The Summerfield citizen responsible for the residency challenge that removed former Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck from his seat on that Town Council is speaking out about what she says are false allegations being leveled against her and is providing new details about the events surrounding the most controversial political battle in the small town’s history.
Janelle Robinson, who filed a challenge of Rotruck’s residency with the Guilford County Board of Elections in March, said this week that she was merely a concerned citizen operating alone in her challenge and not part of any pro-land development cabal set on altering the future of the town by opening it up for apartment complexes, big box stores and other development. Robinson added that she isn’t guilty of trespassing, as Rotruck has alleged, and said there was nothing to the supposed mystery meeting between her, Summerfield Town Manager Scott Whitaker and Town Councilmember Reece Walker. She said the three did not collude in any way to knock Rotruck off the Town Council.
Robinson also said this week that said she does not know who paid Marshall Hurley, the Greensboro attorney who represented her when she made her case to Guilford County’s Elections Board that Rotruck didn’t live in Summerfield. After the evidence was presented in that Tuesday, April 17 hearing, the board voted unanimously that Rotruck did not live in the large Summerfield house on Strawberry Road where he lived when he registered to vote. That decision by the board cost Rotruck his seat on the Summerfield Town Council, since North Carolina law states that someone can only serve on a town’s council if he or she lives in that town.
Summerfield has a six-member Town Council consisting of five voting members and a mayor who only votes in the event of a tie. That council is currently fiercely split over the question of what’s best for the future of the town – a strict development ordinance that limits density or one that’s looser and favored by developers.
Three Summerfield town councilmembers – Walker, John O’Day and Dena Barnes – favor zoning changes that would allow greater density and more commercial development. Mayor Gail Dunham, Town Councilmember Teresa Pegram and Rotruck, on the other hand, want to see stricter zoning laws and tighter controls on development in other respects as well.
Now that Rotruck has been removed from the council, the vacancy will be filled by a majority vote of the other councilmembers, which means the new member, who could be named soon, will without a doubt be much more pro-development than Rotruck. Some of the changes wanted by developers could require a supermajority vote of at least 4 to 1 by the council, and, if another pro-development member is on the council, those votes would be there.
Since Robinson’s successful residency challenge against Rotruck might end up changing the destiny of the town, many have claimed that Robinson was working with pro-development forces when she brought her challenge against Rotruck. They argue that she orchestrated the move with the town manager and some town councilmembers and that she went to great lengths – including trespassing on Rotruck’s property – to bolster her case.
Robinson said those allegations are totally false. She said that, instead, she was a single citizen acting alone, motivated only by a basic sense of right and wrong – the principle being that Rotruck should not be able to represent citizens in a town in which he doesn’t live. Robinson said that clearly Rotruck didn’t live in Summerfield at the Strawberry Road residence. At the Board of Elections hearing, Rotruck said that the house was livable and that he was often there since there was a lot of work to be done on the property.
She also said she had no political motive whatsoever and she certainly wasn’t part of a politically motivated, systematic effort to oust Rotruck in order to pave the way for more property development in Summerfield.
“I had never discussed it with anyone,” she said of her challenge to Rotruck’s residency when she filed it in February.
She commented that she was amazed at the circus that has now resulted from that one action.
“I filed that challenge and I had no idea what I was getting into,” Robinson said.
She said claims that she was colluding with pro-development forces in town are completely false.
“It’s so bogus” Robinson said.
Robinson said she has never been involved in Summerfield politics, nor in the battle between the pro-development forces and the “Keep Summerfield Rural” group. According to Robinson, things have now gotten “crazy political” and she now finds herself, involuntarily, a central figure of the dispute over the town’s future.
“I don’t lie,” Robinson said, adding that she wouldn’t be denying these claims if there was any validity to them.
She said that, at one point during the challenge process, Rotruck texted her and asked, “Why do you feel compelled to make a grievance against me? Is it political or financial?”
Robinson said she texted back that her motivation was “purely ethical.”
She said bringing the challenge was her own doing completely. Robinson said she was reading online campaign literature to try and decide who to vote for and she saw a sentence from Rotruck to the effect of, “Our family purchased a house in Summerfield a year and a half ago.”
“I thought, that’s a strange way to say it,” Robinson said. “Why would you say it like that? I started digging and I couldn’t find anything that said he lived on Strawberry Road. I joked with my husband. I told him, ‘This is so weird.’”
In the Board of Elections hearing, Rotruck alleged that Robinson illegally trespassed on his property in an effort to gain evidence. He said she ignored no trespassing signs and snooped around the Strawberry Road property.
Robinson said that in reality she simply went to knock on the door one morning about 8:45 a.m. She said there weren’t any no trespassing signs, and she added that her vehicle had a business logo on it, which shows she wasn’t trying to be sneaky. She said she just wanted to meet Rotruck and ask him some of her questions.
“There definitely weren’t any [no trespassing] signs,” she said.
Robinson said it was clear from what she saw that no one was living at the house, which, she said, lacked portions of a roof.
After that visit convinced her no one lived in the house, she looked into how to file a challenge and then did so, she said.
Rotruck, in his court filings, points to an undocumented Thursday, March 8 meeting at the Summerfield Town Hall between Robinson, Walker and Whitaker. Rotruck has stated that Whitaker wanted him off the Town Council because he, Rotruck, led an unsuccessful effort not to renew Whitaker’s employment contract.
According to Rotruck’s court filings against the town, Robinson, Whitaker and Walker met in March in that supposedly clandestine meeting, which Rotruck said he believes is evidence of the wide-ranging political nature of her action.
Robinson said that “meeting” was just a 10-minute unannounced visit. She said she dropped by the Town Hall one day to let town management know she was filing a challenge against Rotruck. She said she certainly didn’t collude with them in any way to get Rotruck off the council.
Robinson said she didn’t know Whitaker or Walker before she saw them in the Town Hall since she wasn’t involved with town politics. She said she met them and spoke with them briefly to let them know about the challenge.
One big question in the case is who paid Hurley – the well-known attorney that led the charge on Robinson’s behalf at the Elections Board hearing. Robinson said she did contact Hurley but is not the one who hired him or paid him.
“I realized I was in over my head and started seeking out advice from people,” she said.
She said she had been given the name of Hurley and one other attorney considered to be knowledgeable about election law. She called Hurley and set up an appointment. At her meeting with Hurley, she said, Hurley told her it would be $5,000 to handle the case, but he also informed her that, at that time, there was no Guilford County Board of Elections in operation to hear challenges so there would be no point in hiring him then. (A long legal and political battle over the nature of the state’s election board meant that 25 boards of elections across the state, including Guilford County, did not have enough board members to function at that time. Soon after Robinson met with Hurley, the Guilford County Board of Elections added two new members and the full four-member board heard the residency case.)
She said that she was torn over whether even to proceed. Obviously the price tag was very high for an action by an individual trying to mount this type of action for what she saw as the public good. She could go it alone, she said, but more and more she felt as though she was in over her head and needed help. She said she wasn’t even sure if she would go forward with the challenge. Robinson, who is religious, said she prayed over the matter and saw several signs that she should go forward with the case. Then, on the Friday before the Tuesday hearing, Hurley called her and said something along the lines of, “I’ve been retained for you.” He told her that he would take the case but she would not be charged. She said she did not know who paid Hurley nor did she want to know.
Hurley said this week that he could not disclose who paid him for his services.
Rotruck said there’s no question that the challenge against him is part of bigger struggle in Summerfield.
“It’s not a Republican or Democrat thing,” Rotruck said of the battle the town is now going through. He said he and two other elected officials – Pegram and Dunham – started to shake the apple cart after they took their seats on the council.
“When the three of us were elected, it really upset a lot of people,” Rotruck said.
Rotruck added that the fact that Hurley was being paid by an unnamed third party is a clear indication of the forces at work behind the scenes. Rotruck and several other Summerfield residents suggested to the Rhino Times that Hurley could have been paid by pro-development forces or by someone who wants to be a town councilmember and who expects to be named in Rotruck’s place.
One thing remains certain: There battle will rage on for a while.
“There is a lot more interesting questions to be raised,” Rotruck said.