GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – A Republican candidate for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners has filed an election complaint about how the county positioned and distributed information about the school bond referendum that is on the ballot for the Primary Election.
An attorney for Alan Branson, a former member of the board running this year for an at-large seat under the name “Jerry Alan Branson,” sent a letter to county and state elections officials to suggest that the county had broken state election law by appearing to endorse the $1.7 billion referendum for school construction and raised concerns about “the legitimacy of the referenda and enforceability of bonds that might later be issued.”
The Board of Commissioners in December 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 has a referendum to add a quarter of a cent to the sales tax to pay for immediate school construction.
In a letter dated April 27 – the day before early, in-person voting began across North Carolina – to Chair Jim Kimel and members of the Gilford County Board of Elections, attorney Charles Winfree wrote that the county was “expending taxpayer funds and other government resources to promote a viewpoint favoring the passage of both referenda.”
In his letter, Winfree suggested on behalf of Branson 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.
Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt confirmed that timing and said he had received the letter and that he had “informed election board members about the document.”
He said ultimately a review of the complaint would be up to the board to put on its agenda for a future meeting. The board next will meet at 2 p.m. on May 3 and then again at 2 p.m. on May 10. He said May 3 was the earliest the matter could be taken up by the board. Voting concludes on May 17.
The letter was copied to the NC BOE, and spokesperson Patrick Gannon said the board had received Winfree’s letter and its specifics about state statutes.
“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. “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. See G.S. 163-278.22(7) and the Campaign Finance Complaint Form. We have reached out to Mr. Winfree regarding the requirements of campaign finance complaints.”
Branson said in a follow-up he is 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.
“Who is is paying for the mailers, the signage on the streets, the flyers they are handing out?” he said. “Who is paying staff to put on the website? Is it Guilford County Schools through a slush fund? Is it the board of commissioners? We are going to get to the bottom of it. I’ve been around. I know how this game is played”
Questions sent to a spokesperson for Guilford County government drew no immediate response, but Guilford County Schools did issue a statement about its conversations with employees.
“As a school district, we have a responsibility to inform and educate our parents, staff, and community on issues that impact GCS’ 70,000 students, and our nearly 10,000 faculty and staff members,” GSC Chief of Staff Rebecca Kaye said in an email to WGHP.
“We expect building leaders to share relevant information about the school bond with their school communities just as we expect them to share information regarding school nutrition programs, Title I programming, the US census, school transportation, college and dual enrollment opportunities, and other pertinent issues that impact our children. And just as we did in 2020, we have provided training to principals on the appropriate, legal guidelines for sharing school bond referendum information.
“We are grateful for the involvement of staff, parents, and community members in informing and educating the community about the many facilities needs of the Guilford County schools.”
GOP supports the move
David Gleeson, chair of the Guilford County Republican Party, said in an emailed response to questions from WGHP that this action was filed by Branson but that “we do support his complaint.”
He said the “evidence of potential violations was discovered this past weekend,” which is why the complaint was filed so near to the start of voting. He said he couldn’t comment about any actions that could result after the election.
Branson served 8 years on the Board of Commissioners when it was a Republican majority. He lost to Democrat Mary Beth Murphy by 72 votes in 2020, when Democrats swept four seats and seized the majority. He is facing Republican Alvin Robinson in the primary, and incumbent Democrat Kay Cashion is facing Greg Drumwright.
When the bond was voted to be placed on the ballot, the two commissioners to oppose it were Republicans Justin Conrad and Alan Perdue. In a release distributed Wednesday night with a copy of the letter, Gleeson said that, “while Republican officials are supportive of upgrades to the county schools, the current proposed $1.7 billion bond issue is ill conceived and unwarranted. … The current School Board has proven they are not good stewards of the taxpayers’ money!”
Branson’s complaint letter doesn’t mention the school board but does address the wording of entries on a page on Guilford County’s website that provides information about the bonds. It says the website “downplays the costs of the bond. There is no discussion of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the County would be obligated to pay and other costs associated with the issuance of the bonds.” The letter describes the direct-mail pieces as “electioneering” but does not say who paid for the pieces.
There also is a complaint that the description of the second schools-based referendum, which is to add .25 of a cent to the sales tax. The county would direct that revenue – roughly $300 million is projected – to school construction, and commissioners voted April 7 on a resolution that states, should the measure pass, they would lower property tax rates.
Branson’s complaint is that the website doesn’t explain that because property values have risen – Gleeson’s release said by 17.8% – that property taxes would decline anyway because of laws that cap them based on dollars. “This omission further demonstrates the unbalanced presentation being made by Guilford County,” Branson’s letter says.
Asked if adjustments in verbiage on the website would ameliorate Branson’s (and the GOP’s) concerns, Gleeson said that “there would have to be a significant change on the county’s website. This still does not address the potential violations.”