“Sorry… We’re closed.”
Don Wendelken, a former Guilford County Board of Elections member who runs the Facebook page Summerfield Scoop, put that iconic, red-letters-on-a-white-background sign above an image of the Summerfield town seal after town officials canceled the Summerfield Town Council meeting for the third time in a row. Next to the image, he posed the question, “Summerfield closed?”
The Town Council hasn’t met to conduct town business since Tuesday, April 10. The council did hold a special meeting on Monday, April 23, but no actual town business was conducted at that meeting, which ended up just being one long and loud argument over whether former Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck could participate in Town Council meetings after the Guilford County Board of Elections ruled in mid-April that he didn’t live in Summerfield.
That ongoing legal battle is also the reason Summerfield canceled its scheduled Thursday, May 31 meeting and the reason that Town Council business has ground to a complete halt.
A Thursday, May 24 ruling by North Carolina Superior Court Judge Andy Cromer placed a stay on the Guilford County Board of Elections decision that found Rotruck lived in Greensboro rather than Summerfield. After the judge issued that stay – for a second time – Rotruck was ready to take his seat again until his appeal was heard. He and his supporters contend that the ruling allows him to serve on the council since it was the Elections Board’s decision that made him ineligible to serve on the council in the first place and the judge had stayed that decision.
However, on Saturday, May 26, Summerfield Town Manager Scott Whitaker issued a statement that Rotruck’s seat remained vacant and also announced that the Town Council meeting, which had been scheduled in order for the council to hear the manager’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018-2019, would not be held.
“Summerfield Town Council wants to keep citizens updated about legal matters, upcoming Council meetings, and work ahead, such as next year’s budget,” the May 26 statement began. “Information is being interpreted and reported differently depending on the source and the town understands it’s of great public interest … Regarding Rotruck v. Town of Summerfield, nothing new has transpired, but regarding Rotruck’s separate appeal of the ruling of the Board of Elections (BOE), a judge issued a stay of the BOE’s order on May 24, which is being appealed by Guilford County and requires no change in course for Summerfield.”
The notice released by the town added that Summerfield isn’t a legal party in the appeal of the Board of Elections case that was the issue of the hearing, and the town’s position is that the council seat remains vacant due to the state statute that requires that a town councilmember live in the town he or she represents.
The notice states: “Leadership prefers to avoid the potential legal risks of seating an ineligible member. As stated with the last public update, the town acknowledges that all Council members and the mayor are not in agreement with Mr. Rotruck’s status or how to proceed; nevertheless, Summerfield’s elected body has a duty to make decisions, keep the public informed, and ensure that important business is conducted.”
Some Summerfield residents were irate the town canceled the meeting and over the fact that town officials are still preventing Rotruck from serving while his appeal is in court. Many posted on the Summerfield Scoop site, which has now become kind of an electronic water cooler spot for residents to vent about the Rotruck matter. Others who wanted in on the discussion used other social media outlets, sent emails, called reporters or simply complained to their neighbors to express their discontent. The citizens who favored the removal of Rotruck have also been vehemently expressing their views – though currently most of the comments being posted are critical of the town’s actions.
Dwayne Crawford, a longtime Summerfield resident and former town councilmember, sent emails to the town’s elected and administrative officials asking why the town believes that the North Carolina Superior Court judge’s stay on the Board of Elections decision has no applicability to the status of the Town Council’s seat vacancy.
He also questioned who was making decisions for the town.
Crawford wrote, “This press release repeatedly cites ‘Leadership’ and ‘Town’ as sources of decision and authority, yet the only name/role given in the entire document is ‘Town Manager, Scot Whitaker.’ Nowhere does this document provide names of any council members. Did the ‘Town Leadership’ (i.e. the elected town council) actually review and authorize this press release, and if so, when and what were their names?”
The meeting cancelation will mean that Summerfield held no council meeting in May. Town Attorney Bill Hill said state law doesn’t require the town to meet every month. He said the council is required to allow public comment once per month. However, that requirement, he said, is waived if the council doesn’t meet.
According to the May 26 notice posted by the town, even though the May 31 meeting for the budget presentation has been cancelled, the proposed budget will still be submitted to Summerfield town councilmembers by the end of May. The notice also states that, before a 2018-2019 budget is adopted, the council will hold a public hearing on it and allow citizens to express their views.
State law requires that the town adopt a budget by July 1, but local governments in North Carolina have missed that deadline before and nothing much happened when they did.
Another issue on the horizon for the town in the coming weeks is a court case to address claims by Summerfield Town Councilmember Teresa Pegram that Councilmember Dena Barnes, the wife of Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, assaulted her at the council’s April 23 closed session. Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham has also filed an accusation of assault against Barnes, though Dunham did so in the form of an incident report filed with the Town of Summerfield rather than as a criminal charge filed with the Guilford County magistrate’s office.
Rotruck said this week that nothing surprises him anymore. He said that he, Pegram and Dunham were elected to fight against the established powers that have run the town for years and he added that the old guard had been fighting the new members every step along the way in an effort to stop the new councilmembers from bringing any change to town government.
While he was on vacation for Memorial Day weekend, Rotruck took time to post some of his reaction on the Summerfield Scoop page.
“Everyone should not be that shocked,” he wrote. “This is how business has gone on for years! Myself, Gail and Teresa are the first to blow the whistle on all the backroom meetings and power plays. The challenge to my residency was totally staged and will be proven in court. This is what the manager, town attorney and incumbent council are totally afraid of. This is why the judge ruled in my favor twice – against three lawyers hired by the town [and by the challenger Janelle Robinson]. They will do ANYTHING to stop the truth from coming out. The false FB [Facebook] posts are assisting to mislead the public. It appears the town manager and selected council think they have authority over a superior court judge! That should be all telling.”
Rotruck owns a house in Summerfield that is undergoing major renovation and in April he was unable to convince the members of the Board of Elections that that house was his legal residence. Rotruck said at the Elections Board hearing that he spent a great deal of time at the Summerfield residence and that his family – which by all accounts lives in Greensboro – planned to move back into that Summerfield house this summer once the work was complete. One Board of Elections member said at the April hearing that an intention to move back into the town didn’t change the fact that Rotruck was living in Greensboro now by the residency standards the board was required to go by. Rotruck’s critics say that, if he wanted to continue serving on the Summerfield Town Council, he should have rented a house in Summerfield while the renovations took place.
The hope of many in that town is that the court case will be resolved before the end of June. The town’s notice states that, while Summerfield doesn’t control the court’s calendar, town officials are hopeful that the Board of Elections appeal will be decided before June 30. The release said that all parties involved “are eager for resolution.”
It concludes, “Staff is hard at work in Summerfield and leadership will continue to provide important updates about upcoming meetings. Thank you for your patience and enjoy the holiday weekend.”