3/19/2020 4:50:00 PM Mayor calls lawsuits against the town 'irresponsible'
by CHRIS BURRITT
SUMMERFIELD - Summerfield Mayor BJ Barnes said lawsuits against the town were "irresponsible" and cost taxpayers $157,523 that could have helped pay for recreational facilities.
"There is a handful of citizens that have cost this town an exorbitant amount of money on litigation," Barnes said during the town council's meeting March 10. "The citizens are not going to be able to enjoy a trail, a park or a ball field. To me, that is irresponsible."
Barnes criticized lawsuits filed by former council member Todd Rotruck and residents Dwayne Crawford, Don Wendelken and Danny Nelson since 2018. He also said former mayor Gail Dunham, whom he replaced in December, had supported the litigation, though she wasn't a direct party to it.
In interviews after the meeting, each of the five people questioned why Barnes had brought up the contentious issue after pledging during the campaign last year to restore civility to town affairs - and reiterating the position after taking office.
"I think he is breaking one of his campaign promises about being civil," Wendelken said.
"He's doing damage to himself by slamming people. It's not becoming of the mayor," Nelson added.
Barnes didn't identify the five people by name in his comments during the meeting, but in an interview afterwards he said he was referring to Rotruck, Crawford, Wendelken, Nelson and Dunham.
The mayor's remarks about Summerfield's legal expenses were made during a discussion among council members about the town's standoff with Dunham over her request for two years' worth of emails.
Late last November, Dunham requested all town-related emails distributed between Oct. 1, 2017, and Nov. 19, 2019, roughly spanning her two-year term as mayor.
Dunham was informed in January the town would comply with her request as long as she pays $9,400 for staff time to review the documents and remove confidential, non-public information. She was told she needs to pay half of the payment up front.
In the interview, Dunham cited a state statute that she said entitled her to the emails without paying for them, whereas Town Attorney Bob Hornik told the council state law allows municipalities to seek payment to cover "extraordinary expenses" responding to public records requests.
"I want our citizens to have everything they ask for if it's legitimate," Barnes said. "If you want to come to my house and you want a drink of water, I will give you a drink of water. If you want to water your horse, you can water your horse. But if you want to fill up your pool, we'll talk about it."
The council agreed by consensus to stick with its demand that Dunham pay for the emails she's requested.
"I think we have a responsibility to protect our interests," Councilman Reece Walker said. "Our interests are to keep the taxpayer money where it belongs. We've already let $150,000 of that disappear."
As of Feb. 29, Summerfield had spent $157,523 defending itself against lawsuits related to the removal of Rotruck from his council seat in April 2018, Finance Officer Dee Hall told the council.
Four months after Rotruck had taken office in December 2017, the Guilford County Board of Elections ruled he had not established permanent residency in Summerfield. Rotruck sued to regain his seat in April 2018 and sued again in January 2019 after the council had appointed Dianne Laughlin to replace him. Rotruck asked the Guilford County Superior Court to unseat Laughlin and restore him to the council.
Last May, Crawford, Wendelken and Nelson sued the town and four council members, claiming they had unlawfully spent taxpayer money in defense of Laughlin's appointment. Nelson withdrew from the suit weeks before last November's election in which he ran for mayor.
In December, Superior Court Judge David Hall dismissed the suit. Crawford and Wendelken filed an appeal last month.
The town is obligated to defend itself, according to Barnes.
"The average citizen should know there are certain citizens here that are costing them their tax dollars," he said during the March 10 meeting.
"It was used basically on something that has not been successful," the mayor continued, referring to the legal rulings that have gone against the plaintiffs. "This is money that is gone."
In interviews, Rotruck and Dunham said the town could have avoided the legal expenses if the council had waited for Rotruck to exhaust his appeal options before appointing Laughlin.
"They are the ones running up the legal bills," Dunham said.