GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – The two Republicans seated on the Guilford County Board of Education and the man whom party leaders wanted to join them have turned to the courts to try to help their argument.
Linda Welborn, who represents District 4, and Crissy Pratt of District 2, feel they were illegally removed from the process of filling the vacant seat for District 3, into which Republican William J. Goebel was sworn in April.
Welborn, Pratt and Michael Logan, the former teacher who had been nominated for the seat by Guilford County Republican Party, filed suit in Guilford County Superior Court in late May, saying that the Democrats on the board violated the state’s open-meetings law in a complicated complaint about “serial” phone calls among those members.
Their suit named as individuals Goebel and the six Democrats on the board – Chair Deena Hayes and members Khem Irby, Bettye Jenkins, Deborah Napper, Allen Sherouse and T. Dianne Bellamy Small – but Welborn last week amended the suit to add the Guilford County School Board at large.
There was to have been a hearing on Monday for Judge Brad Long to consider a motion to dismiss filed by the attorney Michael Crowell on behalf of the school board, but because the suit was amended, that hearing was canceled.
All of this emerged because of a stunning and controversial turn of events on April 4, when the board’s Democratic majority – which for months had denied Logan’s nomination – voted to seat Goebel after the board’s attorney found a loophole in a new state law that was designed to clarify their dispute.
Attorney Jill Wilson had led the board through a slide presentation that showed the changes made through House Bill 88, which was passed in a local bill on March 15 and immediately became law. She 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, to fill the void created when Patrick Tillman was elected to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners last November. Logan, expecting otherwise, was irate and had to be removed from the meeting by police.
The basis for the lawsuit
Welborn, Pratt and Logan filed suit because, as their complaint alleges, they believe the board violated open meetings law “by holding 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.”
Logan, a 26-year automotive teacher at Southern Guilford High School, first was rejected by the board in early December because he was a vocal critic of the board, and some of its 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.
In an open letter published in the News & Record in February, Hayes, writing on behalf of the board’s six Democrats, had suggested that Republicans “put forward” candidates who had “not engaged in racially prejudiced writing, who seek to embody the values a board of Education member should hold and who have expressed an interest in representing District 3.”
That letter was at the foundation of the lawsuit that was drafted by Welborn, who isn’t an attorney, but it also 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 meetings laws
Open meetings 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.
Plaintiffs hire an attorney
Similarly, the suit also was slow to get moving. It has been assigned to Long, who is a retired judge in Randolph County Superior Court and who serves as a senior resident superior court judge, and in a hearing on June 5, he ruled that Welborn and Pratt didn’t have standing in the suit but that Logan did.
J. Michael Crowell, a Raleigh attorney who often represents the school board in litigation, moved to have the suit thrown out, which led to Monday’s scheduled hearing.
But that became a moot point, Welborn said, when she filed that amended suit. And now she has hired an attorney, former District Court judge Jon Kreider, to represent their interests.
Welborn, who had been looking for someone to help with the case, said she had known Kreider for about four years and that he remembered meeting her and agreed to take the case. She said a group of people is working to generate financial support to pay for legal expenses. The Guilford County Republican Party is not a participant in the suit.
Wilson has not responded to emailed questions from WGHP. Kreider’s office did not respond immediately, either, to an email request for comment. Welborn refers questions to Kreider and said the case when one side or another files a motion with the court.
Logan, who always is responsive when asked for his opinion, said in an email earlier this month that “the board chair and attorney with the chief of staff has willingly opened there selves [sic] and Guilford County Tax payers up to this litigation because of their actions,” he wrote in an email. “Bill Goebel has been illegally appointed by the six Democrat members of the board.
“I am proud to say I still have 100% Republican support that has expanded to more Independents and some Democrats because of their actions. A board as a public entity should be open and transparent with accountability for their actions.”
Who is Goebel?
Goebel, a self-characterized fiscal conservative Republican who lives in District 3, was chosen despite both Republicans on the board voting against him and was sworn in by a judge who was asked by Hayes to be at the meeting for that purpose.
He is the CEO of MPACT Maintenance & Reliability Solutions, which provides assessments, education and training in industrial and facility maintenance, and serves as the area president of Focus CFO NC, which works to empower small businesses. He also was appointed by NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby to serve as an adviser to a task force on Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs)-Informed Courts.
Goebel months earlier had volunteered to fill the seat and had met about the opening with Guilford County GOP Chair Chris Meadows, Logan, other Republican leaders and ultimately Hayes and Wilson, he said.
Republicans, upset that Logan had not been seated on the board and with the role they believe that Goebel had played in circumventing that process, a week later voted to censure Goebel, which is a public rebuke that has no real effect.
“Censure … is political punishment for pointing out the misdeeds of a political person,” Meadows told WGHP. “We [the GOP executive board] feel Mr. Goebel deceived the Republican Party.”
The announcement of the censure referred to Goebel as “cherry-picked” by the school board and said its two Republican members were “misled.”
Logan suggests that situations like this are why the General Assembly is seeking to expand the school voucher program for subsidizing all students who want to attend private schools. Gov. Roy Cooper has been campaigning against that expansion to all students.
“There are reasons parents are pulling children out of GCS,” he said. “There are reasons our legislators are opening opportunities for children outside public education. GCS has gotten to [sic] big and appears to be uncontrollable with a do as we will attitude.”