioned.

McLaughlin said such a mailing “would have to be something that’s threatening in nature or that would cause to alarm” in order to justify a criminal charge. “It’s a fine line. But if I sent you an unsigned birthday card, would that cause alarm? That’s not going to be considered threatening. But if I sent you an unsigned birthday card with a skull and crossbones on it or one that said, ‘I’m going to get you,’ – something a little more of an overt threat… I don’t think this would be considered harassing in nature.”

“The trouble with these things is they send them anonymously,” McLaughlin added. “Had they put their name on it, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

White said the mail was particularly troubling in the wake of a phone call she received on Sunday, Aug. 10, prior to the planned rally. She said the caller, after a round of several mutual hellos, finally identified herself as Susan Rush — a woman connected to the council campaign of Town Councilman Perry Mitchell earlier this year.

In addition to holding opposing points of view on police spending and other hot-button issues in the town, Mitchell has opposed the Whites’ petition for a review of town finances and did so formally this past week in a letter to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner with an attached “newsletter” he said he had sent out to constituents in response to White’s allegations in the Coastal Point on Aug. 8.

White said she was bothered that in the phone call, Rush called White, who ran unsuccessfully against Mitchell, a “sore loser” — the exact words appearing in Mitchell’s letter to the governor.

According to White, Rush asked her about the rally and the petition, referencing the Aug. 8 Coastal Point article detailing the couple’s stated concerns. White said she asked how many people were expected and what they hoped to accomplish before making what White found to be an odd, possibly threatening, comment about the tumultuous weather on Sunday and eventually wishing them “good luck with the parade.”

Reached by the Coastal Point on Tuesday, Rush eagerly confirmed that she had made the phone call and much of what White alleged she had said therein.

“She was a poor loser, and she has a problem with hearing the truth,” Rush said of White. “All those complaints she had – I didn’t even read the article,” added Rush, “because it was totally baseless.”

“All she’s doing is bringing this town down further and further and keeping us stuck in a quagmire,” said Rush. “I told her what she needed to hear. I think she needs a checkup from the neck up,” Rush added. “She’s a weirdo, a flaming lunatic.”

Rush confirmed that she had helped Mitchell campaign this spring, going door-to-door in her neighborhood with him. Rush said her hope in the situation is that the Whites will drop their complaints, “and let the town get back to its business.”

Despite their concerns about what White described as “harassment,” she said Tuesday that she and her husband won’t be deterred from pursuing their concerns about town government.

“We’re not going to be stopped,” she said. “We’re not going to be stopped, and we encourage people to sign the petition.”

“This is a form of harassment,” White continued. “They want to try to stop us. And the fear for us is, if these people are this underhanded, what will they do next — if they can’t face the situation and have to resort to these kinds of tactics?”

White said she and her husband feel the negative response to their petition supports the reason they pursued it in the first place, including concerns about freedom of speech.

“If we’re not on to something, why are people taking measures to try to shut us up through fear?” she asked. “Obviously, somebody doesn’t want to us to talk.”

To those who were behind the mail they received this week, White said, “All you had to do is pick up the phone and call me. And if you don’t believe in what we’re saying, just don’t sign the petition. You don’t have to make these underhanded, subtle threats to me and my husband.”

“If we’re not telling the truth, why are people so afraid?” White asked, saying that her hope now is that what they’ve had to deal with won’t deter citizens from signing the petition.

“We need to get people to not be afraid to sign,” she said. “Don’t let it stop you,” she added to potential signatories. “Let’s put Ocean View back to the way where it was, where we could speak freely in this town.”