Events in Summerfield took an astonishing turn that left town’s people buzzing on Monday, Feb. 18.
News spread that – completely contrary to what everyone believed – (1) recently appointed Summerfield Town Councilmember Dianne Laughlin will have to face reelection for that seat in November 2019, (2) a Summerfield referendum on the 2018 ballot last November was utterly pointless because a change to the town’s charter in 2008 had already established that the terms of appointed town councilmembers would end at the next election.
Laughlin was appointed to the Summerfield Town Council seat in October 2018 by a majority of council members, who chose her to fill the seat left vacant by a successful residency challenge against former Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck, who is fighting that decision in court.
The town council expected Laughlin to fill out the remainder of Rotruck’s term, which runs until 2021, unless Rotruck is successful in one of his court cases.
However, on Monday, Feb. 18, word spread like wildfire that, in fact, Laughlin would notbe able to serve the remaining two years without reelection because of a change in the town’s charter that was made in 2008 but that no one remembered.
That change had in fact already addressed the same issue that the successful 2018 referendum on the Summerfield ballot did: They both altered the town’s charter to the effect that, when town councilmembers are appointed in the middle of a term, that seat is up for a vote at the next election.
Laughlin was appointed to the council last October and a few weeks later the town, after debate and much hoopla, approved the referendum. When that referendum was approved in November, everyone understood it wouldn’t affect Laughlin because it wasn’t in effect when she was appointed to the seat.
But here’s where things get crazy. Laughlin will have to run in 2019 because the law actually went into effect in 2008.
That means the referendum was completely unnecessary because the change to the town’s charter had already been made in 2008 – only no one remembered it; or, at least, no one said anything if they did. Since the law actually was in effect when Laughlin was appointed, she will not get to serve out the final two years of the term unless she runs and wins in November.
There was a lot of confusion in the town on Monday as to exactly how this happened, but, apparently, in 2008 former state Rep. John Blust helped the town make the change at the state level. Though the law passed and went into effect, word of that never made it back into an actual change in the wording in the town’s charter. So, though it was state law, that change wasn’t reflected in Summerfield’s records. Apparently, no one remembered the change in 2018 when the subject came up for discussion during the Laughlin appointment and the referendum process.
Only the North Carolina General Assembly has the power to change town charters except in a few specific instances like the name of the town and the terms of the town councilmembers.
Blust said Monday night, when asked about the change a decade ago, that he doesn’t recall it.
“I don’t remember,” Blust said.
He said that he did handle some charter changes for towns in Guilford County and he said that, when those types of charter changes are requested, they are usually very routine, handled largely by staff and generally pass easily if the legislator representing that town presents it to fellow state legislators with no opposition.
“If I did do something it was at the request of the town,” Blust said.
The change clearly didn’t get much attention in Summerfield at the time or someone in Summerfield would have pointed it out when Laughlin was appointed to the council– especially given the highly divided nature of Summerfield politics these days.
Town’s people who had gone through an involved referendum process were stunned Monday.
Don Wendelken, a former Guilford County Board of Elections member who now runs the “Summerfield Scoop” Facebook page that follows the town’s government closely, said he’s very surprised it wasn’t caught until now.
“It appears that the town attorney did not do his due diligence in researching this issue,” Wendelken said. “We rely on his legal expertise and this fell throw the cracks.”
Wendelken also said the optics of the strange situation aren’t good for the town.
“This puts a bad light on Summerfield,” he said.