It looks like the Town of Summerfield is out one town councilmember.
At a Tuesday, April 17 Guilford County Board of Elections meeting, board members voted unanimously that Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck was not a resident at 7437 Strawberry Road in Summerfield, the address Rotruck used to register to vote last fall and the one that qualified him to run for the Town Council seat he’s held since December.
At no time during the hearing did members of the Board of Elections so much as mention the fact that a successful challenge against Rotruck’s residency as a voter would cost him his seat on the Town Council; however, immediately after the hearing and the decision, Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne stated that, under state statutes, Rotruck had to be a qualified voter in the town to serve on the Town Council.
Payne said he believes that “the office formerly held by Mr. Rotruck became vacant when the Board of Elections issued its decision.”
According to Payne’s reading of the statute, and given the decision of the Elections Board on Tuesday, there is no further action necessary to consider Rotruck removed from the council.
“It’s self-executing,” Payne said of the statute.
Payne cautioned that his opinion on the law is “not the important one here.” He said the opinions that do matter are the attorney for the Town of Summerfield and the town councilmembers.
Summerfield Town Attorney William Hill stated in an email Tuesday night that he agrees with Payne’s reading of the statute.
Rotruck may appeal the decision to the state’s Superior Court, and it’s possible he could get a court injunction allowing him to serve as a town councilmember while an appeal is being argued. The next meeting of the Summerfield Town Council is scheduled for Tuesday, May 8, and it could turn out to be an interesting one.
Rotruck’s case was one of two voter residency challenges heard by the Elections Board at the meeting in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House. The board also heard a voter registration residency challenge against Steve Buccini, the only Democratic candidate in the NC House of Representatives District 59 race this year. At this meeting, only one of the board’s four members, Republican Kathryn Lindley, voted that there was enough evidence to find that Buccini wasn’t living at his claimed address on Gusenbury Road in Whitsett.
Though Buccini won this voter registration challenge on April 17, he is still far from out of the woods: On Tuesday, April 10, the same board heard a residency challenge filled against Buccini as a candidate – rather than as a voter – and the county’s Elections Board split 2 to 2 along party lines, which means that case will move on to the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement.
The Guilford County Elections Board had already heard extensive arguments and evidence regarding Buccini’s residency at the April 10 meeting and, thankfully, all of that wasn’t all rehashed on April 17. But Rotruck’s case, which the board hadn’t heard before, took up the lion’s share of the meeting.
Earlier this year, Summerfield resident Janelle Robinson filed a voter residency challenge against Rotruck, who was elected in November to the Summerfield Town Council using the 7437 Strawberry Road address to run for that seat. Rotruck and his wife own that house that sits on about 15 acres of property in Summerfield, but Robinson testified at the hearing that she drives by the house nearly every day and, she said, it has been, and still clearly is, uninhabitable due to construction and renovation.
Rotruck, a real estate agent, said that he and his family, who had lived for years at 3629 Lewiston Road in Greensboro, had moved to Strawberry Road and lived there before returning to Lewiston Road in order for work to be done on the Summerfield home. He said they intended to return to Summerfield once the very involved project was complete.
Rotruck stated at the hearing that he went back and forth between the two residences while his family has lived at the Lewiston address lately. He said he expected the work on the Strawberry Road home to be complete by late June or early July, at which time the entire family would move back into the house. Rotruck said he in fact must be out of the Lewiston Road house, since they have sold that home and are now living there as renters.
“The developer is going to level the house in June or July,” Rotruck said.
Rotruck told the Elections Board that the challenge against him was only made because there has been a shift in political power in Summerfield recently and some people connected with the group that formally held power in that town didn’t approve of the changes being made. He said he and others were “shaking things up” and some people in Summerfield didn’t like it.
Greensboro Attorney Marshall Hurley represented Robinson at the hearing. He presented power bills, school registration information for the kids and the address on Rotruck’s real estate license to show that Rotruck used the Lewiston address as his primary residence.
Rotruck’s wife, Amy, testified that the family had every intention of moving back into the Summerfield house, but several issues had arisen that prevented them from getting back into that house quickly – as the entire family was eager to do, she said.
“Our lives were crazy,” she said of recent months.
She told the board she had been laid off and it was discovered that her daughter needed surgery. She said the family had never tried to hide the fact that she and the kids were residing at the Lewiston address for now.
“We were not trying to be deceiving,” she said.
She said her husband still spent a great deal of time at the Strawberry Road address.
Elections Board members said that, while they didn’t think there was an intent to mislead anyone by Todd Rotruck or his family, his living pattern now and in 2017 did not suggest a Strawberry Road residency, at least not as defined by state law.
Greensboro Attorney Eugene Lester, a Republican who just joined the Elections Board last month, said he would vote to uphold the voter residency challenge.
“While I believe that he intends to move and to be in Summerfield in the future, presently, at least pursuant to the statute as I read it, he seems to be at Lewiston,” he said.
Lester said that wishing to be somewhere else doesn’t mean you in fact are somewhere else.
“There’s places that I’d like to be – and right now I’m here,” he said toward the end of the long afternoon meeting.
Lindley said a residence has to be “fixed” and the person must have abandoned their prior residence to establish a new residency.
“They never did that,” she said. “They referred to Lewiston as home several times throughout the testimony today. So it’s fairly clear to me that they identify Lewiston as home. They haven’t really established a residence in Summerfield.”
The relevant state statute for Rotruck’s situation is titled “Qualifications for elective office.” It states: “All city officers elected by the people shall possess the qualifications set out in Article VI of the Constitution. In addition, when the city is divided into electoral districts for the purpose of electing members of the council, council members shall reside in the district they represent. When any elected city officer ceases to meet all of the qualifications for holding office pursuant to the Constitution, or when a council member ceases to reside in an electoral district that he was elected to represent, the office is ipso facto vacant.”
Buccini’s case was much less involved since the board had spent hours on the same question a week earlier. While Buccini claims he moved into a house in NC House of Representatives District 59 prior to Feb. 28, 2018 – the deadline for candidates to be in the district this year – others say there was no signs of life at the house before March.
Payne said at the start of the April 17 hearing for Buccini that this hearing was “de novo” – a fancy legal way of saying the board must start from scratch; however, despite Payne’s statement, all that background from a week prior clearly came into play because, this time around, the board members didn’t have many questions for the parties involved. Those questions had been asked and answered at length one week earlier.
One thing that was different for Buccini this time around, however, was that Buccini had less of a burden of proof than he did in the other challenge that’s still ongoing. When it comes to a residency challenge against a voter, the burden of proof is on the one making the charge. However, in the case of a challenge to a candidate – the one heard by the board a week earlier – the burden is on the candidate to demonstrate that he or she is a resident in the district he or she claims to live in.