BRUNSWICK COUNTY — The proposed northern Brunswick County interlocal agreement is “dead.”
That’s according to Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO incumbent Chairman Jeff Gerken, who says he chaired a series of private settlement negotiations this summer.
Cause of death? Belville’s “sabotage,” according to Gerken. Oct. 15, hours before H2GO Commissioners were set to vote on the proposed agreement that would end the lawsuit that has racked up millions in combined legal fees, Belville shared a press release, proclaiming it would not sign the agreement as it stood.
Belville said the agreement included unrelated annexation requirements and would have loaded H2GO with excessive debt, effectively freezing the utility’s ability to complete its aquifer-sourced reverse osmosis plant. Gerken said these claims were false; Leland said it would continue to find a solution but did not directly address the claims.
The entire ordeal dates back to H2GO’s controversial transfer of its assets (and, in fact, the entire utility) to Belville. Leland sued to halt and undo the transfer. A specially-assigned superior court judge ruled the transfer illegal in April, but Belville is appealing. The proposed interlocal agreement would have: permitted H2GO to build its long-fought-over reverse osmosis plant; required Belville to drop its appeal and settle the suit; included a provision that would have transferred all of Leland’s $66 million utility assets to H2GO.
At least some of the stakeholders had hoped to ink an agreement before the municipal elections next week when the makeup — and attitude towards key aspects of an agreement — of the boards of Belville, H2GO, and Leland could all change. Now, it seems highly unlikely there will be an agreement before Tuesday, Nov. 5.
R.I.P. interlocal agreement?
Gerken shared the proposed interlocal agreement’s obituary Tuesday evening as a campaign release and not on behalf of H2GO’s full board. Also on Tuesday, Port City Daily published the contents of a public records request that showed the Chairman appears to have used public resources last month to combat claims made by his political opponent.
“Now that Belville has sabotaged the proposed regional solution, we have no alternative
but to declare that proposed solution dead, and to look forward to resuming conversations with the county,” according to the Gerken’s campaign release, co-signed by his running mate, John Bradley.
Belville’s spokesperson said Gerken did not consult fellow commissioners through a public meeting before making the announcement. “Last time we checked he is one of five commissioners. With his pronouncement, he is disenfranchising the people who duly elected the other four,” according to Belville’s spokesperson, Mike McGill.
The Town of Leland declined to comment, citing its “focus on good governance, cannot comment on press releases or statements from political candidates.”
Though the agreement has not yet been made publicly available, both Belville and Gerken (politically opposed) have described a provision in the proposed agreement regarding annexation. Seemingly, some portion of the agreement would have required property owners to annex into the Town of Leland in exchange for receiving utility service from H2GO.
This stipulation, as described, raises legal questions. The North Carolina General Assembly curtailed involuntary annexation in 2011, shifting power away from municipalities to property owners (the previous process of involuntarily annexing an area and offering residents a petition to object was ruled unconstitutional; now, a majority of property owners in a given area set to be annexed must give their consent).
Government officials have publicly disputed one another for months without making public the document they’re arguing over — making it difficult to draw any concrete conclusions about these claims. Formal public records requests pertaining to the document have been denied by H2GO and Belville, who both stated it was part of active litigation (Leland responded to an informal request for the agreement, saying it could not produce the document for the same reason).
All the while, the lawsuit over the fate of H2GO has yet to be settled, and legal bills will undoubtedly rise. Meanwhile, for the public, there are few answers and no end in sight.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at email@example.com