Rowan resident suggestions find their way onto floor of state legislature, on path to becoming law

Published 12:10 am Sunday, July 11, 2021

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — For years, Sgt. Johnny Lombard of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office worked with state leaders to fix a little-known gap in the laws governing the state’s sex offender registry.

He and fellow officers and legal experts were surprised when they discovered the current law doesn’t apply premises restrictions to those convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor, he told the Post. This means someone convicted of making, distributing or possessing child pornography was not prohibited from being on school properties or other locations where children frequent.

Now, his endeavors are all but guaranteed to make it into state law.

“It’s all about timing,” Lombard said. “And the timing was right for this one.”

Lombard, who currently works in the civil division of the Sheriff’s Office, began working in the criminal division in 2010, where he mostly handled cases related to sex offenses and crimes against children. Despite joining the Sheriff’s Office more than 20 years ago, it wasn’t until he began handling those cases that he discovered sex offenses were exempt from certain premises restrictions. He mentioned it in a class with members of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association and surprised others in the room with the news.

Lombard is an example of how suggestions from local residents can sometimes find their way onto the floor of the N.C. General Assembly. He worked with Rep. Harry Warren and other law enforcement officers on a bill making reporting changes to the current law dictating the sex offender registry. He tried to tackle the issue of adding those convicted of crimes related to child pornography before the pandemic, but he was successful after getting the support of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association and sending an email to Warren in late 2020.

In February, Warren filed House Bill 84, which passed both chambers and is waiting for a conference committee to sort out differences between different versions of the bill. As passed, the bill adds those convicted of first-, second- or third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor to the list of offenses for which premises restrictions apply. If the bill becomes law, those convicted of the crimes cannot be within a specified distance of places frequented by minors, including schools, children’s museums, playgrounds, shopping malls, arcades, swimming pools and fairgrounds during ongoing fairs.

Lombard said he was pleasantly surprised to see the bill pass with bipartisan and unanimous support, but he learned it’s not a fast or easy process to make a change in state law.

Rowan County sheriff’s deputies have responded to at least 102 reports of sexual exploitation of minors since 2018, Lombard said. If H.B. 84 is signed into law, the measure would affect 23 Rowan Countians who are currently part of the sex offender registry.

Warren said passing legislation suggested by constituents is an ideal way to get bills passed and the foundation of what an elected official is expected to do. He credits the current legislative session with being one of his most productive during his decade-long tenure in the House.

Warren is also working on H.B. 434, which would establish the Healing Arts Commission and a state certification process for reflexologists and music therapists. The measure comes after conversations with Cynthia Hill, a nationally licensed and certified reflexologist and educator in Salisbury. Hill owns Shalom Regel Reflexology on Oak Street.

Reflexology is an alternative medical practice during which pressure is applied to specific points on the hands, feet and ears to ease pain.

Currently, reflexology and what’s known as “energy work” does not fall under the state’s laws governing massage therapy. Hill said an attempt to help those practicing alternative forms of healing was started in the Senate in 2019, but it was unsuccessful. She’s contacted Warren, who told her those practicing music therapy were in a similar boat.

“The problem is there aren’t enough of us,” she said. “But our practice and education needs protection, too.”

Despite the daunting work needed to get legislation passed, Hill said working with Warren and his legislative assistants was a pleasure.

“I’m actually surprised it’s gone so well,” she added.

H.B. 48 is another bill Warren filed this session as a result of local feedback. It would allow emergency medics to complete specialized training and carry a concealed weapons when they’re working with a SWAT team in dangerous situations. The same measure is included in Senate Bill 134 and H.B. 134. The latter has made it the furthest in the General Assembly and is waiting for a Senate floor vote.

Rep. Wayne Sasser, a Republican representing Rowan, Cabarrus and Stanly counties, has mostly focused on health-related bills during the current session as chair of the House Health committee. However, he worked with Warren and other lawmakers to create a resolution from the town of Rockwell requesting to be exempt from a 10% cap on annexations.

“They may not be statewide issues, but they have importance at the local level and importance to the constituency,” Warren said.

Rockwell Mayor Beau Taylor told the Post the town submitted a letter to the county’s four lawmakers — Reps. Sasser, Warren, Julia Howard and Sen. Carl Ford — in March indicating it would like to be exempt from the 10% limitation and allow the annexation of additional satellite parcels. Taylor said there are currently no economic development projects on the horizon in Rockwell, but the request will allow for future projects.

Warren said a resolution from a municipality makes a bill easier to pass because it eliminates arguments that something is being forced onto a town or city.

Sasser said he has recently been helping connect constituents with concerns about a potential solar farm project in Gold Hill with experts who can get them answers.

“Part of our job is to connect people to where they have access to the information and where they know what the laws are,” Sasser said. “One of the good things about being in Raleigh is having knowledge to a lot of experts.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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