Huntersville mayor dodges question over handling of town contract with campaign donor

HUNTERSVILLE, NC (WBTV) - Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla sat for an interview with WBTV this week about a contract awarded by the town to a longtime friend and political donor in July.

But Aneralla didn't want to answer all of the questions, frequently repeating the same line or dodging the question altogether.

WBTV began investigating the recent change in management at the Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics center after a call to the WBTV tip line.

The Huntersville Board of Commissioners voted to terminate a contract with the company that had been operating the HFFA for years during a specially-called meeting in July.

The previous contract had been renewed by the previous Huntersville Board of Commissioners months before the 2015 election and was set to expire in 2021.

The board voted to hire Swim Club Management Group to operate the HFFA. Aneralla described the contract as being worth $1 million over a five-year period.

The newly-hired company is owned by Brian Sheehan, who Aneralla said he has known since Sheehan was a teenager.

"(Sheehan) has been a long-term friend of mine since he was a teenager and has contributed to other campaigns that I have run in the past," Aneralla said in his interview with WBTV.

Campaign finance records show Sheehan's last campaign contribution to Aneralla came in August 2015, just months before Aneralla won his bid for mayor.

Records show Sheehan donated $1,000 to the campaign. Aneralla is unopposed for a second term in the 2017 municipal election.

"You know, people donate to campaigns for all types of reasons," Aneralla said when asked whether his Sheehan's long-time friendship and political donations gave an appearance of a conflict of interest.

In its vote on July 11, the board approved a preliminary contract with SCMG provided by the company with its bid.

After the vote, town staff began negotiating with Sheehan on the terms of a revised contract.

A review of text messages and emails obtained by WBTV through a public records request show other members of the Huntersville Board of Commissioners helped Sheehan obtain contract terms favorable to his company after the board voted to hire Swim Club Management Group to operate the HFFA.

Commissioner Dan Boone sent a text message to Sheehan on August 18 regarding the status of contract negotiations between SCMG and the town.

"Brian, What's the problem with contract? Con you give me the key area of concern? I have not seen it, but I want this done yesterday. See you tomorrow," Boone wrote.

"You and I both. Would it be possible to email you the points? Phone is going dead. Could text them to you tomorrow if preferred. Will be back home to computer in about an hour," Sheehan responded.

Boone, Gibbons and a third commissioner, Danny Phillips, met with Sheehan the next day, Saturday, August 19, to discuss the contract negotiations.

Gibbons sent an email summarizing the discussion.

According to Gibbons' email, among the problems Sheehan had with the town's proposed contract language was the fact that the town wanted a three-year contract term with the option to renew the contract for two additional on-year periods. Sheehan, on the other hand, wanted a five-year contract term.

Documents: Read select emails regarding SCMG's contract

Sheehan also wanted incentives paid by the town to SCMG each year based on the percentage of hotel/motel tax the city didn't have to transfer to fund the HFFA's operations.

Gibbons attached a new proposed, revised version of the contract that incorporated Sheehan's suggested changes.

"Please work these out at our earliest convenience Monday. If it takes 2 lawyers, Mr. Sheehan, Gerry (Vincent, the town manager), and a commissioner or two, let's make it happen," Gibbons wrote.

That same night, Gibbons sent a separate email to the town's finance manager pushing to finalize the contract as soon as possible and to also adopt Sheehan's proposed incentive scheme.

"We need to get this contract buttoned up ASAP," Gibbons wrote.

The next day, Sheehan forwarded a revised version of the contract—reflecting changes that he and the three commissioners had discussed at their private meeting the day before—to Boone and Gibbons at their private email addresses. That communication was one of several times in which Sheehan communicated with Gibbons or Boone using a private, not town-issued, email address.

A week later, on August 26, Boone followed up with town manager Gerry Vincent to continue the push to finalize the new HFFA management contract.

"I'd like to see this completed contract in the hands of Swim Club before noon on Monday or sooner," Boone wrote. "Gerry, this is important to me and several other commissioners and needs to get done."

Ultimately, the board voted to approve a final contract with SCMG on September 5.

The final contract included a five-year term as well as an incentive based on the amount of hotel/motel tax the city saved by not having to support HFFA's operations.

In his interview with WBTV, Aneralla refused to answer directly whether it was appropriate for Boone and Gibbons to engage in negotiations between the town and a contractor.

"I wasn't aware that they were emails going directly to any of the town commissioners. We all received the contract from Swim Club Management as part of the process," Aneralla said.

But, when pressed for an answer on whether it was appropriate for Boone and Gibbons to engage in contract negotiations—including communicating with a town contractor using private email accounts—Aneralla demurred.

"I think the process was much better this time than the last time," Aneralla said before a reporter pointed out that the answer did not answer the question asked. "I think that the process was much better than it was last time."

Aneralla repeated the same sentence over the course of several minutes of questions from a WBTV reporter.

Both Boone and Gibbons refused requests for an on-camera interview.

In an emailed statement, Gibbons denied advocating on SCMG's behalf during the contract negotiations.

"That is false," the statement said. "I do not, nor will I ever, work on behalf of any of our vendors. I only work on behalf of the citizens of Huntersville."

Boone also provided a statement that said, in part, the following:

"The reason I became involved in managing the terms of the contract with SCMG and called meetings on Saturdays was that I was concerned that  7 weeks after we had selected SCMG that the town manager had not completed the contract process.  This was not acceptable to me, so I stepped up to make sure the process was completed in a timely fashion and that the best interests of the town were protected."

Brian Sheehan, who owns Swim Club Management Group, sent a statement that read, in part, the following:

"Our company was awarded the management agreement for HFFA based on a fair and transparent process that involved multiple committees comprised of Commissioners and Town Staff.  We are proud to have received the recommendation of Town Staff and the Commissioners.  Any suggestion that the process was not fair and transparent is irresponsible and wholly inaccurate."

In his interview, Aneralla defended the process used to select Swim Club Management Group to operate the HFFA, pointing out that a committee of town employees recommended hiring SCMG out of three finalists.

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