GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – The Guilford County Board of Elections on Tuesday found no probable cause to hold a hearing about whether Guilford County officials had broken election laws in communicating about the school bond referendum voters passed last month.
The complaint, filed formally on June 1 by Jerry Alan Branson, a former member of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, was found in a 3-2 vote not to be worthy of a hearing or passing along to the North Carolina Board of Elections, which ultimately would have had to determine the remedy for the situation.
“The protestor has an option to appeal,” Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said after the meeting.
Branson said later in a phone call to WGHP that he was weighing his options to move forward with an appeal. He said there should be a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Branson wanted the board ultimately to find that election law was violated, to throw out the vote and to order a new election concerning the $1.7 billion bond referendum for new and rebuilt schools that voters overwhelming approved on May 17.
Branson, who is the Republican nominee for the at-large seat on the Board of Commissioners, in April had sent a letter to county and state elections officials to suggest that the county had broken state election law by appearing to endorse the bond and raised concerns about “the legitimacy of the referenda and enforceability of bonds that might later be issued.”
The bond earned nearly 60% of the vote, but Branson’s attorney, Phillip Thomas, argued during the hearing Tuesday that the margin was “only 16,000 votes” – the actual final count was 45,639-29,577 – and asked that was close enough that the board could order a new election.
He told the board there are questions about how the bond referendum was marketed and how it was promoted and questioned whether staff hours at the county government and county school system level were used in marketing/promotions of the referendum. He argued, as an example, that the massive emails sent out by the county and school board were direct violations of election law.
State board matter?
But this meeting was not about considering such evidence but instead to determine whether a hearing should be held to consider those matters. Board member Kathryn Lindley pointed out that even if the county board were to find probable cause and even hold a hearing that the matter then would have to be referred to the state board, which is the only body that could call for a new election.
The board, she said, also could skip the hearing and simply find cause and send the matter to the state, but the board voted to end the matter entirely.
NC Board of Elections spokesperson Patrick Gannon had said in April that the complaint “would not fall under the jurisdiction of the boards of elections.”
“Any alleged violations of Chapter 153A of the General Statutes, regarding the limitations on the authority of county governments, would not fall under the jurisdiction of the boards of elections,” the board said in a statement shared by Gannon. “To the extent the complaint involves allegations of campaign finance violations which would fall within the jurisdiction of the boards of elections, North Carolina law requires such complaints to be filed with specific information that is not included in the letter.”
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners in December had voted, 7-2, to place on the ballot a $1.7 billion bond to cover the cost of rebuilding, replacing and repairing a laundry list of crumbling school facilities. The county also had a referendum to add a quarter of a cent to the sales tax to pay for immediate school construction, but that tax failed on May 17.
Branson’s original letter Guilford BOE Chair Jim Kimel and members of the board had said the county was “expending taxpayer funds and other government resources to promote a viewpoint favoring the passage of both referenda.”
His letter said that:
- The county was violating state election law by presenting “unbalanced” information that failed to disclose public costs for interest on the bonds and to explain that a reduction in property tax to offset the quarter-cent sales tax should have explained that tax values likely would rise even as the rate declined.
- That the county had spent taxpayers’ dollars on a direct mailing that appeared to promote the passage of the bond, which, he argued, would violate state law against government bodies spending money to promote a political agenda.
- That Guilford County Schools had rallied school principals and teachers in an attempt to generate their support for the bonds even if they might not personally support the referendum.
Branson said at the time that he was concerned about who is paying for the promotion of the bond referendum and how many of the taxpayers’ dollars might be going into the effort.