GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – The judge hearing a lawsuit brought by two Republicans on the Guilford County Board of Education and the man party leaders want to join them has asked for more information before ruling on a motion by the defendants to dismiss the case.
Linda Welborn, who represents District 4, and Crissy Pratt of District 2, have sued because they feel that the six Democrats on the board conducted illegal meetings to create a path for Republican William J. Goebel to fill the opening in District 3 for which party leaders had nominated retired teacher Michael Logan.
Judge Brad Long during a hearing Thursday in Guilford County Superior Court asked the plaintiffs’ attorney, former District Court judge Jon Kreider, and J. Michael Crowell, a Raleigh attorney representing the school board, to submit copies from the actual cases they had cited in arguing Crowell’s motion to dismiss.
Welborn said later that because there were so few cases approaching the basis for their suit and that many of them that lawyers used were from out-of-state courts, Long wanted the documents to review.
She said there was no clear timetable for when the judge might rule on the motion or schedule another hearing. “The good news,” she said, “was that we’re still standing.”
Welborn, Pratt and Logan are arguing that Democrats on the board violated the state’s open-meetings law in a complicated complaint about “serial” phone calls.
Their suit names as individuals Goebel and those six Democrats – Chair Deena Hayes and members Khem Irby, Bettye Jenkins, Deborah Napper, Allen Sherouse and T. Dianne Bellamy Small – and the Guilford County School Board at large.
Goebel said in a text message that he did not attend Thursday’s hearing and didn’t know what happened.
Logan, a 26-year automotive teacher at Southern Guilford High School, was nominated by the Guilford County Republican Party to fill the void created this past November, when Patrick Tillman was elected to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
But the board first rejected Logan in early December because some members accused him of insensitivity and “divisive opinions” in social media posts. They subsequently voted four times to reject his nomination, each vote along party lines.
The suit emerged after a surprising and controversial turn of events on April 4, when the board’s Democrats voted to seat Goebel, another volunteer for the position, after their attorney found a loophole in a new state law that was designed to clarify their dispute.
House Bill 88 had been passed in a local bill on March 15 and immediately became law. Board attorney Jill Wilson said that law required the full Guilford County Republican executive committee to nominate the person to fill the opening on the board within 30 days after the opening.
But, she said, all correspondence with the board since Dec. 7, when the position officially became open, was from the “District 3” members of the committee, which, she said, invalidated those nominations.
After her presentation, Bellamy-Small nominated Goebel – who had volunteered to be considered – and the board elected him, 6-2, Logan was irate and had to be removed from the meeting in handcuffs.
Delay among lawmakers
All of this has been complicated, too, because the General Assembly idled for more than a month and thus was unable to approve yet another law designed to push Logan onto the board.
On June 28, the North Carolina House passed an amendment to an unrelated local bill from the Senate, Senate Bill 9, that was designed by Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) – the author of the aforementioned HB 88 – to intervene in a dispute about the process for filling the seat and require Goebel to be replaced.
But “Local Omnibus Bill” SB 9, described as “an act to allow the Apex Town Council and mayor to make appointments and vote on certain matters” including some other jurisdictions such as the Guilford County school board, is required to be approved in concurrence by the Senate, and that vote hasn’t occurred and won’t for at least another week and more likely later in August.
Barring some unexpected ruling by Long, that would mean that Goebel would fill his same seat when the school board next meets at 5 p.m. on Aug. 15, about two weeks before the new school year begins.
The basis for the suit
Welborn, Pratt and Logan say in their suit that the other board members held “a series of unauthorized, serial, and secret telephone calls. The intent of these secret telephone calls was to brief the Democratic members of the BOE of a plan to appoint Defendant William Goebel to represent District 3 in lieu of appointing Plaintiff Logan to the BOE.”
The suit cites conversations among Hayes, Goebel and Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Jose Oliva that led to Goebel’s nomination. The complaint also lists phone conversations among the Democrats on the board – but not Welborn or Pratt – to discuss how this process would work.
The suit alleges that a nomination for Goebel could not be legal unless “a quorum of five board members would have to agree to support Mr. Goebel’s nomination.” The suit suggests that the phone calls arranged such a quorum and thus violated the meetings law.
Plaintiffs also suggest that the process by which Hayes considered the nomination process during the meeting on April 4 violated their opportunity to “participate” in that vote because it limited comment.
Open meeting laws typically regard a gathering of a quorum of members, either in person or by digital means – such as a conference call or Zoom-type meeting. It specifies “a meeting, assembly, or gathering at any time or place or the simultaneous communication by conference telephone or other electronic means of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations, or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business within the jurisdiction, real or apparent, of the public body.
However, a social meeting or other informal assembly or gathering of the members of a public body does not constitute an official meeting unless called or held to evade the spirit and purposes of this Article.”
It’s that loophole about “spirit and purposes” that Welborn’s suit seeks to address. WGHP reached out to several attorneys and government experts about the meetings law to seek comment and insight, but no one responded to those questions.