The Summerfield Town Council held one of its most contentious meetings in the 22-year history of that town on Monday, April 23 at 6 p.m. in the Summerfield Community Center – a quickly called special meeting to discuss the matter of Todd Rotruck, who the Guilford County Board of Elections determined last week does not live in Summerfield.
That ruling by the Elections Board meant Rotruck could no longer serve as a town councilmember. Rotruck was elected to the position last November but a successful voter registration challenge by Summerfield resident Janelle Robinson knocked him off the board since he was deemed not to be a resident of the town.
At least Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne and Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill were of the legal opinion that Rotruck was off the Town Council at the moment the decision was rendered by the Elections Board. However, Rotruck, who’s been consulting with an attorney of his own, is in the process of filing an appeal in Superior Court, and Rotruck stated he could take part in the council meeting given that there was nothing yet in writing from the county Elections Board.
At the community center, chairs for councilmembers were set up at adjacent tables, with nametags in front of the seats. Notably, there was no chair or nametag for Rotruck – as there were for the other councilmembers. Right before the meeting was supposed to begin, Rotruck entered the room, picked up a folding chair from the chairs set up for the audience members, and placed the chair at a table alongside of the other the town councilmembers in much nicer chairs. Clearly, he was ready to take part in the meeting. That move was met by applause from some in the room, while others just watched.
At that point, Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham spoke up and said she believed Rotruck should be allowed to take part in the meeting since the council didn’t yet have any documentation from the Guilford County Board of Elections.
The Elections Board officially approved the findings in writing at its Tuesday, April 24 meeting – the board’s first meeting after Rotruck’s Tuesday, April 17 hearing. County officials had discussed hurrying up the process and getting the paperwork signed before Summerfield’s Monday meeting. However, it did not do so.
Dunham said that, as mayor, she would argue that no town councilmember should be excluded from participation without written notice being in the possession of the council.
“Without a signed document, I believe that person should be seated,” the mayor said.
Hill was adamant that Rotruck could not take part in the meeting. He said no written notice was needed, nor was there written notice on the way, he added.
“Madam Mayor, as I explained to you twice by email, there is no service of the process from the Board of Elections because we’re not a party,” he said. “They have acted and I’ve handed the clerk the voter registration information, which shows that Mr. Rotruck is actually registered in Greensboro. Now, here’s the issue: If he sits there, we’re in violation of the law. It’s illegal. He cannot sit there unless and until he wins an appeal. He is not a councilmember.”
The mayor and another councilmember began to argue the point regarding the written notice.
“You’re not listening,” Hill said strongly.
State law, he said, deems that the seat is ipso facto vacant at the time of the decision.
“I have no authority to override it, nor do you,” Hill told the mayor and the other councilmembers. “You have no authority to override it. I’m disappointed. I wish someone had told me this was going to happen.”
While Hill apparently didn’t expect to see Rotruck attempt to take part in the meeting, Rotruck had stated publicly after the Elections Board hearing that, until a decision was in writing and signed by the Elections Board, he had the right to be a councilmember. Rotruck told the Rhino Times three days before the April 23 Town Council meeting that he wasn’t sure if he would attempt to take part, but he was sure it was in his legal rights to do so.
At the heated meeting, Hill said he’d consulted with legal experts at the North Carolina Institute of Government and with Guilford County Attorney Payne. He said they all agreed with his interpretation of the law.
This discussion was all taking place before the Summerfield Town Council meeting was called to order because Hill had stated at the start that the meeting couldn’t legally be called into order with Rotruck seated at the table.
Dunham argued that a motion to start the meeting would in fact be in order since the town charter states the governing body of the town is the Town Council, and it was the body that decided town matters. The Summerfield Town Council consists of a non-voting mayor and five voting councilmembers – now four – and the group was clearly split on whether Rotruck should be allowed to participate.
After much heated discussion, Town Councilmember Reece Walker asked, “So as long as Mr. Rotruck sits here, we can’t have a meeting?”
One councilmember asked Rotruck if it made sense to him that he should sit in the audience so the board could start the meeting and try to sort things out.
“No, that doesn’t make sense,” Rotruck said. “Because there’s no official documentation.”
When Hill interjected, Rotruck told him not to interrupt and the two engaged in a loud exchange with each talking over the other.
When things calmed down, Hill read a prepared statement informing the board that he had spoken with the county attorney and others and they all concurred that Rotruck was off the council.
Rotruck responded that Payne is the attorney for Guilford County and does not have jurisdiction over the Town of Summerfield. He said that only the Town Council has the authority to make the decision.
After more lively back and forth, Hill finally said, “Here’s your choices – we leave or you call the sheriff.”
That was an interesting comment since one of the town councilmembers is Dena Barnes, the wife of Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes. Dena Barnes clearly didn’t believe Rotruck should participate in the meeting.
Several councilmembers asked Rotruck, given the impasse, if he would please take a seat in the audience. At that point, he agreed to do so. He said that, though he doesn’t agree with the Board of Elections ruling and there was nothing yet in writing, he would move to the audience because he didn’t want to be disrespectful of the people of Summerfield. He said he would politely do as they asked, though he added that he was doing so under protest.
The meeting was then called to order and there was a motion to go into closed session. The attorney said that was necessary to protect attorney-client privilege, but Town Councilmember Teresa Pegram questioned if the topic was something that should actually be discussed in closed session.
“What is the subject of the closed session?” she asked.
Hill said it was a legal matter that required attorney-client privilege. He said he couldn’t say any more than that until they were in closed session.
The mayor said she had the same question.
“I share those concerns because general policy may not be discussed in closed session,” Dunham said.
She added that there was no legal action pending and therefore a closed session didn’t seem appropriate.
Hill didn’t relent.
“I’m confident it is or I wouldn’t have asked for it,” Hill told her.
The board finally voted to go into closed session. The council was behind closed doors for about 30 minutes before coming out and taking no action.
Several town councilmembers announced after the closed session – but before the council adjourned –that the board had hoped to approve a statement of the board’s intent; however no agreement could be reached.
The next Summerfield Town Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 8.
Rotruck said that he’s working with an attorney on his appeal though he declined to name that attorney. He said that, given the facts of the case and his situation – having to temporally live in Greensboro while his Summerfield home was being renovated – he believed the Elections Board made an incorrect decision and he hopes to have that decision overturned by the court.