As if the citizens of the Town of Summerfield didn’t already have enough to fight about these days, now they’re engaged in a bitter battle over public records held by Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham in a private email account.
Summerfield has been in political turmoil for nearly all of 2018, thanks largely to the heated, well-publicized – and successful – residency challenge against former Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck. And, in some ways, this new battle is an extension of that fight because many of the emails sought by citizens pertain to alleged communications between Dunham and Rotruck before he lost his seat on the council. Rotruck was removed in April after the Guilford County Board of Elections determined that he didn’t live in Summerfield and the courts upheld that decision.
Now there’s a big debate in Summerfield regarding the mayor’s emails: The Town of Summerfield is demanding Dunham turn over to the town the emails required to fulfill public records requests made by citizens.
Dunham and Town Manager Scott Whitaker have been at odds with each other since Dunham was elected mayor last year, when she became part of a move to get rid of Whitaker. Dunham said this week that she had multiple concerns about Whitaker. She said he spent too much money on luxurious furniture for his office and he has a habit of “getting in the middle of problems and making them worse.” Dunham said Whitaker has been working at every turn to undermine her as mayor.
Dunham also said that Whitaker and Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill have been encouraging residents to barrage her with public records requests and she added that the two are demanding private emails that have nothing to do with the town business of Summerfield.
The mayor said Whitaker and Hill wanted to send an information technology specialist to her house to download all information from her home computer.
“They want my database,” she said. “Bill Hill wanted [the IT worker] to come to my home to download everything.”
Town officials say that there was “an offer to help” Dunham retrieve the emails at her house but there was never any effort to get any emails that the town wasn’t entitled to. Whitaker said the town only wants emails from Dunham that are legitimate public records. He said that he and town staff are simply attempting to fulfill Summerfield’s legal obligation to meet its citizens’ public records requests.
According to Whitaker, the town has been getting numerous requests for Dunham’s emails, but a lot of those, he said, were sent to and from Dunham’s private America Online (AOL) email address rather than her official email address listed at the Summerfieldgov.com site. The manager said some of Dunham’s emails are in the town’s email system, but he added that the ones of the most interest to citizens making requests were sent or received through Dunham’s AOL account.
Dunham does not deny that there are some emails related to town business on her AOL account, but she said there are only a handful of those and they all pertain to minor matters, such as a change in meeting times.
Conversely, Whitaker said that, based on emails obtained from other sources, it’s clear there are a good many emails in the mayor’s AOL account that do involve town business. He said Summerfield has asked Dunham for those repeatedly but she refuses to turn them over.
“Her reason is that the town has all the town-related emails – and that’s simply not true,” Whitaker said. “It’s clear she’s used it [the AOL account] a lot to contact citizens and town vendors regarding town business.”
He added that it’s also clear Dunham used the account for “ongoing conversations” about government matters.
He said the town doesn’t have access to those but it is obligated to fulfill public records requests even if emails are held in a private account.
Dunham said that other Summerfield town councilmembers use personal email addresses and she said Whitaker and Hill haven’t asked other councilmembers for those emails. Whitaker said there are public records requests to the town center on Dunham’s emails which is why the town is seeking hers.
The six-member Summerfield Town Council is split into two warring factions – one side consisting of Dunham and Councilmember Teresa Pegram, and the other of Town Councilmembers Dena Barnes, John O’Day, Reece Walker and Dianne Laughlin – who was recently selected by the council to replace Rotruck after he was removed. Rotruck was on the side of Dunham and Pegram during the five months he served on the board. However, in Summerfield, the mayor only votes in the case of a tie, so a 3-2 split is now a 4-1 split.
According to Dunham, Whitaker and Hill are clearly in the pocket of Barnes, O’Day and Walker.
“Scott filed a grievance against me when I was elected to tell me how much he hated me,” she said. “He has sent me threatening emails. His emails are something else.”
The mayor also said that both Hill and Whitaker are doing all they can to harass her, including stirring up the residents of Summerfield.
“The people making trouble are being encouraged to be as negative and troublesome as they can be,” the mayor said. “They don’t want my emails. Bill Hill and Scott are encouraging this. They are the problem. This is definitely harassment.”
She said Hill has treated her with the same disrespect and animosity Whitaker has.
“I have so many nasty emails from him,” she said of Hill.
The Rhino Times asked Dunham why, in order to end the controversy and the alleged harassment, she didn’t go through her AOL account, copy the emails related to town business and hand them over to town officials or to the public records requestors.
Dunham said that wouldn’t end it by a long shot.
“This is not really about getting the emails,” she said. “They are not being sincere about getting emails. This is totally to harass me and to call me a crook and call me a criminal.”
She said there might be emails on town business that she might miss, or that she had deleted in the past, and Hill and Whitaker would use evidence of those to claim she was still hiding something.
When asked again about the possibility of turning over the emails that she did have at least in hopes of ending or mitigating the controversy, she said it would not help.
“You’re thinking normal,” Dunham said. “You have to think abnormal.”
She reiterated that turning over the few emails in her account would only make matters worse.