In Swain County, free condoms aren’t particularly controversial. But the words “free condoms” on a billboard certainly are.
At least that’s the position of Swain County commissioners, who ordered the announcement to be whitewashed last week after apparently fielding calls from concerned constituents.
The billboard on U.S. 19 a few miles from Bryson City that once heralded physical exams, low-or-no-cost family planning and free condoms at the Swain County Health Department now advertises only the first two services and a white rectangle where the contraceptive message once was.
Swain County Manager Kevin King said he took the decision to patch the offending phrase after being approached by several commissioners who wanted the words to come down. He then polled the other commissioners by phone on the issue, and when he got the go-ahead from all five, gave the order to Allison Outdoor that the words “free condoms” had to go.
There was no meeting called, no minutes were held and no vote was had on the issue, but King said the decision was made under the auspices of administrative tasks. There are some tasks, he said, that county staff can do without commissioners’ blessing, or without a formal vote.
“I mean, do they call a special meeting for us to go check the mail or call for an ad?” asked King. “Anything that’s an administrative type of thing, it’s just handled by the staff.”
And billboards, he said, count as administrative.
Frayda Bluestein doesn’t necessarily agree. She’s the associate dean at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, and local government is her specialty.
“I don’t understand how that’s an administrative decision, frankly,” said Bluestein. “I can see how it would be an administrative decision of the health board.”
The health board, however, wasn’t consulted on the issue.
Health Department Director Linda White said she tried that route. When given the choice to either cover the message or replace it with another, she asked King to write a letter to the health board about the issue.
“I asked them to submit a letter to the board of health, and their concern was it was going to be too long a period of time before the health board was going to meet,” said White. “Because the billboard said ‘Swain County’ on it, they felt that they had the authority to remove it.”
King confirmed this, adding that since the decision was made administratively by White to put the sign up anyway, surely the health board didn’t need to be involved now.
“She said she had full power over the billboard and what went on the billboard, but now when the commissioners do get involved, she’s wanting us to write to the health board,” said King.
When asked why commissioners felt authorized to act on the sign, rather than waiting for the July meeting of the board of health, King said that the health department was a county department just like any other. That means the commissioners are in charge. And anyway, they get the bills and they sign the checks for things like advertising.
Bluestein said that this is a fair point. It’s really purse-string power that the commissioners hold.
“The health board has a lot of direct authority under the statutes, but they rely on the county for funding,” said Bluestein. “But again, if that’s the way they get the authority to intervene in that, it must be done in open meetings.”
In other words, a phone poll doesn’t really cut it.
Commissioner Robert White said he thought the decision should’ve been official, too, though he thinks the entire situation has been blown a bit out of proportion.
“If it wasn’t on the agenda, if it wasn’t in a regular meeting, then essentially it didn’t happen, legally,” said Commissioner White. “I’m opposed to it, but if the commissioners vote for it, then I have to support the commissioners’ position.”
Linda White said she was surprised by the maelstrom of controversy swirling around the sign. The health department has been giving out free condoms and offering low-cost contraception for decades, but never has there been such upheaval about it. On her end, said White, she’s only fielded a few calls about the sign.
“I’ve had two negative comments submitted directly to me by phone and I’ve had five positive phone calls,” she said. “Not too many people have contacted me directly.”
Of the two anti-sign calls, only one opposed the idea on moral grounds. The other was a Henderson County woman complaining that federal funds helped pay for it. If Swain County had a problem with unplanned pregnancies, she said, then Swain County should pay for trying to fix it.
And, according to Linda White, Swain County has a problem with unplanned pregnancies.
“There are a lot of unplanned pregnancies, as well as a lot of sexually transmitted diseases, and I think it’s important to realize that this billboard is in no way directed towards teenagers,” she said.
And that’s an idea that has been at the center of the firestorm: teenagers having sex.
According to a poll done by the health department itself, more than half of students in the county between the ages 15 and 19 have copped to being sexually active in some capacity. And some are concerned that the offer of free condoms would encourage more to jump on the bandwagon.
County Commissioner David Monteith, who led the charge to change the billboard, said he was concerned about the message the sign was sending.
“It’s like Swain County is promoting this [condom use] for anybody and everybody,” said Monteith, who is firmly against premarital sex. “It’s just my opinion that it should not be up there. I think we’re promoting the wrong thing to young kids.”
Linda White, though, remains baffled by any supposed links between offers of free condoms and encouraging premarital sex.
“I have pondered that for many days and cannot connect the wording of the billboard with premarital sex,” she said.
The health department, she said, has a sizeable chunk of people using their family planning services, but not too many of them are teenagers. In fact, the percentage of teens getting in on birth control and other contraceptives is smaller than other age groups.
“We have quite a few individuals and most of them are in their 20s and 30s,” said Linda White.
Commissioner Robert White doesn’t really have a problem with the billboard. He did OK the patch when King asked him, but only because King said that was the wish of the rest of the board.
“I have no problem with it. I can’t speak for the rest of [the commissioners], but there was no vote taken or whatever about that sign, but if there was I’d have voted against it,” said White, especially given that the advertising contract on the sign was only for two months.
Bryson City resident Denise Tyson said she was actually pleased when she saw the sign, taking it as a signal of progressiveness in county leaders.
As the mother of a teenager, she said she’s not worried it’s going to spur him towards sexual activity.
“My 15-year-old son looked at that sign and his perception was there are free condoms available in this community. That doesn’t necessarily give him permission to practice sexual behavior,” said Tyson. “I’m the first to say that practicing abstinence is a very effective practice among teenagers. We promote that in my household, along with an education about what it means to practice safe sex.”
Still, detractors argue, shouldn’t parents have to option to tell their kids — or not tell them — about condoms, rather than be subjected to the words on every drive to town?
After last week, Swain Countians no longer have to worry about it, and the health department will be turning back to the newspaper, health fairs and word of mouth to get the word out about those two pesky words.