A stunning revelation that came out of Summerfield this week regarding a giant oversight by town officials now has a good number of that town’s leaders and citizens trying to piece together exactly how it happened. Some are angry about the mistake, while others think it’s funny – and others are simply shaking their heads.
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, news spread quickly through town that a referendum Summerfield had put on the ballot and passed in November 2018 was a complete waste of time. That referendum changed the Summerfield town charter to state that, whenever councilmembers were appointed to seats, they would have to run again in the next election if they wanted to hold onto that seat rather than have the right to finish out the term of the councilmember whose seat was vacated.
That November 2018 referendum passed in Summerfield, however, when the town submitted the change to the state recently, state officials gave the town a stunning response: The change to the town’s charter had already been made in 2008.
In 2008, the Summerfield Town Council voted to request the charter be changed and former state Rep. John Blust took the town’s request to Raleigh and the legislature approved the change. However, somehow that change never made it into the town’s charter – and everyone forgot about it, including town staff and councilmembers even though they played central roles in the process a decade ago.
The new revelation has a very real effect since an appointed Summerfield Town Council member – Dianne Laughlin, appointed to fill the vacant seat left by a successful residency challenge against former Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck – now must win an election in November if she wants to finish out Rotruck’s term, which lasts until late 2021.
This week, Summerfield Town Councilmember Dena Barnes said it was utterly amazing that everyone forgot. She said she even forgot despite the fact that she was on the Town Council in 2008 and was the one who, at a meeting in August of that year, officially announced the change.
Some of the same people who worked very hard to get the item on the ballot in November last year – and who helped collect hundreds of signatures to do so – were involved in the 2008 process.
“This is hilarious,” Barnes said. “Nobody remembered. We really didn’t have to do it again.”
She said she’d gone back and read the minutes of meetings in 2008 and was surprised to discover that she had been part of the process.
Current Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill was the town attorney in 2008. Hill was out some that year due to medical issues but the minutes of town meetings show he attended at least one meeting when the topic was discussed.
Summerfield Town Councilmember John O’Day was taking it all in stride but he said clearly some people should have remembered.
“I didn’t even live here at the time,” O’Day said, “but the staff should have followed up on it with the legislature in 2008. The clerk is responsible for our records, but who knows where the ball was dropped.”
It is interesting to consider that, if the town’s ballot referendum had failed rather than passed in November, the mistake likely never would have been caught and Laughlin would have – unknowingly, but illegally – served out the remainder of Rotruck’s term without taking part in the upcoming election.
O’Day said the important thing is that the mistake has been caught and the town will now comply with the amended charter.
Not everyone in Summerfield has been taking the news so well.
Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham wrote in an email to other town officials: “So much time and money was spent in 2018 on this ‘mistake.’ I am furious about wasted time and money.”
Don Wendelken, an outspoken Summerfield resident who runs the Summerfield Scoop Facebook page, said that, since the town has been paying Hill $185 an hour for his legal advice, this is a serious and expensive oversight.
Wendelken wrote on the Summerfield Scoop page, “How much did it cost the taxpayers of Summerfield for legal advice on an issue that was already law? Should Bill Hill and his firm refund the monies collected for his legal opinion as the town attorney? How should the current Town Council handle this? If nothing is done by this council, the voters in Summerfield can decide in November. Is new leadership on the horizon?”