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Virus response can pit values against duties

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SMITHFIELD — An elected leader’s personal values can sometimes conflict with his public obligations

Early in Johnston’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, an email writer asked County Commissioners Chairman Ted Godwin why he had declared a state of emergency. That declaration came after just the second COVID-19 case in Johnston, and the writer wanted to know what abnormal powers the declaration gave county leaders.

Godwin answered that he made the declaration to secure Johnston’s place in line for timely supplies and equipment from the state if needed. “I reluctantly declared it for that reason only,” Godwin wrote in response to the email question. “As I told the emergency (management) team, out of 200,000 people, 2 sick people is not an emergency.”

But Johnston would not want to be without supplies and equipment if the virus swamped the county, Godwin wrote. “As chairman, I have to be concerned with every citizen and their concerns,” he said. “And it’s important that I show appropriate support to our staff.”

But Godwin also made clear he was uncomfortable holding the extra powers the declaration gave county government. “As Ted Godwin citizen, I have much concern about where our county is heading,” he wrote. “In a crisis, perceived or real, people are willing to give up rights they wouldn’t normally ... all for the sake of safety by the government.”

Such conflict between values and obligations was evident again in a letter Godwin penned in response to an email from Parrish and Christine Livingston, who live near McGee’s Crossroads. They wanted to know if Godwin and his fellow commissioners would stand against Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order, which the couple called unconstitutional.

Godwin said he had taken an oath that obligated him to follow orders from the governor. “As an elected official, I have sworn to uphold the laws and constitution of our state and our country,” he said. “I take this oath seriously.”

On the other hand, “I am concerned that, while trying to protect our citizens’ health, we’re killing our country and our future,” Godwin said.

Godwin said he believed that a balance between values and duties was possible. “I think we need to follow health (department) recommendations and use common sense in protecting ourselves,” he said. “But I also believe that we cannot, and should not, suspend rights guaranteed in our constitution.”