It’s nothing new for there to be a ruckus in Summerfield these days and this week the uproar there is about NC General Statute 1-521, which states that, when a “quo warranto” action is used to try and knock a town council member or city council member out of a seat, “It is unlawful to appropriate any public funds to the payment of counsel fees in any such action.”
Former Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck recently brought such a suit against Summerfield Town Councilmember Dianne Laughlin, who now occupies the seat Rotruck once held.
In April 2018, the Guilford County Board of Elections ruled that Rotruck wasn’t a resident of Summerfield, and Rotruck was consequently removed from his council seat. While the elections board’s decision was upheld in Guilford County Superior Court, Rotruck is still waiting to have his case heard in the NC Court of Appeals, and he recently filed a rare legal action called a “quo warranto” suit to get the seat back until that appeal is heard.
Here’s the thing that has many in Summerfield up in arms: The Town of Summerfield is funding Laughlin’s defense – even though, they argue, state statute forbids the town from spending that money.
Rotruck, for one, objected to the town funding Laughlin’s defense. Summerfield hired an outside attorney who is being paid north of $350 an hour as Laughlin’s legal counsel even though the town isn’t named as a party in the suit.
“The expenditure violates the law,” Rotruck said this week.
Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham and Summerfield Town Councilmember Teresa Pegram also said the expenditure on Laughlin’s defense is illegal and unwarranted.
Both Dunham and Pegram also pointed out that, when Rotruck’s position on the board was challenged, the town certainly didn’t help fund Rotruck’s defense – in fact, they say town staff and most of the councilmembers did everything they could to expedite his departure.
On Monday, Feb. 11, a judge in Guilford County Superior Court issued a stay for Rotruck’s challenge to Laughlin – which means that Laughlin will get to remain in that seat until Rotruck’s appeal is heard. The written order is expected soon.
Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill said this week that it’s perfectly appropriate for the town to cover Laughlin’s legal bills.
Hill also defended his position in an email.
“Were Rotruck and his attorney proven right, (Ms. Laughlin is on her own), that would mean ANY citizen could challenge the validity of any elected official and that official would be left to secure legal funding on their own,” he wrote. “Any attorney, in house, a contractor or retained third party could not help. It is disappointing that this issue is the focus of reporting, as opposed to [Rotruck] filing a baseless (twice suit) to regain a seat that the current state of the law holds you cannot take.”
Hill also stated that statute 1-151 doesn’t preclude the town from covering Laughlin’s legal bills and he presented a number of legal arguments to that effect. Hill said that, for one thing, there’s no published case law either in the NC Court of Appeals or in the NC Supreme Court that interprets the statute.
Hill wrote in an email, “Appropriation normally means, allocated in the budget. We have a line item for legal fees, but we have not allocated funds during the budget process toward a quo warranto action.”
The town attorney added that, in his legal opinion, the suit Rotruck brought against Laughlin isn’t even a quo warranto action to being with.
“Rather,” he wrote, “it is a second end run around challenging the BOE [Guilford County Board of Elections] decision. You can call the suit what you want but that does not set facts nor law.”
Hill added, “There is no realistic basis in law, or fact, for calling this a quo warranto action.”
According to Hill, in the Feb.11 hearing that resulted in a stay, the judge clearly stated that the election board’s decision was the “law of the case” – which, Hill said, eradicated any argument that this was a valid quo warranto action.
“In short, appeal the case and let us see what the decision is from the higher courts,” Hill wrote.
He added that the Town of Summerfield will honor the court’s wishes.
“If we are told by a court decision that he should be seated, we will,” Hill said. “The town has always said that.”
Hill wrote that the legal principals of “Res Judicata and Collateral estoppel” also support his position. Those legal principles basically prevent the same parties from relitigating the same matter over and over again.
Hill also wrote that he is astounded at the way Rotruck makes it sound as though he, Rotruck, is the aggrieved party. He said North Carolina statutes clearly state that, once Rotruck was found by the Board of Elections not to be a Summerfield resident, he was automatically off the council with no action necessary by the town. He said the courts had ruled that was correct.
“Do we seat him even in the face of those decisions and potentially void any action we take?” Hill asked rhetorically. “The notion is absurd.”
“For a person unfamiliar with the facts of the case,” Hill continued in his email, “one could be led to believe that Rotruck had been denied some fundamental right by the town of Summerfield. To say that is inaccurate is an understatement. He and his Legal counsel understand that, but it is easy to throw accusations without merit as opposed to advancing your cause with actual facts. “
According to Hill, the complaint in this case – the allegation that both he and the city manager vacated Rotruck’s seat – is baseless.
“That is utter rubbish, false, and troubling as I heard it from Mr. Prause [Rotruck’s Attorney], who knows, or certainly should know, it is contrary to statutes and did not happen. A cursory review of the minutes of our meetings and decisions in this case demonstrate the utter falsehood of that accusation. The council acts, not staff. It is easy to beat people up frivolously and is too often the case, when you have nothing to work with. Again, it is disappointing, but not a surprise.”