LELAND — After signing a petition organized by Town of Leland officials, Both Ed and Kathy Berglind thought the town’s tentative plans to transfer all of its utilities in Brunswick Forest, a $66 million value, to H2GO at no cost were concrete.
“I thought it was set in stone,” Kathy Berglind said outside the propped-open door at the signing session, held at a meeting space provided courtesy of the Brunswick Forest Master Association.
When informed the utility transfer — based on an unsigned interlocal agreement — was in fact not in place, Ed Berglind said in jest, “That’s good to know.”
Limited info, important petition
Like other Brunswick Forest residents, the Berglinds reached this conclusion based on an email letter sent to them from the Brunswick Forest Masters Association containing a message from the Town of Leland this week.
The letter describes the town as “in discussions to transfer” its utilities. It does not explicitly inform residents that the proposed agreement that could end the H2GO lawsuit is not final.
Ratepayers in Brunswick Forest that contribute to the town’s utility fund were not given a choice on the proposed transfer, nor were they asked for their opinion through a public hearing (the move is being packaged with several other provisions to tentatively settle the ongoing lawsuit).
“Leland’s already going to give it away. And if they don’t have 52 or 51% of residents on board, there’s no voting rights,” two-year Brunswick Forest resident Tom Anderson said after signing.
Did the Andersons believe the agreement was final? Both Tom and his wife Marlene said yes. Marlene Anderson explained she reached this conclusion through her Homeowners Association and the town’s letter. She thoroughly agrees she wants voting rights if her utility service is transferred to H2GO. “It’s all about representation.”
Friday, residents filtered in an out of the signing session. Some signed the petition without asking questions, some engaged with either Assistant Manager Niel Brooks or Manager David Hollis, both on hand to help answer questions. No pamphlet or printed set of facts was made available alongside the annexation petition.
Upon entering the meeting space, one resident asked Brooks, “Can you all explain what the heck is going on?” After hearing a breakdown, the resident asked, “But the idea is it’s happening regardless, it’s just a question whether we have a say in future stuff?” Brooks then clarified that nothing was finalized yet.
Several residents stopping by Leland’s petition signing session Friday also voiced confusion about the petition process. A town board member of the infrastructure committee expressed displeasure to Hollis that the item had not been placed on the board’s agenda.
The town did not issue a press release on the topic. No information on the petition can be found on its website or social media channels. In fact, the town did not directly communicate with the petitioners it’s rallying prior to Friday’s signing session.
Provided copies of the letter and map with the town’s logo midday Thursday, the town’s spokesperson did not respond to multiple questions as of Saturday.
When asked what steps the town took to make sure people understood what they were signing, Hollis said: “We provided information to the Master Association and to the HOA presidents. They disseminated that information. How they disseminated it, what they told people, we don’t really know. But we gave them the information that we had — is that the town intends, for all indication that we have right now from Council, to do this. It’s not set in stone. But it most likely is on that path of happening. If it happens, this is something important,” Hollis said.
Early voting for the municipal election begins 26 days from Friday on Oct. 16.
Asked why Leland requested all signatures be turned in by Sept. 30 (state statute does not cite a 10-day window or any timeframe for garnering signatures), Hollis said because H2GO’s meeting is Oct. 1. However, H2GO has no regularly scheduled meeting that day and as of Saturday had not called a special meeting.
Commissioners discussed the prospect of setting such a meeting on that date in their Tuesday meeting but did not approve or advertise it at the time of Hollis’ comment. “That’s the date we’re shooting for,” Hollis said. “We want to be able to provide the petition to them in addition to the interlocal agreement that’s going to be considered.” He said his understanding was that the interlocal agreement was the reason H2GO was setting the Oct. 1 meeting.
Also, Hollis said Leland called a special meeting Monday this week at its agenda meeting (which has not yet been advertised via email or online) for Oct. 2 to review the proposed interlocal agreement.
Asked why the town did not release more information about the petition process, Hollis said the town met with Brunswick Forest’s developer, HOA presidents, and the Masters Association. “They asked us to help facilitate the signing of the petition,” he said. “They initiated us being here today.”
But the letter, delivered by the Masters Association, begins with the intro, “The Town of Leland has requested Brunswick Forest Master Association send this message to all Brunswick Forest property owners.” Presented with this, Hollis said, “We asked [the Masters Association] to help us participate — to get this message out to the folks in Brunswick Forest. But being here today is their idea.”
Before it’s finalized, the proposed interlocal agreement requires the approval of three governing bodies (H2GO, Leland, and Belville) and a judge.
In response to several questions about the petition event, H2GO spokesperson Tyler Wittkofsky said the utility’s full board had not been briefed. “None of the actions referenced within your questions have been brought to the attention of the full board, therefore H2GO has not had a chance to take any action or stances on this,” Wittkofsky wrote in a statement.
However, Wittkofsky added that each of the H2GO Commissioners shared they were pleased with the progress on the interlocal agreement after exiting closed session Tuesday.
“It would not be contrary to the regional solution [settlement agreement] if H2GO annexed those areas that would be added before the completion of the interlocal agreement,” according to Wittkofsky.
To reach 51% majority votes — the threshold Leland is seeking in its annexation petition — Hollis said he believed the town needed 900 or so votes. Signatures will be counted by property owners, Hollis explained, not individuals. A town Memorandum Of Understanding regarding a potential $2.6 to $3.3 million incentive agreement with Brunswick Forest’s developer this week states the development is comprised of 3,361 residential units (51% of which would equal 1,714 units).
Leland’s letter explains that as part of the tentative agreement, the town would “gain an interest in the assets of the sanitary district.” The town’s spokesperson did not respond to a question asking what this phrase meant. Asked what the phrase meant, Hollis said, “It means what it says. Gain an interest. In those assets.”
As part of the tentative agreement made publicly available, Leland would give away all its utilities, valued $50 million, plus $16 million in cash making up the Utilities Enterprise Fund. “We’re giving the assets that the Town of Leland has, we’re conveying that. But we’re getting something in return,” Hollis said.
What is that? “An interest in the assets,” Hollis said. Again asked to specifically define in layman’s terms what the phrase meant, Hollis said, “I mean, an interest in assets means just that. I don’t know how to explain it otherwise.”
Asked to clarify whether interest implies a percent of something, Hollis said, “It’s like a partnership.”
Hollis said the town is not necessarily organizing the petition in time for the upcoming election. “There’s no reason to do it for that. The reason that we’re even involved in it is so that folks in Brunswick Forest aren’t disenfranchised by an action that the town takes,” Hollis said. “Not disenfranchising them is important to the town….whether that happens before this next election or two years from now or five years from now, or whatever. It’s an important process.”
“I think it could happen before the upcoming election. But I don’t think it has to happen,” he said.
Reached Friday morning, Belville’s spokesperson said the town’s attorneys were not aware of Leland’s petition efforts.
Hollis said he was not concerned when asked about the sensitivity of making sure the proposed agreement is signed by Belville. When asked why the town did not brief Belville’s attorneys on the petition effort, Hollis said, “This has nothing to do with Belville. And quite frankly, I don’t talk to Belville’s attorneys.”
Belville Mayor Mike Allen disagrees. “They’re trying to throw the vote,” Mayor Allen said Friday afternoon.
“It’s trying to change the outcome of an election, in a very short period of time. Because they’re scared of what the turnout might be if they can’t get Brunswick Forest in it,” Allen said.
On Nov. 28, 2017, H2GO’s outgoing majority board voted in a surprise motion to transfer all of H2GO’s $60 million assets to the Town of Belville. In less than 14 hours and with no public hearings or announcements, Belville’s Board of Commissioners accepted the transfer at a meeting that had been held in recess. Leland sued shortly after, kicking off a lawsuit that has racked in more than $1 million in legal fees. In April, Superior Court Judge Charles Henry ruled the transfer was illegal. Belville is appealing.
The Nov. 2017 election swung H2GO’s voting power with the election of Commissioner Bill Beer. H2GO went from being 3-2 in favor of the planned, controversial reverse osmosis plant to 3-2 in opposition of it.
“They’re trying to do the same thing to us that they accused we did to them,” Mayor Allen said. “They said we circumvented the voters. And when I look at it in my perspective, here we are, what, less than six weeks to an election. They’re having to rush to try to put this group of people into the election pool that’s not even in H2GO right now, to change the outcome. And basically, that’s what they said we did. That we tried to change the outcome of the election. So basically they’re doing the same thing.”
Allen said he has not been briefed with any updates since the last private regional meeting that resulted in a joint press release with basic details on the proposed agreement. He said his board has not tentatively set a date to review any proposed agreement.
“I thought everything was going to be done above board but undoubtedly they saw a way that they thought they can change the outcome of the election and they’re taking it,” he said.
View the full letter below: