It only took about two minutes from the start of the Tuesday, June 12 Summerfield Town Council meeting for it to decay into the contentious, unruly shout-fest that everyone knew it was going to be before it started.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the meeting is that no new assault and battery charges came out of it; however, at the meeting, councilmembers called each other liars, speakers from the floor accused the town of financial impropriety and the town attorney told a councilmember, “Ma’am, you’re an elected official – act like one!”
So it was, all in all, a fairly typical day in Summerfield government these days.
The Town Council was still fighting fiercely at 1 a.m. when the board took a 3-to1 vote of “no confidence” on Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham. The Town Council breaks down into two political factions with Dunham, former Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck and Councilmember Teresa Pegram on one side and Councilmembers John O’Day, Reece Walker and Dena Barnes on the other. O’Day made the no confidence motion after accusing Dunham of everything from not turning over public records to meeting inappropriately with the attorney handling Rotruck’s lawsuit against the town.
An extremely angry Dunham said there was no truth to O’Day’s allegations and added that it was ridiculous that O’Day was making this motion out of the blue on things she wasn’t even aware she was accused of doing.
Hours before that vote, a speaker from the floor commented, “First of all, I am embarrassed by this meeting. I think our town is just getting a terrible reputation in the community.”
The June 12 meeting at the Summerfield Community Center was standing room only for the first few hours, and the audience – which was just as severely divided as the Town Council – weighed in with shouts or comments of their own. At one level, the tension in Summerfield comes from the battle over the status of former Councilmember Rotruck; however, at a deeper level, it’s a monumental struggle over the future of the town, with one side – Pegram, Dunham and Rotruck – attempting to slow development, and the other three councilmembers wanting to be more accommodating to that development.
Before the June 12 meeting, the Town Council hadn’t held a meeting since Monday, April 23, and no regular town business was conducted at that meeting since it consisted entirely of a contentious closed session to deal with the Rotruck situation.
Rotruck was kicked off the council after the Guilford County Board of Elections, in response to a voter registration challenge, determined he did not live in Summerfield. Rotruck is appealing that decision and attempting to keep his seat on the council until the appeal is decided. At the April 23 meeting, Rotruck grabbed a folding chair, set it up and attempted to sit at the dais with the five other town councilmembers before he eventually relented and took a seat in the audience.
Rotruck didn’t attend the June 12 meeting at which the town had a large backlog of business to address. However, Rotruck’s absence didn’t do anything to reduce the rancor among the sharply divided town government that’s been on edge for nearly two months now and that was certainly on edge for the entire meeting.
At the start of the June 12 meeting, Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill attempted to get the board to adopt a move that would prohibit members from recording closed sessions. At the April 23 closed session, which has been the cause of so much debate, when Pegram attempted to record the meeting, Barnes objected and, according to Pegram, Barnes pulled the recorder from her hands in a highly aggressive manner.
Pegram has filed an incident report with the Town of Summerfield as well as an assault and battery charge against Barnes in court. Mayor Dunham has filed an incident report of her own with the town, accusing Barnes of slapping her arm in that closed session – however, Dunham hasn’t filed criminal charges to that effect.
Though Pegram’s recorder was supposedly turned off after the disagreement with Barnes at the start of the April 23 closed session, it was clear at the June 12 Town Council meeting that some town officials believe a recording of the April closed session exists.
Hill said he didn’t want to see any future recordings of closed sessions and he didn’t want any recordings made of the two closed sessions at the June 12 meeting. In addition, Hill said, any councilmember in possession of a closed session recording was required to hand it over to the town.
“If individuals are recording closed sessions, those closed session recordings are public property and need to be turned over to the clerk,” Hill said. “We’re aware that at least one audio closed session [recording] was turned over by some member of the body to the media, which is in direct contravention of the closed session.”
Pegram asked Hill several times what state statute he was citing.
“I still don’t understand what statute are you stating, that my personal recording is public property,” she said.
With that seeming acknowledgement that she was in possession of a recording, Hill shot back, “You do have a personal recording of the closed session?” And he said that she was required to turn her recording over.
“I said, if I have…” Pegram said.
“Oh I didn’t hear the ‘if’ – I apologize ma’am,” Hill said, not masking his distain in the least. “You didn’t answer my email, so I’m kind of in the dark about this.”
Pegram said there’s no statute that says she can’t record a closed session.
Hill at first said, “I don’t have the statute off the top of my head,” but he later cited NC General Statutes 143-318.10. That states: “Every public body shall keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions held… Such minutes may be in written form or, at the option of the public body, may be in the form of sound or video and sound recordings.”
The argument Hill was making is that, since the board hadn’t approved the option of recording closed sessions, councilmembers can’t exercise that option without a vote of the council.
Pegram said Hill didn’t need a recording of the closed session because he was there – so he was aware of what went on.
“You know what happened in that closed session – read my incident report,” Pegram told Hill, referring to her accusation that Barnes had ripped the recorder from her and hurt her in the process.
“Frankly,” Hill shot back, “if you want to go there, your incident report didn’t happen in my eyes. Let’s be very clear. I can read it, but I also have two eyes.”
He then told Pegram she was an elected official and she needed to start acting like one. “Give the recording to the clerk! Give the recording to the clerk!” he said.
O’Day stepped in and said he didn’t want the town’s closed sessions recorded either.
Some in the audience called out, “Why? Why?”
“If the body decides it’s not OK, it’s not OK,” O’Day said. “That’s the way it works.”
Walker also joined in and told Pegram, “I’m very disappointed that you lied to us.”
“I have not lied!” Pegram shot back. “And I don’t appreciate being called a liar. Until you have the evidence, you have no right to call me a liar.”
Walker persisted. He said, “I’ve learned tonight it does exist” – referring to the supposed recording of the April 23 closed session.
Dunham said that, in North Carolina, people have a right to record if they are a participant in the conversation, but Hill shot back that she was citing criminal law and that had nothing to do with government.
The board voted 3-to-1 not to record closed sessions and then Hill gave them a document to sign that stated the councilmembers would not disclose what was said in any council closed sessions. Pegram and Dunham said they weren’t going to sign anything until they read it, and Dunham added that she didn’t want to take time to read it that night since there was a room full of people there to conduct town business.
Later in the meeting when the public was allowed to comment, one speaker from the floor, Tammy Bridges, said of the behavior of the town’s government, “Shame on every single one of you sitting right there.”
She said to Barnes and Dunham, “You two used to be great friends,” and she added, “You let money and greed change that.”
Bridges said she remembers what it was like growing up in Summerfield years ago.
“You knew your neighbor’s name and you cared – you didn’t fight with them,” Bridges said. “You saw a [fallen] tree in their yard and before they woke up it was probably your chain-saw running.”
“Everybody is too concerned with greed,” she said, as she moved from the speakers’ podium to the center of the room. She said the town is bleeding financially by all the spending. “You can call a pile of crap anything you want, but it still stinks.”
Bridges introduced a CPA who had examined the years of past town budgets and, Bridges said, has found all sorts of inconsistencies. The CPA started to reel off a list but it was hard to hear her over the councilmembers and the crowd.
Another speaker from the floor spoke against Dunham and Pegram asked them if they were hiding the fact that they had supported Rotruck while knowing he wasn’t a resident of Summerfield.
Yet another criticized Dunham for missing the recent Founders’ Day celebration but said it was a great day without her presence.
“So, Mayor, please feel free to take another vacation,” the speaker said.
The Town Council did have a few non-hostile moments as they heard town reports, discussed the 2018-2019 budget and considered a rezoning, but basically that was all just time used to rest between huge fights that lasted into the following morning.
Just a few hours before the meeting, Superior Court Judge Andy Cromer finally issued a written order for Rotruck’s May hearing in the appeals process. The orders states that the court was using its “inherent authority” to declare that the decision and order of the Guilford County Board of Elections as to Rotruck’s residence “shall be stayed such that it has no present application, force, or effect pending the conclusion of Rotruck’s appeal therefrom.”
That order also stated that Rotruck’s appeal of the county Elections Board’s decision will be heard in July.
Rotruck said right before the June 12 meeting that he decided not to attend because it wasn’t his desire or intention to disrupt town business. He said he was delighted to see Cromer’s written order finally come down and when he saw it he considered attending the meeting but in the end decided not to go.
At the June 12 meeting, Hill said Cromer’s order had no bearing on the Town of Summerfield, indicating that town staff will continue not to allow Rotruck to participate in meetings while his appeal is being heard.
“They are risking contempt of court,” Rotruck said of the town’s stance, adding that every decision the Town Council makes while he is kept off might be undone.