Mathews County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Bowen is dropping a charge of petit larceny filed on Oct. 7 against Mathews County Board of Supervisors’ chairman Mike Rowe.
Bowen said in an interview Tuesday that he will go before the judge of Mathews General District Court on Oct. 25 and file a motion to dismiss the case, which was brought against Rowe by a local magistrate following a complaint by Joey Taylor, commander of Lane-Armistead Camp 1772 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
As reported in last week’s Gazette-Journal, Taylor alleged in the complaint that Rowe had stolen a yard sign from the Confederate monument at the corner of Church and Court streets in Mathews. He said that Eric Croxton of Port Haywood had observed Rowe remove the sign, which had been purchased by the Lane-Armistead Camp. The sign urged residents to “Vote No” in the November election on the question of whether the county should remove the monument from the Mathews Court Green.
Bowen conducted research on the matter, interviewing people and delving into court records, board of supervisors’ minutes, and newspaper articles from the early 20th century (the timeframe around the erection of the monument). He said his goal was to answer two questions: 1. Is the sign on public or private property? and 2. Was it Rowe’s intent to steal the sign?
“If the monument is on public property, it wouldn’t be against the law for anybody to remove the sign,” said Bowen.
He explained that, while the Mathews County Zoning Ordinance exempts political signs from the requirement to obtain a permit prior to placing a sign on private property, there is no such exemption for signs on public property. Therefore, in order to place a sign on public property, the county would have to give its permission. Otherwise, such a sign would be in violation of the zoning ordinance.
Bowen said that he’s not aware of any locality that allows political signs to be placed on public property other than at polls on Election Day, when there are strict rules regarding sign placement. If it were allowed, and taken to the extreme, he said, incumbent supervisors might say, “We’ll put our signs out, and nobody else can.”
“That’s undemocratic,” Bowen said. “It’s just not allowed.”
Is the monument on public or private property?
Bowen said that, in order to determine if the property where the monument is placed is public or private, he spoke with the president of the Capt. Sally Tompkins Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to find out if the organization has any paperwork alluding to ownership of the site. She was unable to provide him with any such proof.
He then went back to the 1904 Acts of the General Assembly, which for the first time gave counties the authority to allow monuments that were paid for with private funds to be placed “in the public square.” While giving counties the authority to grant such permission, the law also required an order from the Circuit Court.
In 1910, the law was amended and expanded to allow monuments to be placed on other public properties besides the public square and also allowed the county to assist in building, erecting, and maintaining such a monument with county funds, said Bowen. He explained briefly that Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means that localities derive their power from the state, and if a state doesn’t specifically allow the locality to do something, it can’t.
When the monument was erected, said Bowen, it was clearly erected on public property, while the monument itself was clearly bought and paid for entirely with private funds. In order for the land under the monument to have become the property of a private entity, he said, a signed agreement between the monument sponsors and the locality would have to have been entered into the record. Such an agreement would have laid out who the property belonged to and what responsibilities the owner would have had for ongoing maintenance. He could find no such agreement.
Further, Bowen said he was unable to find anything in the supervisors’ minutes that authorized the building of the statue, and he could find no order from the Circuit Court addressing whether it should be built. He said there was no agreement signed between the county and the Mathews Monument Association, a private corporation that was organized by charter in July 1912 and entered into Mathews Deed Book 17.
The charter states that the association’s purpose was to “build and erect a monument at Mathews Courthouse Virginia to the memory of the Confederate soldiers who perished in or from the effects of the War Between the States—1861-1865, from the County of Mathews, and to care for and own said monument and preserve it and turn it over to our successors.” The corporation was to be managed by 14 trustees, seven from the Lane-Diggs Camp Confederate Veterans and seven from the Sally Tompkins Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Bowen explained that the articles of incorporation only established the corporation and its purpose; it didn’t convey any land from the county to the monument association.
“And I wouldn’t expect a deed after the state statute was passed, because it could then be placed on public property,” he said.
Since there is no deed transferring ownership of the land, said Bowen, “my conclusion is that it was constructed on public property and remains on public property.” Further evidence that it’s on public property, he said, comes from a brief article in the Mathews Journal on June 26, 1913 that was discovered by Mathews Memorial Library during its investigation last year of the issues surrounding monument ownership. The article is about that month’s board of supervisors meeting, and it says, “They also granted to the Veterans and ladies of the U.D.C. permission to erect a railing around the monument in the court yard here.” The implication, said Bowen, is that everyone acknowledged that the land was publicly owned, since permission wouldn’t have been necessary if it were on private land.
Bowen said once you reach the conclusion that the monument is on public property, the zoning ordinance takes control. “Since it’s on public property, the sign violates the zoning ordinance,” he said, “and to remove it is no crime.”
Did Rowe intend to steal the sign?
Bowen said in order to determine whether Rowe intended to steal the sign, “you have to look at his actions.” On top of the fact that Rowe has no prior criminal history, said Bowen, he removed the sign at 10:30 a.m. in broad daylight on a weekday. He then put it in his truck and kept it until Oct. 11, when he delivered it to the sheriff’s office.
“He didn’t destroy it,” said Bowen. On top of that, he said, “It has no resale value. It’s not unique; there are a lot of others just like it out there.”
Bowen said he had spoken with Rowe’s attorney, who explained on Rowe’s behalf that, after the board concluded last year that the monument is on public property, “when he saw the sign, he was of the opinion that it should be removed, so he removed it.”
In order to convict Rowe of petit larceny, said Bowen, “I’d have to prove the property is private, and I couldn’t do that, and I’d have to prove he had the intent to steal, and I couldn’t do that.”
Because there’s an election coming up, Bowen said he felt he needed to address these issues sooner rather than later. Letting it linger until after the election would have been inappropriate, he said.
Bowen said he had told the sheriff’s office to keep the sign until he made a decision on the charges, and that he would be notifying the sheriff that the charges would be dismissed.
Read Bowen’s complete statement here https://www.gazettejournal.net/statement-of-mathews-commonwealths-attorney-tom-bowen-iii-on-mike-rowe-charge/.