On Monday, both a lawsuit and ethics complaint were filed against Forsyth County Commission Chairman Laura Semanson, but like most legal matters, there are a few ways things can go from here.
Both the lawsuit and ethics complaint against Semanson related to comments she made about the ongoing development of the former Lanier Golf Club, which closed last fall and is slated for residential development.
In the suit filed in the Superior Court of Forsyth County, Fields Farm of Forsyth, LLC, the owner of the property off Buford Dam Road, and Reid and Reid Construction, LLC, the developer, said Semanson “has engaged in an ongoing crusade to prevent development of the property in order to curry with the neighboring residents who want the property to remain a golf club.”
The suit, which was filed against Semanson in her individual capacity, alleges that her claims “were falsely and maliciously made” and her actions “interfered with and impaired the plaintiffs’ ability to satisfy contractual deadlines” related to the project among other issues.
Semanson, who represents District 5 on the commission, was first elected in 2016 and was unanimously selected as chairwoman on Jan. 3. When reached by phone after the suit was filed, Semanson said her attorneys were reviewing all the information.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages for “slander and tortious interference with contractual and business obligations” for an amount to be determined, a court order for Semanson to “cease all interference” with development of the property, damages for a yet-to-be-determined amount for constitutional violations and torts, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and expenses and “such other relief” granted by the court.
The former golf course is currently being developed to include 321 residential units made up of 71 townhomes, 155 single-family detached houses and 95 single-family residential Res-2 units.
Though the zoning decisions were made in late 2016 and early 2017, the development gained renewed interest after the club – which was built in the 1960s – closed and work began on the property.
More detailed information about the suit is available at ForsythNews.com.
Danny Bennett, with Fields Farm, who also filed the ethics complaint, expressed his displeasure with Semanson’s comments and actions toward the development in a statement to Forsyth County News and said it was “evident” Semanson “is incapable of exercising any form of diplomacy or statesmanship with regard to serving on and now chairing the County Commission.”
“In good faith, I offered a solution to her and the County that would have kept the irrigation pond intact and instead of working towards that solution to her personal problem she continued to abuse the Office of Commissioner and repeatedly requested that the County impose a ‘stop work order’ on my project even though other Commissioners and the County staff told her that there was no basis to do so,” Bennett said.
“I have followed all rules and regulations and Chairman Semanson has continually ignored that fact. She has, by creating a false narrative of misinformation about my project, jeopardized contractual obligations that my company has to fulfill and I had no other choice but to file a legal complaint against her."
What’s next for the lawsuit?
Local attorney Steven Leibel is not representing either side in the case, but answered some legal questions for Forsyth County News and said a big issue in the case will be qualified immunity, which “protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff's rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right,” according to Cornell Law School.
“As a result of the fact that she was commissioner at the time, [the plaintiffs] have a burden to say as a commissioner, Ms. Semanson acted in bad faith or with actual malice,” Leibel said. “This may be difficult. In the filing, they say that the motive was political and she was acting on behalf of the constituents. It’s an issue of public concern, it’s also an issue of political speech as well.”
Leibel said he expects that will be one of the arguments from Semanson’s attorneys.
“The first thing that is going to happen is there will be motions filed by the defense on that issue of qualified immunity, even though they sued her in her individual capacity,” he said.
Who will hear the case?
Though the case was filed in Forsyth County Superior Court, all county Superior Court judges have recused themselves from the case.
Leibel said judges in the county would not likely take the case due to the “political ramifications of the case.”
“They would probably bring the senior judge in from another county,” he said.
What about the ethics complaint?
Now that Forsyth County has received the ethics complaint, the process will begin to move towards an ethics hearing.
Though he said in an email he could not discuss the legal matters, Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard gave some information on the next steps in the process.
Jarrard said if the complaint meets the requirements of the county’s ethics code, the next step will be a blind drawing of three members – all out-of-county attorneys – to serve as members of the ethics panel which will hear the complaint.
According to the local code, as available at Municode.com, Semanson has 30 days after receiving the complaint to reply.
Within 60 days of the complaint, the panel will hold an investigatory review of evidence to determine if the complaint moves ahead. If the complaint is found to be credible, the panel will then hold a hearing “and both parties afforded an opportunity to be heard.”
A final ruling will “include written findings of fact and conclusions of law.”
For complaints brought against county officials and employees, the responder can be reimbursed for reasonable attorney’s fees up to $10,000 by the complainant.