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State employee suspended for posting 'bad jokes' about Va. town

By The Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — A state employee who posted snide comments online about an economically troubled community in rural Virginia was suspended from his job this week after sparking outrage among the region's leaders.

Will Vehrs, who works for the Virginia Department of Business Assistance, an economic development agency, told the Associated Press that he had been suspended without pay for 10 days, beginning yesterday, for "excessive casual use of the Internet."

"I'm very lucky to still have a job after I serve my 10-day sentence," he said, minutes after he was informed of the suspension on May 9. "I believe (the suspension) is too harsh, and I also believe that they're missing an opportunity to let me do something good for Martinsville-Henry County."

While at work last month, Vehrs, 53, contributed to a weekly contest on the blog, in which bloggers write their own captions for various photos. His remarks were posted under a photo of two musicians performing their prize-winning jingle about Martinsville and Henry County during the Southside Virginia community's monthly economic development meeting. In the picture, singer Cindy Price is wearing a cropped, midriff-baring shirt.

Vehrs wrote: "Cindy's top was symbolic of the decline in Southside's fabric industry." He also wrote, "Martinsville: Easy to Leave," a play on Richmond's slogan: "Richmond: Easy to Love."

Vehrs apologized repeatedly for his comments in both the blog and in interviews, insisting he never meant to upset anyone. But several community leaders remained outraged, including Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry, who sent a letter to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine last week requesting the governor ask for Vehrs' resignation.

"I obviously stand by all the apologies I've made, and I don't think anyone really understands how this could have happened," Vehrs said.

Department spokeswoman Nina Sims said she could not comment on personnel matters, although she did say she did not believe Vehrs intended to insult Southside Virginians with his comments.

But that's exactly what Vehrs did, said state Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Henry.

"Would your feelings be hurt?" Reynolds said. "If I had the authority to fire him, I would fire him."

Not everyone supported a punishment for Vehrs.

"It's very unfortunate that Will got himself in this position," said Del. Robert H. Brink, D-Arlington, a regular reader of Vehrs' blog. "I wouldn't want anybody's free- speech rights infringed on, but I think it's probably a cautionary note to separate one's professional business from what he does on his own time as an individual citizen."

Vehrs, a married father of four, said he dreaded telling his youngest daughter about the incident.

"It'll be probably difficult explaining it to my 11-year-old," he said. "You gotta be honest with your kids and you gotta let them know if you've had a moment of weakness."

He said he hoped to spend the next 10 days performing volunteer work in the Martinsville area.

"That'll be good for my soul," he said. "It'll put all this in more perspective and hopefully give me a little better bit of empathy for the people in Martinsville-Henry County."

Vehrs plans to continue blogging on his own time, and said he still is stunned by his suspension.

"I always imagined if my blogging was discovered that I would go down because I had written some opinion piece, because I'd blogged about someone in power," he said. "I never dreamed that it would be because I told some bad jokes."


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Public employee speech

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