In the local news cycle, summer 2018 is turning out to be the Summer of Summerfield.
And the case of the residency challenge of former Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck was back in court once again on Monday, August 6, in the battle that’s been raging since February, when Summerfield resident Janelle Robinson filed a challenge claiming that Rotruck didn’t live in the town where he served as an elected official.
In April, the Guilford County Board of Elections ruled that Robinson’s challenge was valid. The board determined that Rotruck lived in Greensboro rather than Summerfield. On August 6, Rotruck’s appeal of that Elections Board decision was heard in courtroom 3-H of the Guilford County Courthouse in downtown Greensboro.
Guilford County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge John Craig heard arguments from Rotruck’s attorney, Marsh Prause with the Winston-Salem firm of Allman Spry Davis Leggett & Crumpler, as well as from two attorneys who spoke in defense of the Board of Elections’ decision: Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne and Marshall Hurley, a Greensboro attorney who represents Robinson.
At the end of the three-hour hearing, Craig didn’t offer a ruling but he did say that a decision could be expected in the “not too distant future.” The hearing, which started just after 2 p.m., ran past 5 p.m. The attorneys were still presenting arguments late in the day when Craig said at that point that he’d “heard enough” from each side. He indicated he would review the briefs and consider the arguments on whether the Board of Elections heard and decided matters properly when that board voted unanimously that Rotruck was a resident of Greensboro and not Summerfield.
Rotruck won a seat on the Summerfield Town Council In November and served on that council until April, when the county’s Elections Board determined he wasn’t a Summerfield resident. Rotruck claims he established residency in Summerfield and lived in a house he purchased there, a house that is undergoing major renovation. He said the Summerfield home is and has been his residence despite the fact that his family lives in Greensboro.
Though the Guilford County Elections Board has never weighed in on whether Rotruck could continue to serve on the Town Council, Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill ruled that Rotruck could not participate in council meetings.
The appeal that was heard August 6 is an attempt by Rotruck to regain his council seat – however, even if he wins in court, it’s not clear that will happen. Summerfield officials may still fight Rotruck’s return. Some town leaders have hinted that, even if a judge determines that the Elections Board ruling should be overturned, that fact alone doesn’t mean Rotruck was a Summerfield resident when he filed to run for the seat.
At the start of the hearing, Craig stated that he would need to get up to speed on the case since it was coming before him for the first time.
“I really can’t tell you that I have a mastery of the allegations or the facts,” the judge said at the start of the hearing.
He added that this, as far as he could recall, was the first case of this type he had handled.
“In all the years I’ve been on the bench, I don’t think I’ve had before me an elections challenge,” Craig said.
Prause spoke first – almost continuously for a long stretch. He laid out the facts of the case and made his arguments why the Board of Elections’ ruling was faulty. He said that, though Rotruck was duly elected to the Town Council last year, certain town officials had “essentially nullified the outcome of the election by keeping Rotruck off the council.”
Prause quoted from the Board of Elections’ written decision and argued that that board failed to give proper weight or recognition to some important considerations. He said that Summerfield was Rotruck’s “usual sleeping place for 15 months straight” and Rotruck therefore established residency in that town.
“They’re saying that is a temporary residence even though he has slept there for 15 months,” Prause told the judge.
Prause added that, according to state law, a person doesn’t lose that residency status if he or she moves into another location “for temporary purposes only, with the intention to return.”
“A secondary residence is not prima facie evidence of a change of residence,” Prause said, adding that the location of one’s family was also not a determining factor.
Prause said Rotruck had moved furniture and other essentials to the Summerfield house where he now resides and where he resided when he filed to run for the Town Council seat last year.
Prause said Rotruck was not allowed to properly cross examine a witness during the April hearing and also stated that Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collect testified at that hearing without being sworn in first. According to Prause, the Elections Board “grossly mischaracterized the evidence submitted.”
He also said some of the factors that influenced the Elections Board decision were irrelevant – such as where Rotruck’s children go to school or what church the family attends.
Payne, who as the county attorney represents the Guilford County Board of Elections, reminded everyone that the hearing was not held to rehear Rotruck’s residency case but was instead meant to determine if the Board of Elections conducted a proper hearing and came to a decision that could in any way be justified by the evidence presented.
Payne said there was no evidence the board’s decision was “arbitrary or capricious” or was “made in patently bad faith” – standards that could be used to overturn such a ruling on appeal.
Payne noted that although Prause took issue with the written findings of the board, the Board of Elections didn’t even need to offer a written summation.
“There is no requirement that the Board of Elections issue a report,” Payne said. According to state statue, he added, the only thing the board is required to do is correct, if necessary, the voter registration of the person whose residency is challenged. After the April hearing, the Board of Elections did change Rotruck’s address to Greensboro rather than Summerfield.
Payne said that, though Rotruck did spend time in Summerfield before the election, his residence was not fixed there since he knew that renovations to the house were needed and knew he would need to move back to Greensboro while some of the repairs were made.
“The matter comes to – which was his permanent home and which was his temporary home?” Payne said.
Hurley also spoke against the appeal. Like Payne, he said Rotruck never became a Summerfield resident.
“He did not move lock, stock and barrel to Summerfield and that was particularly persuasive to the board,” Hurley told the judge.
“I’m really going to ask your honor to think of that word ‘fixed,’” he said.
Hurley also presented the court with power bills that in one month showed the Summerfield house had used one kilowatt of electricity while the Greensboro house had used 2,169 kilowatts. In other months, the power usage was extremely low at the Summerfield residence as well.
“It must have been hot and it must have been cold,” Hurley said.
At the end of the hearing, Craig said there was only one finding he could make at that time.
“I believe that there was no Russian hacking,” he said, stating one of the few things on which everyone seemed to agree that day.