On May 9th WSOC broke the story that former Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain accepted a free family membership to the Northstone Country Club while she was mayor. Her actions- and response- raise questions about the ethics of elected officials accepting gifts.
On April 20th the Membership Director at Northstone Country Club emailed current Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla with an offer of a complimentary golf membership. According to Northstone’s General Manager, the membership is valued at $4900 annually:
Aneralla immediately responded that it would be inappropriate for him to accept such a gift and contacted the State Ethics Commission as well as the town attorney and town manager. As it turns out, the State Ethics Commission handles issues pertaining to state-level officials, not municipal, and they steered him to the NC Board of Election (NCSBE). (Aneralla serves on the NC State Pension Board which is within the purview of the Ethics Commission; hence contacting them was his first impulse.)
After ascertaining the appropriate investigative agency, Aneralla emailed the NCSBE on April 25. As part of his research, he also learned this little bombshell: the membership has been offered to every Huntersville Mayor since Northstone CC opened twenty years ago.
Given the above, it follows Swain was a complimentary member for her eight years as mayor, worth a total value of $39,200.
Swain was still on the membership roll, and Aneralla directed Northstone to immediately cancel the membership:
Even before the WSOC piece aired Swain began firing off a series of posts on her FB page defending her actions: she had accepted the membership as part of town business; the Board of Elections said she did nothing wrong; and she never used the membership.
Her assertions are refuted by the facts. Let’s look at them point-by-point:
Assertion 1: She was offered a town membership, not a family one:
However, the membership roster shows she has a family membership, not the town:
Further, the Membership Director offered Aneralla a “family membership”, like the previous mayor:
Assertion 2: the State Board of Elections said she has done nothing wrong:
This is refuted by the WSOC report. They contacted the SCSBE directly and an SCSBE spokesperson confirmed they are aware of the complaint and are gathering information.
Assertion 3: Northstone offers meeting space to the town in the form of membership:
It may well be that Northstone offers the town free space but her response implies that club membership was the way they did this. As proven earlier, she- not the town- held the membership. She then contradicts herself in a subsequent post where she says she never used any of the services:
As it turns out, that defense could get her into more trouble than accepting the gift in the first place. More on that in a moment.
She then pivots to attacking the journalist and making the issue “about the kids”:
And finally, she gives the contact information for the station, presumably so her supporters can vent their anger:
Sprinkled throughout are numerous counterattacks against Aneralla: competitively rebidding the Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics (HFFA) contract; his timing being a mere eight weeks before the candidate filing deadline, and a flat “Shame on Mr. Aneralla.” More on those in a moment.
So what is wrong with an elected official accepting such a gift? As it turns out, it mostly depends upon intent. Let’s start with a state statute.
GS 133-32(a) states, in part:
It shall also be unlawful for any officer or employee of a governmental agency who is charged with the duty of:
(1) Preparing plans, specifications, or estimates for public contracts; or
(2) Awarding or administering public contracts; or
(3) Inspecting or supervising construction
willfully to receive or accept any such gift or favor.
The “gift or favor” refers to an offering made by a contractor, subcontractor or supplier. It’s unclear if Northstone has ever done business with the town of Huntersville, and it would be difficult if not impossible to prove their membership induced any favorable treatment from Swain.
It’s a plausible defense, of course, but the best course of action would be to never have to defend it in the first place, i.e. do what Aneralla did and reject the offer outright.
The Huntersville Code of Conduct Section 3 (e) contains a similar provision:
(e) Gifts. No Town official or member of his immediate household shall directly or indirectly solicit, accept or receive any gift having a value exceeding $50.00 whether in the form of money, services, loan, travel entertainment, hospitality, thing or promise, or any other form, under circumstances in which it could reasonably be inferred that the gift was intended to influence him or could reasonably be expected to influence him in the performance of his official duties, or was intended as a reward for an official action on his part. (emphasis added)
Again, it would appear that accepting a gift of any value would be acceptable a long as it did not influence the official receiving it. That’s a weakness in both statutes- it would basically allow a town commissioner to accept a corporate jet as a gift so long as they were not influenced. Perhaps subsequent revisions with strengthen the language.
But ironically Swain’s own defense may be the most incriminating. As shown earlier, she insists the membership was for performing normal town functions. But accepting a gift as part of one’s normal duties violates state law 132A-32(h):
(h) A covered person or legislative employee shall not accept an honorarium from a source other than the employing entity for conducting any activity where any of the following apply:
(1) The employing entity reimburses the covered person or legislative employee for travel, subsistence, and registration expenses.
(2) The employing entity’s work time or resources are used.
(3) The activity would be considered official duty or would bear a reasonably close relationship to the covered person’s or legislative employee’s official duties.
Thus, accepting such compensation as part of normal town business (i.e. meeting space) violates the statute.
In a vacuum Swain’s response makes little sense. Defending herself would be a natural reaction, but why smear the current mayor? Why mention the candidate filing deadline? Why question the timing, as if Aneralla had any control over receiving an unsolicited email? Why mention the Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics (HFFA) contract at all?
The only plausible explanation is that Swain plans to run for Mayor again. So let’s put her accusations in context.
Swain lost her bid for a fifth term as mayor to Aneralla in November 2015 by twenty points. Aneralla carried every precinct including the one where Swain lives. The town board also flipped, and Aneralla’s victory was widely seen as a referendum on the I-77 toll lanes.
Swain’s support for private toll lanes put her in opposition with the anti-toll group Widen I-77, and with some of her own board. In one instance she fired off an email to the entire NC legislature apologizing for a commissioner’s request to review the toll contract.
Candidates need an issue (or issues) to run on, and since being on the wrong side of the toll issue she has taken to making an issue of the HFFA contract.
When the HFFA opened in 2002 the management fee was $30,000 per year. It was managed by Davidson-based Health & Sports Works (HSW). For the next fifteen years the board renewed HSW’s contract without ever putting it up for bid.
In October 2015, eight months before the contract was up for renewal, the board -with Swain’s support- voted 4-2 to approve the new contract. HSW fees had exploded to $183,564. During public comments, then-candidate Aneralla requested the board put the contract out for competitive bid for the first time in over a decade.
Aneralla mentioned at least one citizen in the room would like the opportunity to bid. That citizen, as it turned out, had donated $1000 to Aneralla’s campaign back in July 2015.
Fast forward to the March 9, 2017 town board meeting when the board decided to put the contract out for bid. During public comments, now-citizen Swain all but accused Aneralla of bribery. With her current rhetoric it’s clear Swain intends to make this a campaign issue.
The problem, though, is that the town put the contract out for RFQ… and are currently considering four bids. This is the way it should have been managed all along.
So if there is an issue, it is with the conduct of the previous board and mayor.
Jill Swain dot com
But there’s another issue a bit closer to home. Below is a screen shot of jillswain.com, accessed May 14, 2017. Note that it proclaims, rather boldly, that she is the Mayor of Huntersville:
A charitable assessment would be this is a campaign website that was never closed down. A stricter interpretation would be this violates NC GS 14-277(e) which states:
(e) It shall be unlawful for any person other than duly authorized employees of a county, a municipality or the State of North Carolina, including but not limited to, the Department of Social Services, Health, Area Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Authority or Building Inspector to represent to any person that they are duly authorized employees of a county, a municipality or the State of North Carolina…
However one interprets it, if she does file it will be interesting to see if voters are willing to look past the baggage it looks like she is currently collecting.