Mounting legal bills for the Town of Summerfield over a disputed Town Council seat once held by former Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck are raising eyebrows among some citizens and town leaders. The legal bills continue to grow for Summerfield, and they are now taking a significant portion of the town’s annual revenue and are requiring budgetary changes.
Rotruck won a seat on the Town Council last November. However, earlier this year his residency in the town was successfully challenged by a Summerfield resident who claimed Rotruck no longer lived in his Summerfield home that’s undergoing major renovation. The Guilford County Board of Elections heard the evidence and ruled unanimously that Rotruck lived in Greensboro rather than Summerfield.
Rotruck has appealed the Election Board’s decision to Guilford County Superior Court, and he also sued the town for keeping him off the council. A judge struck down his suit against the Town of Summerfield, but Rotruck’s Election Board appeal has yet to be heard.
Recently, Summerfield Finance Officer Dee Hall sent a request to the Town Council asking that the legal services line in the budget be increased from $90,000 to $120,000. The council had already upped the amount for the town’s legal bills earlier this year. With the court battle still going on, it’s not known how much the legal fees will amount to before it’s all said and done.
That memo to the council, which was incorporated as a budget ordinance, stated the obvious: “Additional funds are needed in the FY2017-18 contract legal services budget due to increased legal hours for an outside attorney to defend against the Rotruck v. Town of Summerfield lawsuit. Sufficient funds are available within construction services to cover this additional cost.”
Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham – a political ally of Rotruck on the highly divided Town Council – said she’s alarmed at how much of the town’s money is being spent on lawyers. She also questioned if it was even necessary for the town to hire outside council since Summerfield already pays an attorney to handle its legal issues.
Last month, Dunham told the Rhino Times that Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill is making $180 an hour and an outside attorney the town hired to help handle the Rotruck case is making $400 an hour.
Those who oppose Rotruck regaining his seat say that Summerfield has no choice in the matter. They argue that if Rotruck were allowed to sit and vote on the council after the Board of Elections determined he didn’t live in Summerfield, every vote the council cast with him participating would be subject to legal challenge. Rotruck and his supporters on the other hand say that if he does win his appeal later this month, all the decisions made without him on the board will be legally suspect.
Rotruck said it’s utterly ridiculous that the town is going to such a huge expense to keep him off the board while his appeal is being heard.
“The town has never spent that kind of money on attorneys,” Rotruck said.
He also said that, if some town councilmembers hadn’t been so adamant about keeping him off the council even after a judge ruled that the Board of Election’s decision should have no present effect, the town could have saved itself a great deal of money.
In fiscal 2017-2018, Summerfield collected a total of $588,000 in property taxes, sales taxes and fees, so these mounting legal bills eat up a big percentage of that revenue.
Rotruck said that, given what the town takes in each year in taxes and fees, it’s absurd they’re shelling out so much for attorneys.
Guilford County has also invested a good deal of legal staff time into the Rotruck case.
If everything seems relatively calm in Summerfield government in recent weeks, that’s just because it’s the proverbial calm before the storm, with Rotruck’s case to be heard later this month.
Also, soon the court is expected to hear the case of an assault charge that Summerfield Town Councilmember Teresa Pegram has made against fellow Councilmember Dena Barnes, the wife of Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes.