If anyone thought things in the Town of Summerfield couldn’t get any crazier – well, they were certainly in for a revelation this week when things hit a whole new level of crazy.
And, given what preceded this week, that’s saying a lot.
The latest round of action, controversy and drama kicked off just after 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 10 – three-and-a-half hours before Summerfield was scheduled to hold a Town Council meeting.
That afternoon, Superior Court Judge Andy Cromer held a teleconference with attorneys to announce his decision on whether former Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck could participate in Summerfield Town Council meetings while an appeal of his case was being heard. While Rotruck and his attorney stated adamantly that the decision meant Rotruck could take part in the meetings, the town canceled the council meeting and posted a statement saying the seat was still vacant.
The day after Cromer’s decision, the town issued this statement: “The town’s legal counsel is of the opinion that the Council seat remains vacant. Legal counsel further recommended that the town not proceed with last night’s meeting to afford time to better sort through the matter. Most of the elected body concurred, the focus was to quickly notify the public, and staff implemented that directive. The town acknowledges that all Council members and the mayor are not in agreement with Mr. Rotruck’s status or how to proceed. The desire is to approach the matter professionally and democratically while ensuring that needed business is conducted.”
Rotruck was originally removed from the council in April after the Guilford County Board of Elections ruled he was not a resident of Summerfield but that he lived in Greensboro. The Elections Board changed his voter registration information to reflect that decision – a move that had the immediate effect of knocking him off the Town Council.
Rotruck filed an appeal of the Board of Elections’ decision in Guilford County Superior Court and, in addition, filed a lawsuit against the Town of Summerfield claiming that the town manager acted outside the scope of his authority when he excluded Rotruck from all Town Council affairs. As part of that suit against Summerfield, Rotruck requested injunctive relief from the court in the form of a temporary restraining order (TRO) that would allow him to serve on the Town Council until his appeal of the Elections Board’s decision had been decided.
On Monday afternoon, May 7, Judge Cromer listened to the arguments on whether Rotruck should be allowed to serve on the council while his case is appealed. Rotruck’s attorney, Marsh Prause with the Winston-Salem firm of Allman Spry Davis Leggett & Crumpler, argued that the TRO was necessary because Summerfield Town Manager Scott Whitaker had “summarily and unilaterally” excluded Rotruck from fulfilling his responsibilities as an elected town councilmember and that Whitaker was acting in an “insubordinate” manner by keeping Rotruck from participating in meetings.
Three days after that May 7 preliminary hearing on the TRO, Cromer gave his decision in the teleconference attended by attorneys for each side. Immediately after that teleconference, Prause sent an email to Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne that stated, “At approximately 3:00 p.m. this afternoon, Superior Court Judge Cromer convened a teleconference with counsel for Summerfield and me for the [Rotruck v. Town of Summerfield case]. We expected a ruling at that time on the TRO argued on Monday. However, Judge Cromer advised us instead that he would be deferring any ruling in the [Rotruck vs. Summerfield case] and instead would be exercising his inherent authority to order to rule in connection with the pending [Guilford County Board of Elections’ case] that the decision of the Guilford County Board of Elections stemming from the quasi-judicial hearing on April 17, 2018 would have ‘no present application’ until the appeal from it is heard by a superior court judge.”
Rotruck spread the word far and wide that the judge was allowing him to attend the Summerfield Town Council meeting that night. But just as he started to let people know, the town canceled the meeting. No matter what any court says, Rotruck can’t participate in Summerfield Town Council meetings if the meetings are never held.
This was the second meeting in two weeks that had been suddenly canceled due to the ongoing soap opera that has been playing out in the once relatively quiet town of about 11,000 people just north of Greensboro.
Summerfield Town Councilmember Teresa Pegram, one of the two political allies of Rotruck on the six-person council, said it made no sense to cancel the meeting just because a court had seen things Rotruck’s way for the time being.
“What are they going to do?” Pegram asked. “Keep canceling meetings until they get the answer they want?”
Pegram added that Summerfield is apparently using an outside attorney that the Town Council never voted to hire. She said the plan was for the council to meet and hire that attorney “retroactively;” however, now it’s not known when the town will meet again to talk with the attorney.
It would certainly be interesting to see the council hold a closed session to discuss the lawsuit of Rotruck v. Town of Summerfield with Rotruck sitting in on that closed session.
Summerfield Town Councilmember John O’Day stated in a text right after the May 10 meeting was canceled that it had been canceled on advice from the attorneys, and O’Day added it was currently a “very confusing legal environment.”
The official explanation for the cancelation of the May 10 meeting, posted by the town manager, stated: “The town received word late this afternoon that outside legal counsel advised cancellation of tonight’s meeting and a majority of Council concurs. Council hopes to move past this legal bottleneck through appropriate legal means and return to making policy-related decisions on behalf of citizens. In the meantime, Summerfield Town Hall is open and staff is conducting business as usual. It’s a beautiful season, we invite you to enjoy our parks and upcoming events, and we will keep you apprised of the next Council meeting.”
That canceled May 10 meeting, if it had been held, promised to have been a complete and utter circus. In addition to the Rotruck controversy, Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham has accused Town Councilmember Dena Barnes of assaulting her during an April closed session.
Dunham was expected to make a statement at the meeting. Rotruck had a statement he planned to read as well, and Pegram also said she had a statement she was going to make at that May 10 meeting.
Rotruck said that excluding him and then later canceling the meeting was just business as usual for the Summerfield Town Council. He said that’s the way the town has been operating for years and it’s one reason he ran and was elected.
“They always put the cart before the horse,” Rotruck said of the town’s decision-making propensity.
He added that the town had acted rashly in his case rather than allow time for the situation to work its way through the courts.
“You would have thought this town would have erred on the side of avoiding a lawsuit,” Rotruck said.
Like Pegram, Rotruck said that the town can’t go on forever without holding a meeting.
“The budget has to be adopted,” Rotruck said, citing that as just one important piece of town business that has to be addressed.
While the May 10 meeting was canceled, some people did congregate in the parking lot of the Summerfield Community Center around 6:30 p.m. when the meeting was to have taken place. Rotruck was there, as was Janelle Robinson, the Summerfield citizen who had challenged Rotruck’s residency. Dunham was there as well as former Guilford County Board of Elections Member Don Wendelken, who now runs the “Summerfield Scoop” Facebook page where a social media battle is raging.
On Friday, May 11, the town put out its second statement regarding the cancelation of the May 10 meeting.
“Developments yesterday resulted in the cancellation of Council’s scheduled monthly meeting,” it read. “The town recognizes that the community still has questions about what transpired and conflicting news reports have generated further confusion. A hearing was held May 7 concerning Rotruck v. Town of Summerfield and the decision was delayed until yesterday, May 10. At that time, the judge deferred any ruling and did not grant the temporary restraining order Mr. Rotruck sought to regain his Council position. In the separate appeal by Rotruck of the adverse ruling of the Board of Elections (BOE), in which the town is not involved, the judge ordered a stay of the BOE’s order.”
The statement went on to say that the town’s legal counsel holds the opinion that the seat remains vacant.
Rotruck said that, in the meantime, his rights are being walked all over. He said he is being kept out of the Summerfield Town Council’s business, and, on Tuesday, May 8, when others were voting in the primary, he added, he couldn’t cast a ballot.
“I couldn’t even vote the other day because if I had voted it would have been like an admission,” Rotruck said, since the Board of Elections now has him registered to vote in Greensboro.
Pegram said that ever since the judge’s May 10 decision, things have been nuts.
“It started at 3:52 with the emails that day and they kept coming and coming and coming,” she said.
Robinson, who started all of this by challenging Rotruck’s Summerfield residency, said that, since she’s named as a defendant in Rotruck’s Board of Elections appeal, she needs an attorney to defend her. The first time around, prominent Greensboro attorney Marshall Hurley represented Robinson, but didn’t bill her because a mystery person stepped in and paid Hurley, who has declined to say who paid him. Robinson said she did not know if anyone would pay Hurley a second time, so she’s set up an account for crowd-sourced funding on the GoFundMe website so her supporters can donate to her legal defense.