Sunday, January 16, 2022

Belville votes 3-2 to appeal judge’s decision, H2GO case heads back to court

Though the case has already racked up an estimated $1.5 million in legal fees combined, Belville said its decision to appeal last week's legal ruling on the H2GO case will save millions.

Belville Board of Commissioners approved appealing a legal decision that if left alone, means the town has no chance of ever acquiring Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO or ensuring the construction of the utility's planned reverse osmosis plant. (Port City Daily/File photo)
Belville Board of Commissioners approved appealing a legal decision that if left unchallenged, means the town has no chance of ever acquiring Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO or ensuring the construction of the utility’s planned reverse osmosis plant. (Port City Daily/File photo)

BELVILLE — Belville Commissioners voted 3-2 Monday to appeal Superior Court Judge Charles Henry’s order issued last week.

Henry’s order ruled the town’s hurried acceptance of all of Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO’s approximately $60 million assets was illegal. Belville will explore several avenues “left open” for appeal in last week’s order, according to a town statement.

Related: In rare ruling, court finds Belville and H2GO commissioners acted in bad faith

The board’s decision comes just three days after a special meeting held last Thursday, called for the purpose of discussing Henry’s order. At that meeting, Commissioners took no vote, as only three out of the five were in attendance.

Monday, Mayor Mike Allen tipped the board 3-2 in favor of an appeal of the April 22 decision. It’s not clear which two Commissioners denied the vote to appeal the order; according to Belville spokesperson Mike McGill, a vote breakdown was not announced following the hour-long closed session.

“As we stated back in 2017, protecting the health and welfare of our citizens is the most important responsibility we have as public servants,” McGill wrote in a statement Monday evening on behalf of the town. “Given everything we know about the contamination of the Cape Fear River, it is unconscionable to think that the 25,000 people served by H2GO are being kept from getting cleaner water faster and without a rate increase.”

Background

H2GO’s board pursued its long-planned reverse osmosis plant years before summer 2017 when news about GenX and other emerging contaminants rocked the region. However, media coverage of GenX contamination intensified an already-brewing political divide at northern Brunswick County’s utility board that serves about 25,000 people.

After the 2017 election, which shifted board’s consensus in opposition to the plant, the board’s outgoing majority voted to transfer the entire utility to Belville. Those commissioners did so in an effort to “save” the plant. Judge Henry ruled that effort — including Belville Commissioner’s acceptance of the assets — violated state ethics law.

Construction on the plant was frozen in January 2017 by Superior Court Judge Thomas Lock’s preliminary injunction; it remains frozen pending appeals.

What now?

With an anti-RO-plant majority in place, McGill said $15 million would be wasted by leaving plans for the plant behind. Continuing the court battle will save all three parties millions, McGill said.

The case itself already breached the million-dollar mark. Belville has spent at least $543,532 in legal fees since November 2017, Leland has spent at least $742,375. H2GO spent $165,801 on the case through 2018 (Port City Daily is waiting on a more updated figure from the district.)

Related: Leland’s legal budget just more than doubled, expense account grows by $300,000

With elections six months away, it’s unclear whether a political shift back toward a pro-RO-plant majority would make a legal difference as the case carries on (H2GO and its anti-RO-plant majority is now a co-plaintiff in the case Leland first filled against Belville and H2GO’s outgoing pro-RO-plant majority). Anti-RO-plant Commissioners Jeff Gerken and Trudy Trombley’s terms expire this year.

H2GO’s pro-RO-plant minority — Ron Jenkins and Rodney McCoy — issued a statement Thursday, calling Leland’s win a “political gain” (read their full statement): “The Town of Leland still desires the assets of H2GO. This has been Leland’s goal all along.”

Belville, in its statement following the appeal decision, echoed its stance shared last week. “This isn’t about the health and welfare of its citizens for Leland’s leaders.,” the town’s release states. “As they showed with their statement last week, this matter is all about power and control. Remember, Leland tried to dissolve and take over H2GO back in 2015.”

Leland’s mayor and attorneys said last week the case upholds democracy.

“[The order] prevents the illegal H2GO-Belville transfer from becoming a blueprint for other local governments to give themselves away to avoid the results of an election and the laws addressing how those local governments must conduct business,” Joe Dowdy, Leland’s lead attorney on the case said in a town statement issued April 22.

Brian Edes, Leland’s town attorney but H2GO’s counsel on the case, said Belville would have a high burden of proof to prove a Superior Court Judge specifically appointed by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court wrong.

Edes said H2GO would cross-appeal in the event Belville chose to appeal.

Update: This article has been corrected to state H2GO, not Leland, would cross-appeal. 


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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