Fight over empty seat stalls town’s government

INDIAN TRAIL – Leaders in Indian Trail were unable to move forward this week on a number of key pending issues after two members allegedly boycotted a meeting to make it impossible to appoint a new town council member through a process they disapprove of.

(Above) The Indian Trail Town Council is down one member, and filling the seat has proven to be a challenge so far as town leaders are split between appointing someone, holding a special election or accepting applications.

(Above) The Indian Trail Town Council is down one member, and filling the seat has proven to be a challenge so far as town leaders are split between appointing someone, holding a special election or accepting applications.

There’s been an empty town council seat in Indian Trail ever since David Waddell resigned in an email written in the quasi-fictional Star Trek language of Klingon in January.  Hopes to finally fill the seat Tuesday, March 25, were dashed after some town leaders say arguments over appointing David Drehs, who placed third in the 2013 town council election, led Councilman Gordon Daniels and Gary Savoie, elected ahead of Drehs in November, to boycott the meeting. Appointing someone to the seat – presumably Drehs – was one of a number of items on Tuesday’s agenda. Both Daniels and Savoie said they missed Tuesday’s meeting for personal reasons, though town leaders including Mayor Michael Alvarez pointed to a letter from the two councilmen sent hours before the meeting stating their objections to the pending appointment as a sign they skipped on purpose.

“We have to stand up and protect the rights and principles of ours voters, holding up what they wanted,” the letter stated.

Daniels has argued since January that appointing someone to the seat without opening it to applicants was not the transparent, open government people in Indian Trail desire. At least two others, who have experience serving on town boards like Drehs does, had voiced their desire to be considered for the open seat in January.

“I propose we be transparent about this, take the bias out of it, take it to the voters … and have a special election,” Daniels said on Wednesday, March 26. “What I’m hearing now is, ‘I have a favorite, you have a favorite, everyone has a favorite.’ Let’s take it out of our hands … and let voters decide” with a special election.

Town attorney Keith Merritt asked council in a meeting Jan. 14 to approve a method for filling seats when they become available in the future – not to appoint someone that night – but after a discussion about the option of always appointing the next runner-up from the last election, Councilman David Cohn went against the recommendation from counsel and motioned to appoint Drehs to the seat, knowing another vote would have to take place in February. Councilman Chris King sided with Cohn, with Daniels and Savoie instead favoring taking applications and interviewing candidates. Mayor Michael Alvarez broke the tie in favor of appointing Drehs in February.

But the February vote never happened, because of a combination of snow-canceled meetings and issue-specific special meetings, and now it’s unclear when the seat could be filled. Some on council, and some Drehs supporters, say the precedent was set in January, and Drehs should be sworn in. But Merritt, speaking again this week, said a vote has to take place now that the seat is officially open.

Daniels and Savoie skipping meetings, leaving just Cohn and King and no quorum, would effectively end the council’s ability to do business without “holding special meetings with specified unedited agenda items for the business at hand,” according to the memo sent from Daniels and Savoie to town leaders. The two cannot be forced to attend council meetings, and cannot be removed from their elected seats, according to North Carolina law.

Savoie, speaking on Wednesday, March 26, said he isn’t trying to grind town government to a halt.

“I just am hoping we can sit down and discuss it,” he said of how to fill the seat. Savoie worries the discussion in January wasn’t adequate enough to address residents’ concerns over who should represent them.

“I hear from citizens that say (appointing Drehs) is not fair,” he said. “… I was hoping we could sit down and discuss the possibility of opening it up … where Drehs could still run. … Citizens are looking at (this) and saying, ‘Listen, if we wanted David Drehs, we would have picked him’” in November.

In the memo sent from Daniels and Savoie, the two further explained their concerns over a perceived rush to appoint Drehs, who has now come up short in two town elections, to the seat.

“Remember that a vacancy on the town council is a seat for all the people in Indian Trail, that a seat on the council represents the voice for the citizens of the town,” the memo said. “This is not to be taken lightly by hastily appointing someone the voters have said in past elections they do not want.  An appointment process is against majority wishes of both the citizens and
council.”

The decision of his two fellow councilmen has King frustrated and worried vital issues the town should be voting on will now have to wait for special meetings that are carefully orchestrated to avoid allowing for the opportunity to fill the vacant seat. Tuesday night’s agenda had council scheduled to discuss the law enforcement assessment, which will decide if Indian Trail has enough Union County Sheriff’s Office deputies to keep residents safe; how to handle streets in the Bonterra neighborhood the town could assume maintenance over; the possibility of setting park and recreation fees for groups wanting to use fields at the new park; and more.

Speaking to the crowd Tuesday night, King promised town government would not be stalled for long. Speaking again on Wednesday, he said it’s vital to get Daniels and Savoie back to the table. King has called for a special meeting to be held as soon as possible to address other town issues. That meeting had not been scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon. King withdrew as a candidate for the Union County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, saying he needed to put his focus on what’s happening in Indian Trail right now.

“We haven’t accomplished one thing since January,” King said. Though he acknowledges filling the empty seat is important, King’s main concern is the pending issues that residents need answers to.

“I have to put the town first,” he said. “I understand how important the appointment is to a lot of people, but right now we’re at gridlock. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop business being conducted in Indian Trail.”

Without Daniels and Savoie in attendance, town council can’t vote on a new method of filling the seat – which could be done by application or a special election if someone isn’t automatically appointed. Daniels and Savoie said Wednesday they would attend a special called meeting if its agenda did not include the appointment. Savoie also said he’d attend a meeting if the agenda included a discussion on developing a process for how to fill open council seats – as long as it was clear no vote could be taken on actually filling the seat at the meeting.

“I’m not trying to bottleneck the town with this,” Savoie said. “I’m hoping we (can) come to a good decision.”

“I love Indian Trail … and it’s about making Indian Trail better and stronger,” Daniels said, adding he’s looking forward to sitting down with the rest of council to “figure this out … we’ve got to think about what’s right for the town.”

Alvarez, when asked before the meeting if he felt the forum would be canceled due to lack of quorum, said a meeting would happen “no matter what.” Speaking at a news conference after the forum was postponed, Alvarez vowed that Daniels and Savoie would not slow town government further than what’s already taken place.

Alvarez again confirmed his belief that breaking the tie in favor of appointing Drehs was the right choice no matter what’s happened since January. And with Alvarez on the ballot for the Union County Board of Commissioners, Indian Trail may soon be pressed to fill another seat. A method for how that should be completed may have been approved in January, depending on who you ask.

“We appointed the runner up, and the runner up should be sworn in,” Alvarez said. “There is no hazy area here … Without a doubt, (appointing Drehs) is the most transparent and constitutional thing to do. The people have spoken. They want the runner up. There is no fine line there.”

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