Friends of Bolin Creek may have held illegal candidate forum, founder denies
According to a flyer and emails obtained by The Daily Tar Heel, the Friends of Bolin Creek — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit registered in Carrboro — held a candidate event advertised as a "meet and greet" at Umstead Park in Chapel Hill on Sept. 24.
But, the organizers of the event did not invite the Chapel Hill Town Council and mayoral candidates who are not aligned with Adam Searing.
Registered 501(c)(3) nonprofits like the Friends of Bolin Creek are required under federal tax code to provide "an equal opportunity for participation to all viable candidates seeking the same office" when hosting candidate events. Nonprofit events that have evidence of bias or "have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates" are prohibited in elections.
The only Chapel Hill mayoral candidate who attended the event was Searing, and the only town council candidates who attended were those Searing endorsed: David Adams, Breckany Eckhardt, Elizabeth Sharp and Renuka Soll.
David Heinen, the vice president for public policy and advocacy at the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits, said if candidates were invited by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit as candidates — rather than local residents — and if their candidacy was mentioned or promoted as a meet and greet, the event would likely qualify as a candidate appearance for the purpose of the tax code.
The best practice, Heinen said, is for nonprofits to extend a formal invitation to each person seeking the office.
On Aug. 18, Chapel Hill resident and Friends of Bolin Creek member Charles Humble sent an email on behalf of the Friends of Bolin Creek to Town Principal Planner Marcia Purvis requesting to reserve the American Legion Property on Sept. 17 or 24 for an event titled "We Love Our Parks."
Humble wrote in the email that the event would "provide all candidates in the municipal races a chance to briefly describe where our park system is relative to our needs and how we should move forward" in meeting parks and recreational needs.
Humble also said in his initial email that the event would be jointly sponsored by the Friends of Bolin Creek — the registered 501(c)(3) — and the Friends of Legion Park, which is not a registered nonprofit.
Humble said he initially wanted to hold the event at the American Legion Property, but that he was told by the Town of Chapel Hill that political events are not allowed to be held there.
Events from the Town itself are commonly held at the Legion Property, which is owned by the Town but is not a formal park space, Alex Carrasquillo, the community safety public information officer for the Town, said.
After learning that the event could not be held at the Legion Property, Humble suggested holding it at Umstead Park, which the Town permitted.
Humble said because Jess Anderson, Searing's opponent, kicked off her mayoral campaign with other candidates present at Homestead Park, the Friends of Bolin Creek did not invite candidates not aligned with Searing. He said he believed the event held by Anderson was not allowed under Town rules.
"We decided that if the rules don't really apply, then we'll invite the five candidates that came," Humble said.
Anderson said her campaign called the Town to ask if Homestead Park was available to rent for a political event, which the Town told her it was not. Anderson said she then held the event at the park as a private citizen, away from the available-to-rent pavilion.
A flyer advertising the meet and greet that was posted on the Friends of Bolin Creek website and was displayed at the Sept. 24 event included firstname.lastname@example.org, the Friends of Bolin Creek email.
Julie McClintock, the secretary and a founder of the Friends of Bolin Creek, said she used a separate flyer that was sent to Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) newsletter subscribers to invite Searing, Adams, Soll, Sharp and Eckhardt to the event.
The flyer sent in the CHALT newsletter about the event, which was sent out widely on Sept. 17, listed a CHALT email address for subscribers to contact. However, the email@example.com email links directly to firstname.lastname@example.org, the Friends of Bolin Creek email, instead.
McClintock said the Sept. 24 event was not hosted by the Friends of Bolin Creek but by CHALT — an organization of which she is also a leader.
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She said the event flyers posted that included the email for the Friends of Bolin Creek were an "oversight."
The event flyer was removed from the Friends of Bolin Creek website on Monday after The DTH spoke with McClintock.
After several emails between Town employees and Humble over 12 days, Humble and McClintock reserved Umstead Park from 3-5 p.m. on Sept. 24.
Humble's name appears on a $35 fee paid on Aug. 30 to reserve the space. Humble's name and address were also included on the official reservation form. McClintock said Humble was only involved in initial planning, not with the final event.
McClintock, who was listed as the principal officer on tax documents for the Friends of Bolin Creek its founding year in 2009 and from 2012 through 2021, filled out the Town's form on Aug. 30 to reserve a shelter at the park for the event.
Heinen said if a nonprofit holds any event that includes the appearance of candidates, it is necessary that the organization invites all the viable candidates for a particular office to provide an equal opportunity for participation.
Jess Anderson, Searing's opponent, confirmed to The DTH that she was not invited to the event. Town council candidates Erik Valera, Amy Ryan and Melissa McCullough also confirmed that they were not invited. Town council candidates Jon Mitchell and Theodore Nollert said they received the newsletter from CHALT advertising the event, but no formal invitation from event organizers.
McClintock and Humble also confirmed that they did not invite Anderson, Valera, Ryan, Nollert, McCullough, Mitchell or Jeffrey Hoagland, the final town council candidate.
"If you extend a warmer invitation to one candidate than to others, or you formally invite some candidates by directly reaching out to them and to their campaign manager, and others you just have them notified by a press release about the event, that's probably not providing an equal invitation, an equal opportunity to all candidates," Heinen said.
Searing, Adams, Eckhardt, Sharp and Soll all gave platform speeches at the Sept. 24 event after being introduced by McClintock. Searing's was the longest — he introduced himself and his platform and spoke about council and mayoral candidates with opposing platforms.
"There have been nearly constant attacks since I started to announce my run for mayor from my opponents and they say that I lie and use misinformation," Searing said at the event. "Now, they're doing the same thing to the four honorable people who have stepped up to run with me for town council."
While he did not name Triangle Blog Blog in his speech, Searing called out the local 501(c)(4) nonprofit blog, for "false personal attacks" in an Oct. 3 newsletter, calling TBB a "dark money group." He also included a link to TBB's state incorporation document with the addresses of the board of TBB.
In late August, the blog reported former UNC trustee Julia Grumbles would be forming a political action committee to support Searing's slate's campaign. Grumbles confirmed the PAC would not be forming in an email to The DTH on Sept. 12. She later urged Chapel Hill residents to donate to an existing PAC affiliated with CHALT — the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC.
Parks and green space was the most prominent issue Searing spoke about on Sept. 24.
"I've been enjoying our parks and our streams, and our woods for my entire life and something I felt was wrong, they were disappearing, and we weren't taking care of them," Searing said. "I wanted to step up and when I stepped up two years ago, I realized a lot of other things were wrong."
AfterSearing spoke, Soll, Adams, Eckhardt and Sharp followed. They all spoke about issues central to their campaigns — bringing up housing and development, specifically speaking against the recent text amendment change to the Town's land use management ordinance.
The Chapel Hill Town Council voted 6-3 to change the Town's LUMO on June 21 to allow more multi-family housing to be built in what were previously single-family zoned lots. Since then, no new multi-family developments have been approved on the newly allowed lots.
McClintock did not give a formal speech at the event but thanked the candidates and those who attended after the speeches.
Heinen said he thinks a 501(c)(3) as small as the Friends of Bolin Creek — which brings in less than $50,000 a year — would likely not lose its tax-exempt status for holdingan event like this because the IRS does not have the capacity to enforce many of its regulations.
But, he said, a biased candidate forum can risk the reputation of the nonprofit.
McClintock repeatedly said CHALT held the event independently of the Friends of Bolin Creek. If CHALT was the host, the expenses for the event would fall under "independent expenditures" for the purpose of federal campaign law and should be filed under expenditures from CHALT's PAC, the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC.
PACs report independent expenditures on the committee’s regular disclosure reports, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
According to the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC's most recent filing, no expenditures were made by the PAC for the event held on Sept. 24. The report period for the filing started on July 1 and ended on Sept. 26, which includes the reservation date, payment date and Sept. 24 event.
McClintock said the lack of an independent expenditure filing was a personal "oversight," and that the expenditures would show up on the next regular PAC filing. The reporting period for the next filing does not include the dates for the Sept. 24 event's expenses.
State law says PACs "shall list all contributions received and expenditures made which have not been previously reported" — and all expenses under each reporting period need to be disclosed in that period's filing. PAC treasurers attest in each filing that the report is correct.
Patrick Gannon, the public information director for the NCSBE, said in an email that while inadvertent omissions do happen, the solution is not to show the expense on the next period's filing, but to submit a revised form for the correct period.
Thomas Henkel, the treasurer for the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC, said he did not know about any expense from the Sept. 24 event — or about the event itself — until after it occurred. He said he would submit a revised form accounting for the $35 reservation expense.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Charles Humble is the assistant treasurer of the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC. Humble was removed as an assistant treasurer during the PAC's most recent statement of organization, which was received by the NCSBE on Oct. 2. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
Lucy Marques is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She was previously a city & state senior writer. Lucy is a junior pursuing a double major in political science and Hispanic literatures and cultures.
Ethan E. Horton
Ethan E. Horton is the 2023-24 city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a city & state assistant editor and as the 2023 summer managing editor. Ethan is a senior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and political science, with a minor in history.
Walker Livingston is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer city & state editor. Walker is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and American studies, with a minor in data science.