Wednesday, April 17, 2024

H2GO Commissioner files protest for utility’s election, citing Town of Belville and its mayor’s alleged interference

Outgoing H2GO Commissioner Trudy Trombley, who did not seek re-election this year, filed an election protest for H2GO’s election citing alleged misconduct of Belville’s mayor. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Outgoing Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO Commissioner Trudy Trombley filed a formal complaint protesting the utility’s recent election, citing the alleged improper use of public funds when the Town of Belville and Mayor Mike Allen weighed in on the H2GO election via a town-issued press release.

Brunswick County Board of Elections will review Trombley’s election protest in a preliminary consideration procedure Friday.

Related: Did Belville violate state law by endorsing some H2GO candidates, accusing others of lying?

If the board establishes probable cause that irregularities or misconduct described in the complaint occurred, the protest will move ahead to a second stage of review, which would be comprised of a formal quasi-judicial hearing.

At a formal hearing, the Board of Elections must find substantial evidence that the alleged irregularity or misconduct impacted the contested election’s result.

Any candidate or registered voter may file an election protest. The act of filing an election protest does not prove guilt or innocence — it simply initiates a formal review process.

Reached Tuesday, Commissioner Trombley said though she checked a box on the complaint indicating she seeks relief in the form of a new election that she did not mean to do so. Trombley said she does not believe Belville’s Oct. 28 press release impacted the outcome of the election and that she only seeks public censure, fines, and apologies from the town and its contracted spokesperson.

I don’t think it would make a difference,” Trombley said of the possibility of a new election. “I don’t feel that would be in the best interest of H2GO.”

“I think there has to be some repercussions,” she said. “Otherwise Belville is going to continue to thumb their nose at the judicial system.”

Brunswick County Board of Elections Director Sara Knotts said the board’s forthcoming review of the complaint will rely on input from Bryan Batton, the county’s assistant attorney. At this stage, the board is not required to notify parties named in the protest.

Guidelines for preliminary consideration reviews encourage county boards to initially only consider the allegations in the protest itself while establishing probable cause, a “relatively low bar,” according to the guidelines, that indicates the possibility of actual violations.

Knotts said she has reached out to the State Board of Elections for guidance, given the possible lack of jurisdiction her board may have in reviewing the specific allegation listed in the complaint.

“There’s so much in the law,” Knotts said Tuesday. “None of us are attorneys.”

The press release

Belville’s press release appears to run contrary to General Statute § 160A-499.3, which states: “A municipality shall not use public funds to endorse or oppose a referendum, election or a particular candidate for elective office.”

This specific statute is categorized under an Article entitled, “Miscellaneous” that applies to local government units and is not considered an election law.

Provided details of this matter, State Board of Elections spokesperson Patrick Gannon said his team is not immediately aware of any applicable election laws. (In the event Brunswick County Board of Elections sustains Trombley’s protest in a second hearing after establishing probable cause, the State Board of Elections would only weigh in if the decision is appealed).

The week before Election Day, the Town of Belville issued a press release endorsing a team of two H2GO candidates and denouncing the other pair of candidates. Though the release was attributed to Mayor Allen, it was shared with the approval of Belville’s full board.

Belville’s public information officer, Mike McGill of WaterPIO, is employed by the town on a contractual basis, paid for out of the town’s general fund, according to the town’s administrator.

The release contained heated characterizations and assertions, including claims that purportedly showed incumbent H2GO Chairman Jeff Gerken and his running mate John Bradley’s “willingness to lie to their customers to get elected.” It also bargains that the town will drop its pending appeal in the long-running H2GO lawsuit if a new board is elected and give H2GO its assets back.

The complaint

Commissioner Trombely, who did not seek re-election this year, filed the election protest two days after Election Day. Where the protest form asks the complainant to cite any relevant statute, Trombley wrote “160A-490.3,” likely a reference to 160A-499.3, the statute University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government distinguished professor of public law and government, Frayda Bluestein, provided Port City Daily when asked if a town could endorse a political campaign.

In the protest, Trombley lists individuals as parties who she may call as witnesses to substantiate her complaint should it move forward, including: Jeff Gerken, John Bradley, Leland Councilwoman Pat Batleman, the husband of Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman, and Port City Daily.

Trombley said she misunderstood this section to mean these parties would simply be aware of the release, and said she planned to remove several names, including Batleman’s and Jim Bozeman.

In an emailed statement, McGill said Belville has no further comment at this time, other than to point out that key sections of the protest were not filled out. This includes questions 12 and 13, which ask the complainant whether any person or entity requested them to file the protest and if they’ve received financial or other promised benefit in exchange for filing the protest (view the election protest in its entirety at the bottom of this article).

Legal background

Since December 2017, Belville has technically held the title to all of H2GO’s assets as a result of a quickly and secretively conducted utility transfer that a specially-appointed judge ruled illegal, null, and void in April. Belville is appealing the order which was stayed pending the outcome of the appeal. Superior Court Judge Charles Henry sided with the Town of Leland, which sued Belville after H2GO’s outgoing Commissioners transferred all of the utility’s $60 million assets to Belville at their last regular meeting.

The April order concluded that H2GO’s 2017 outgoing Commissioners and then-Belville Commissioners violated state ethics law by orchestrating the transfer. Officials who participated in the transfer maintained their actions were taken to “save” the partially-constructed H2GO reverse osmosis plant that was at risk of being stopped with the election of the third-placing finisher, Bill Beer, whose seat swung the utility board’s power 3-2 in opposition to the plant.

In June, Judge Henry issued a provisional ruling that sided with Leland’s request for a permanent injunction that would require Belville to transfer the assets back, but that ruling is stayed due to the pending appeal.

Political background

On Election Day, both Bradley and Chairman Gerken lost their election bids by an uncontestable margin of several hundred votes to newcomer challengers Steve Hosmer and Barry Laub. Hosmer and Laub’s election will bring a 4-1 power shift to H2GO’s board, with all but one Commissioner supportive of building the plant. Both incoming Commissioners have shared sentiments of understanding Belville’s 2017 actions and support the town’s shared objective of completing the plant (in Laub’s candidate interview, he described the Town’s move as a “heroic feat” that Mayor Mike Allen deserves a “medal of honor” for).

McGill shared the release — a rebuttal of a rebuttal — with the town’s media list Oct. 28. Asked to explain why it was legal, McGill said its purpose was to correct factual misstatements made by Chairman Gerken’s analysis to Belville’s Oct. 15 press release. That release was shared hours before H2GO’s Commissioners meeting when the board was planning to approve a proposed settlement agreement that could end the lawsuit (if all three parties and the court approved it).

Belville claimed the proposed agreement included unrelated annexation provisions for the Town of Leland and would have handicapped H2GO by loading it with debt, rendering it unable to complete the reverse osmosis plant. Gerken disagreed and stated in an analysis of the release that it was full of false claims.

All three parties have informally and formally denied requests to obtain a copy of the proposed agreement, which would help vet out the slew of press releases and claims about it.

Read Commissioner Trombley’s election protest, filed Nov. 7, below:

Trombley Election Protest by Johanna Ferebee on Scribd

Read the Oct. 28 Belville press release in question below:

Local Voice Mail – Statemen… by Johanna Ferebee on Scribd

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