BRUNSWICK COUNTY — A majority of northern Brunswick County voters spoke clearly Tuesday: build the partially-constructed Brunswick Water and Sewer H2GO reverse osmosis (RO) plant.
Voters elected candidates Steve Hosmer and Barry Laub by a significant margin, unseating (as was their stated campaign goal) incumbent Chairman Jeff Gerken and beating out his running mate, newcomer John Bradley. The four candidates for the utility’s Board of Commissioners ran as pairs, with voters also clearly marking their ballots in a mostly ticket-like fashion.
With Hosmer and Laub’s election, H2GO’s voting power will see a major shift from a 3-2 anti-RO-plant majority to a 4-1 pro-RO-plant majority. After both men are sworn in, Commissioner Bill Beer, still serving his first term, will be the utility’s lone official opposed to building the RO plant. In 2017, Beer earned the third-ranking spot by 19 votes, securing the last seat on H2GO’s board behind incumbent Commissioner Ron Jenkins and then-newcomer Rodney McCoy.
Commissioner Trudy Trombley, a longtime opponent of the $35-million plant, did not file for re-election this year.
What this means
Beyond securing an alternative source of clean drinking water, this H2GO election signals major political shifts in the region.
Commissioners-elect Hosmer and Laub, and Commissioner Ron Jenkins live in unincorporated Brunswick County; Commissioner McCoy lives in Belville town limits; Commissioner Beer lives in Leland town limits.
Soon, H2GO’s voting majority will all be aligned with the stated objectives of the Town of Belville, Leland’s neighbor and historic rival. It’s worth noting that Belville appears to have operated contrary to state law in an Oct. 28 press release to endorse the Hosmer-Laub ticket and denounce the Gerken-Bradley campaign. In the release, Belville made an apparent bargain that it would drop its appeal if Hosmer and Laub were elected.
The two towns have long fought — both in and out of the courtroom — over economic development opportunities. In the still-ongoing H2GO lawsuit, Leland’s Town Manager referred to Belville as the town’s economic rival in his affidavit. This competition has even resulted in redundant infrastructure projects planned in the same growing areas.
As of spring 2019, approximately 70% of registered voters in H2GO’s sanitary district reside in the Town of Leland. This was a talking point of the Gerken-Bradley campaign, with signs scattered along right-of-ways warning Leland residents their voice was in “danger.” Belville’s population is about one-tenth of the Town of Leland’s.
Under normal circumstances, mixed municipal and county representation on a utility board that serves a combination of areas would be considered a positive thing. But in recent years, a faction of officials and customers of the utility have grown to believe its independence is under threat of an outside government takeover or infiltration (the Town of Leland has, on multiple occasions in recent years, tried to get the utility dissolved or otherwise thwart its attempts to complete its RO plant). And conversely, another faction of officials and customers believed the utility had grown too large and needs to partner with either the Town of Leland or Brunswick County to reduce regional operation costs.
Will this bring more or less cooperation?
Cooperation among northern Brunswick County officials could end the utility lawsuit, which has racked up millions in legal bills between the three government bodies involved.
At a Hosmer-Laub meet and greet Oct. 20, former anti-RO-plant candidates who lost their 2017 bid for the H2GO board, Brayton Willis and another man caused a stir. An attendee called 911, and according to the 911 call, described Willis and the man as “hecklers” and said though no one was assaulted, the two were starting a “big brawl.” A Leland spokesperson confirmed Leland Police officers responded to the incident but did not ask the men to leave. (Author’s note: This article has been updated to remove the name of a man who witnesses said was causing a disturbance but he states he was not in attendance). Willis (now a board member of the Leland Transportation Oversight Committee) asserts he was well within his First Amendment rights.
After the event and without outright endorsing the Gerken-Bradley ticket, Leland Councilwoman Pat Batleman criticized Hosmer and Laub, describing the team and their supporters as “cronies” that spread “incessant lies.”
In a Wednesday blog post to Magnolia Greens residents, Leland Councilman Bob Campbell, who won his re-election bid Tuesday, shared his disappointment in H2GO’s election results. Councilman Campbell never formally endorsed the Gerken-Bradley ticket.
“We had a great loss, in my opinion, when our current H2GO candidates lost. This leave [sic] us with no representation on that board. From what I have read on social media the Town of Belville is licking its chops thinking they have defeated our town. They have not,” Campbell’s Wednesday neighborhood post states.
Both Hosmer and Laub publicly criticized and shared skepticism of the Town of Leland’s apparent quest to require annexation into town limits in exchange for connecting to H2GO’s public utilities, a publicly-discussed provision of the proposed interlocal agreement (Author’s note: the agreement has not been publicly released, however, officials from opposite political factions have similarly described this stipulation). For years, the two and the group they helped organize, the Clean Water Team, have accused anti-RO-plant Commissioners Trombley, Beer, and Gerken of being too cozy with Leland officials and objectives.
At the same time, Commissioners Gerken and Trombley have accused Hosmer, Laub, and their pro-RO-plant colleagues on the board of being too cozy with Belville officials.
Both Hosmer and Laub admit their cooperation with Belville officials, in accordance with their goal to complete the plant. Leland sued Belville in 2017 after the small town’s Commissioners worked to accept all of H2GO’s $60 million assets in a series of actions shielded from public review.
At first, H2GO’s outgoing commissioners who helped orchestrate the transfer were personally named as defendants, but after the board’s power swung back in opposition to the plant after Beer’s Dec. 4, 2017 midnight swearing-in at Leland Town Hall, Leland and H2GO were realigned as co-plaintiffs in the suit. In April, Judge Charles Henry ruled the transfer was illegal, null, and void. Belville is appealing.
Through this summer and fall, all parties privately worked on terms of a proposed settlement agreement that would resolve the ongoing lawsuit and require Belville to drop its appeal. Recently, Gerken claimed the deal was ‘dead’ — although the announcement came as a campaign press release and not as an official H2GO statement. Other stakeholders in the negotiations have not confirmed this.
Given the incoming majority board’s apparent agreement with Belville’s stance, it seems likely the new board may choose to drop its co-plaintiff status with the Town of Leland in the town’s suit against Belville. However, H2GO cannot end the suit on its own.
Reached Wednesday, Commissioner-elect Hosmer said he will reconsider the settlement agreement with the new board.
“The lawsuit has become over the last two years increasingly complex as new requirements have been interjected repeatedly into a proposed interlocal agreement which was intended to resolve the lawsuit,” Commissioner-elect Hosmer said Wednesday. “As of this date, that interlocal agreement is ‘dead,’ according to current Chairman Jeff Gerken. We can only imagine that it will require a revisit by all concerned parties to the idea of resolving the lawsuit to the shared and mutual benefit of Leland, Belville, and H2GO.”
Laub, reached while traveling on a previously-scheduled international trip, could not immediately provide comment on his election.
Leading up to his upcoming swearing-in, Hosmer shared reservations about the potential for any last-minute attempts the current board could take while an anti-RO-plant majority is still in place. In June 2017, one month before candidate filing, both the Town of Leland and Brunswick County boards passed resolutions asking H2GO to delay work on the plant until after the November 2017 election.
This time around, in September, the Town of Leland rallied town residents into signing a petition in a 10-day period to request annexation into H2GO’s sanitary district to prevent their disenfranchisement, should the Leland-H2GO utility merger go through as part of the proposed settlement agreement. It did not. Later, after Belville issued a press release hours before H2GO’s board was planning to approve the agreement at its Oct. 15 meeting, Hosmer, Laub, and Belville officials vocalized opposition to the agreement, claiming it included potentially unmanageable debt and was not beneficial to the utility.
“That would, to a casual observer, indicate that they were complicitous. That their desire to honor the upcoming will of the people was only when it worked to their benefit,” Hosmer said. “We hope that they will honor their original attitude and belief and not attempt a similar move. Particularly since the will of the people has been spoken with such a loud and overwhelming voice this year.
“This push to complete an interlocal agreement just prior to the election could be considered hypocritical in light of their previous demands that H2GO stop progress on the reverse osmosis plant prior to the election and then their previous move to fight the transfer of assets in the lame-duck period before Commissioner Beer took office,” Hosmer said. “For them now to attempt any similar move based upon their anger and their loud complaints over what happened last time would be particularly egregious.”
Hosmer said that while he’s proud of the community building that occurred in Compass Pointe during his campaign, he looks forward to serving all H2GO customers, regardless of their municipal designation. “I have already had a conversation with Mayor Bozeman of Leland and she and I have both expressed an interest at getting together across a table and talking about how H2GO and Leland can work together for the benefit of all of the citizens in northern Brunswick County and in particular to the appropriate benefit of all the customers of H2GO, no matter what community or city in which they may live.”
Given his campaign platform, he sees his new role as serving two major functions: 1) build the plant and 2) keep H2GO independent.
“[Voters] have said they want cheaper, cleaner, aquifer water processed by reverse osmosis and they want it as quickly as we can possibly get it to them. With this mandate it is our responsibility to honor that request. And that is what we will do.
“The people have also said that H2GO must continue as an independent sanitary district serving its customers, for in no other way that I can see, can we deliver on our promise to them to get this project completed in the shortest possible time.
“Generations of people will be drinking clean, industrial-contaminant-free water for decades to come,” Hosmer said Wednesday.
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