At the Tuesday, Sept. 11 Summerfield Town Council meeting, the council managed to get a unanimous vote on the best date to light the town’s Christmas tree, but, right after that – in the discussion over how to proceed regarding the vacant seat on the council – the unity evaporated and the council meeting devolved into an argument, as it usually does these days. After extended bickering on the question, the council adjourned with the empty seat of the six-member council remaining unfilled.
In February, Summerfield resident Janelle Robinson filed a challenge against then Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck claiming that he did not live in Summerfield, something that would make him ineligible to serve on the Town Council. In mid-April, the Guilford County Board of Elections voted unanimously to uphold Robinson’s challenge, and, while Rotruck appealed the decision, a recent email from Guilford County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge John Craig has indicated that he agrees with the Board of Elections’ findings – though the judge has yet to issue a signed order to that effect.
The Summerfield Town Council is cleanly divided into two political camps: one consisting of Councilmembers Dena Barnes, John O’Day and Reece Walker, and the other of Councilmembers Teresa Pegram and Gail Dunham, who is Summerfield’s mayor. Rotruck was in the camp of Pegram and Dunham before he was removed from the council. Since the mayor only votes when there’s a tie, Barnes, O’Day and Walker call the shots for the town.
At the contentious Sept. 11 meeting in which several key legal questions arose, Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill was not present. One town councilmember said after the meeting that Hill’s absence was due to illness.
Dunham said it was extremely unwise for the Town Council to fill the vacant seat at that time since Rotruck’s fate hadn’t been settled in court. She said there was no signed court order from Craig and she added that Rotruck intended to appeal the matter to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Dunham said the council should reschedule the discussion for its Tuesday, Oct. 9 meeting. She also said the fact that the town attorney wasn’t at the meeting made naming a replacement even more ill advised.
Regardless, it was clear that Walker wanted the seat to be filled by Dianne Laughlin, a former Summerfield town councilmember who lost her seat on that council in the November 2017 election.
“I think it’s a real mess we’re doing this without an attorney,” Dunham said of Walker’s move to fill the seat.
Dunham added that Summerfield had already spent 24 percent of the town’s annual revenue on attorneys’ fees and said that percentage may increase if the council attempted to name a new councilmember at that meeting.
“If you fill the seat tonight, it may be much more expensive and it greatly complicates the issue,” Dunham told the council.
She said it was better to “err on the side of caution,” and she added that Rotruck has the right of due process. She said a ruling in June by Guilford County Superior Court Judge Andy Cromer stated that the seat should remain vacant “pending the conclusion of the appeal.”
Dunham also said that, in the appeal, Craig had first decided to send the case back to the Guilford County Board of Elections for reconsideration – but then, on Wednesday, August 29, he sent an email to the attorneys in the case indicating that he had “reversed” that decision. She pointed out that Craig had not yet issued a written decision.
“That’s an email,” she said of Craig’s apparent change late last month. “We’re still waiting for a signed order. This is a serious problem.”
O’Day told Dunham that Craig had not “reversed” his decision but had only clarified it. O’Day said Dunham was clearly making comments that favored her friend Rotruck.
The mayor reiterated that there was no pressing need to fill the seat that night and she read a communication from Rotruck’s attorney that stated Rotruck obviously felt it was inappropriate to fill the seat at the Sept. 11 meeting and stated that Rotruck expects to involve the North Carolina attorney general in the matter.
“I wish we had a signed order, but we don’t,” Dunham said. “I’m not saying we have to wait forever.”
Walker said the matter had been drawn out long enough, and he made a motion to name Laughlin to the seat contingent upon the receipt of Craig’s signed order.
Dunham said she didn’t believe a contingent motion of that sort was a legal motion but Walker said he believed it was legal. However, neither of the two are attorneys and there was no town attorney in the Summerfield Community Center that night to settle the matter.
Walker asked, “If we wait for appeals, how long will we leave this seat empty?”
O’Day said, “We obviously are not going to agree. What we need to do is find a path forward for this town. I am tired of this. What’s the path forward as it is? This town needs to find a way to start coming together and work together. This is ridiculous.”
Walker concurred, “We have to start moving forward.”
In the end, the council adjourned with no decision regarding the vacant seat; however, by all appearances, that seat will be filled by Laughlin very soon.