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Landis alderman endorsements may violate state statute

LANDIS — At the Oct. 7 Landis Board of Aldermen meeting, Alderman Seth Moore used his comment time to endorse candidates for town offices in the November election.

He told fellow board members and residents at the meeting and watching through a live-stream that he was endorsing Meredith Smith for mayor and Katie Sells and Ashley Stewart for the Board of Aldermen.

Mayor Mike Mahaley, Mayor Pro Tem Tommy Garver and Tony Corriher announced their support for Alderman Bobby Brown to be the next mayor and Darrell Overcash for alderman. Mahaley and Corriher also said they would support Shirley Martin as a write-in candidate.

But a state law says: “A municipality shall not use public funds to endorse or oppose a referendum, election or a particular candidate for elective office.”

Frayda Bluestein, a public law and government professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says in a blog post that governing board members should not use personal time at a board meeting to endorse a candidate who is running for that board.

“It seems to me that using the council meeting to endorse a candidate might violate the broader statute, which prohibits the use of ‘public funds’ to support or oppose a candidate,” Bluestein said. “Although political use of meeting time does not literally involve use of funds, the public meeting involves the use of public resources — buildings, staff and, in some cases, live-streaming — that are publicly funded, and for that reason campaigning at the meeting would be prohibited.”

Moore said he was aware of the statute before he made his endorsements but, in his opinion, he and the other board members are allowed to use their comment time to announce support for other candidates.  

Moore said he didn’t go out of his way to endorse the candidates at the meeting using public funds and resources. He said his comments were less than the time allotted for public comment.

“I have nothing to gain from the endorsement,” Moore said.

Moore said he initially planned to wait until the board’s Nov. 4 meeting for endorsements. But the board voted to move that meeting to after the election on Nov. 5. The next meeting will be Nov. 18.

Moore said he planned to use the public-comment time to make his endorsement but he had not signed up for that before the cut-off.

Bluestein says public comment is for the public, not for members of the board, and that part of the meeting is still supported by public resources.

Moore said he felt he had an obligation to tell others who he thought would be the best fit and hope that the other board members would show their support, especially since there are rumors about a write-in candidate, later identified as Shirley Martin.

Moore said he would defend other board members for using their comment time for endorsements.

Landis Town Attorney Rick Locklear said the statute says it’s not something recommended and that it was put in place to prevent a town board from using public money to sway a bond referendum one way or another.

The laws that prohibit the use of public resources to endorse a candidate or issue don’t include specific remedies or penalties, Bluestein said.

Locklear agreed it’s not grounds for a board member to be removed from office.

Mayoral candidate Mark Connell has started a petition that says, because the board members violated the statute, they should resign or be relieved of office immediately.

He said the petition is about integrity and that the endorsements were unethical.

Additionally, in the petition, Connell said the next two town board meetings should be moved back to the first Monday of the month. Connell said he believes the board’s purpose in moving the meeting dates is to manipulate the election and give the current board the opportunity to appoint whoever they want if they don’t like the election results.

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