Who’s Behind Lawsuit Leading to Commissioner Dismissal? - TribPapers

Who’s Behind Lawsuit Leading to Commissioner Dismissal?

Photo by Mari Helin.

Woodfin The settlement of a lawsuit by three Woodfin citizens against the town has resulted in the loss of a commissioner and, according to the commissioner unseated, was initiated by newly elected commissioners on the board. The town announced the settlement of the lawsuit Wednesday (Feb. 9). 

This loss now means that the town has two new commissioners after Wednesday night. The Board approved the appointment of two new commissioners Wednesday night at a specially called meeting. Judy Butler and Elizabeth Ervin are filling the open seats.

What happened?

According to a release from the Town, “the Town of Woodfin’s regular monthly Board of Commissioners meeting on October 19, 2021, was held as a remote meeting to conduct official Town business and fill a vacancy on the Town’s Board of Commissioners with one commissioner attending remotely and three other commissioners attending in person.” Because of the one commissioner attending remotely, the town was under state “statutes governing remote meetings during a declaration of emergency due to the pandemic.” The release goes on to say, “It was conducted by voice vote rather than the statutorily required roll call vote and that Board Member Hensley did not identify himself at the beginning of the meeting and only after voting on the motion to appoint Ms. Stoker to fill the vacancy. The appointment of Theresa Stoker to the vacant Commission seat is thereby voided.”

On December 21, the Town Board of Commissioners discussed the suit in closed session and determined it was in the best interest of the town to authorize the settlement of the suit. The settlement specifies that “the Board’s vote to appoint Ms. Theresa Stoker to fill the vacancy on the Board in October was done in violation of the state law because it was conducted by voice vote rather than the statutorily required roll call vote and that Hensley did not identify himself at the beginning of the meeting…The appointment of Theresa Stoker to the vacant Commission seat is thereby voided.”

The release thanked “Stoker for her service and willingness to serve the Town as a member of its Board of Commissioners. Theresa is a longtime resident of the Town and has dedicated many hours over the years in service as Chairperson of the Town’s Planning Board and as a member of the Planning and Zoning Board of Adjustment.”

Commissioner Teresa Stoker takes oath of office. Photo by Clint Parker.

Stoker claims two commissioners behind lawsuit

Stoker applied to be appointed again, but she was not selected. Asked about being let go and not chosen again to serve on the board, Stoker said, “That was devastating.” However, she says it was “the process on how that occurred is what bothers me” and she suspects that “two of the commissioners sought out people in the community to file the lawsuit.”

Stoker said she was honored when asked to serve on the commissioner board. A longtime member of the Planning and Zoning Board and also serving as chair of the board, she said she was “quite shocked when the lawsuit was filed and quite shocked when I was not allowed to participate in the decision to accept the terms of the lawsuit.” 

She went on to say, “I felt like two or three commissioners were trying to re-align the board and they did.” Asked who those commissioners were, Stoker said, McAllister and Eric Edgerton. “They even met with a dear friend of mine and asked him to file the lawsuit…but he wouldn’t do it saying, ‘She is a friend of mine.'”

Commissioners respond to claim

Asked about the allegation, McAllister told the Tribune he had nothing to do with the lawsuit. “I heard that a group of people had approached John Noor’s firm about suing.” Asked if he was friends with Ervin or Butler, McAllister said, “I did not meet Ms. Ervin before interviews, but I have worked with Judy Butler on neighborhood projects – she lives in a neighborhood adjacent to mine and I followed her work with MANNA while I was [congressional candidate] Moe Davis’ Treasurer.”

Asked if he had approached Stoker’s friend about joining the lawsuit, McAllister said, “If you are referring to…Theresa’s friend, no, I did not ask him that. I let him know early on that rumors were intensifying about the town being sued as potentially an attempt to challenge her appointment in an attempt to keep her from being embarrassed. This is a nothing-burger,” he added.

The “friend” of Stoker, who wished to remain anonymous, responded to the Tribune, saying, “I have no intention of getting involved in this mess. I have been misquoted. And, worse, alleged to have said things I did not say.” He further stated, “Jim McAllister did not try to enlist me as a plaintiff in the proposed lawsuit.” Disavowing what Stoker told the newspaper.

Edgerton was also asked about what, if any, part did he play in seeking residents to file the lawsuit, which led to Commissioner Stoker’s dismissal from the board? “You may recall that, two days after Ms. Stoker’s appointment, four of the candidates for the Woodfin Town Commission held a candidate forum at the Woodfin Community Center. At this forum, I specifically noted that the Town Board had violated North Carolina open meetings laws in the course of appointing Ms. Stoker. My comments were picked up by the Citizen-Times in a story it ran the next day…It was no mistake that I publicly called out the Town’s violation of the open meetings laws during a forum attended predominantly by persons who were already outraged by the Town’s conduct. I did so with the specific hope that someone would recognize that those legal violations created an opportunity to judicially remove Ms. Stoker from the Town Commission.” He admitted, “Whether my comments were a direct cause of the lawsuit, I cannot say for certain, however it was certainly my hope that they would be acted upon.”

Asked if he was instrumental and helped initiate this lawsuit to file?; If it was ethical to vote during the selection, seeing that he may have had a conflict of interest? 

Edgerton replied, “No. Setting aside for the moment that my public comments regarding the Board’s violation of North Carolina open meetings laws occurred before I was elected, the fact that I made those comments does not come remotely close to creating a conflict of interest under North Carolina law. Specifically, NCGS § 160A-75(a) establishes that commissioners may only be excused from voting on matters in which they have a direct and personal financial interest. In short, not only was there no conflict of interest in my considering the settlement of the subject lawsuit, I actually had an affirmative legal obligation to vote on the same. That is equally true of the vote to appoint replacement commissioners.”

Asked if he were friends with either Butler or Ervin, Edgerton said, “No. Ms. Butler lives in the same neighborhood as my parents, but that is the closest connection I have to either of the new commissioners.”

The Tribune sent similar questions to Commissioner Hazel Thorton who did not respond to our request.

One plaintiff speaks out

Woodfin resident Jeff Feist was one of the residents on the lawsuit to remove Stoker from the board. Feist admitted to the Tribune that he was extremely frustrated with the lack of response to some of his concerns.

Feist moved to Woodfin in 2021 from Candler and began communicating with the board about town issues. 

He got involved in town government by applying to be on the board of adjustment. He was selected to the board but resigned the day after his first meeting. 

“There were some glaring problems that caused me to resign the next day after the meeting. One was the required notice that was posted for the meeting at one of the sites had the wrong location where the public meeting was going to be held,” explained Feist.

He denies that anyone asked him to file the suit. Instead, he said he approached Attorney John Noors at a meeting. Noors would eventually become his attorney in the case against Woodfin. He says he asked Noors, “John, what can I do?” He said Noors started digging and went back and watched the meeting where Stoker was appointed and saw the error. He added that Noors said they needed more than just one citizen for the lawsuit, and he would start looking. According to Feist, that’s how the lawsuit started.

Editor’s note: See related commentary page 15

Timeline Recap:

Aug. – Commissioner Don Honeycutt announces his resignation, citing health reasons.

Oct. – Theresa Stoker appointed by voice vote with a commissioner meeting where at least one commissioner attended remotely

Nov. – Three new commissioners were elected by the citizens – Jim McAllister, Eric Edgerton and Hazel Thorton.

Dec. – Commissioner Jim Angel resigns due to health reasons.

Feb. 9 – Suit filed by three Woodfin residents settled in part by voiding Theresa Stokers’ appointment to the commission board.

Feb. 10 –  Board voted 3-1 to appoint Judy Butler and Elizabeth Ervin to commissioner board.

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