BRUNSWICK COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Comments made by the Belville mayor at a recent public meeting have stirred up new controversy in an ongoing lawsuit. Belville was sued by the neighboring Town of Leland and the local sanitary district, H2GO, in a dispute that started over a controversial reverse osmosis water treatment plant.
The comments Belville Mayor Mike Allen made during a meeting of the H2GO sanitary district board on May 21 were recorded, and attorneys familiar with the recording say it sounds as if Allen is admitting he is using the legal appeals process to avoid complying with a judge’s order.
In November 2017, voters opposed to the $30 million reverse osmosis plant went to the polls, voting in a new H2GO board which also opposed the plant. In a last ditch effort to save the controversial plant, the outgoing H2GO board voted to dissolve H2GO and sell its assets to the Town of Belville, so they could build the plant instead.
That action prompted the lawsuit.
In April, Superior Court Judge Charles Henry filed his ruling in that case, saying that the previous H2GO Board of Commissioners’ decision to dissolve the authority and convey its assets to the Town of Belville was “unlawful, void and of no effect.”
“The commissioners of both governing boards of H2GO and Belville, acting in concert, failed to act in good faith, and their actions were so clearly unreasonable as to amount to an oppressive and manifest abuse of their discretion,” Judge Henry wrote in his order, adding that H2GO was the lawful owner of all the assets in question.
The Town of Belville appealed the judge’s ruling a week later. While that is not unusual or particularly unexpected, Mayor Allen’s comments about the appeal at a recent H2GO meeting raised eyebrows.
When H2GO’s board was in a closed session during its May 21 meeting, Allen took the opportunity to speak to members of the audience who were waiting outside the closed session meeting.
According to an affidavit filed by Leland Town Attorney Joseph Dowdy, who listened to a recording of Allen’s comments at that meeting, Allen said this of the judge’s ruling:
“We got ruled against…. The only good news is that we have an appeal going…. This appeal will go beyond, way beyond, a November election. And the real fight is about putting it back into your [the voters] hands… I can promise you this: if you put the right people on that board, I will turn the assets back over the day they’re sworn in.”
H2GO Attorney Brian Eades says Allen’s comments show the true nature of the intent behind the appeal.
“Belville has the right to appeal their overwhelming loss if they have a good faith basis to do so in either law or fact. However, according to Mayor Allen’s own words, it appears Belville intends to use the appeal process to continue to hold H2GO’s assets hostage to manipulate the upcoming H2GO election…. I am astounded that Mayor Allen would make such public comments in the face of Judge Henry’s 68 page Order condemning the transaction that gave Belville title to the assets and finding that transaction illegal. Using the appeal process to continue to wrongfully and unlawfully withhold H2GO’s assets to influence an upcoming election is simply wrong and certainly not in good faith.”
When reached for comment Friday about what he said during the meeting on May 21, Mayor Allen defended himself.
“I don’t think I did anything that was out of line. In the context I was putting it in, [citizens in the audience] were asking what ifs [about the lawsuit and appeal] and I was answering,” Mayor Allen explained.
“There’s no tactic. I disagree with the way they are trying to portray it,” Allen continued. “In our country we still have freedom of speech. It was factual, there is an election coming up in November. I was trying to address their concerns, and let them know they have the right to change the board.”
Mayor Allen added that his goal remains clean and safe drinking water for the sanitary district and his town.
The affidavit memorializing Allen’s comments at the meeting, as well as a copy of the recording, were sent to Judge Henry.
The parties to this lawsuit are awaiting Judge Henry’s ruling as to whether he will enter a permanent injunction requiring Belville return the assets to H2GO. Belville has also asked the court to stay all further proceedings until the appeal is over.