Canton election hangs on vision for townWritten by Becky Johnson
How Canton residents envision the future of their town could play a pivotal role in who gets elected this fall.
The current town board has been locked in a power struggle recently, with two long-time board members often at odds with three newcomers who swept into power on a platform of change two years ago. Canton Mayor Pat Smathers said strife on the board is holding the town back from making advancements.
“I think the next board needs to reach a consensus on the direction for the town,” said Smathers, mayor for the past 10 years. “There is not a lot of consensus on the current board. I am not saying who is right and who is wrong. I am not throwing bricks at those guys. It’s just a fact there is not a lot of consensus.”
The town needs to get on the same page and figure out where it is going and how to get there, Smathers said.
Smathers’ opponents on the board say they have fundamental differences with Smathers over what that vision should be, however.
“Pat’s vision for the town and my vision for the town are two opposite things,” said Alderman Eric Dills, one of Smathers’ chief opponents. “Pat’s vision for the town is a vision to try to make the town a tourist town. That’s what they have been trying to do for the past 10 or 12 years: to draw visitors.”
Dills said Smathers often talks about finding a way to capture more of the traffic that passes by Canton on the way through the region.
“But it passes by on Interstate 40 at 70 miles an hour. To put all this effort into promoting Canton as a destination is to forget about the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room, which is this paper mill over here,” Dills said.
Alderman Troy Mann agreed that Smathers’ emphasis on making Canton attractive to tourists is the wrong direction.
“There are some on the board who do not feel like that is Canton’s potential and we are not going to spend a bunch of money trying to bring about something we don’t envision,” Mann said. “That is the point of friction between what the mayor sees for the town of Canton and what the board sees for the town of Canton.”
Increasing the mill town’s visibility to the outside world has indeed been a recurring theme for Smathers in recent years. Capturing tourists and travelers has only been part of his vision, however. Smathers wants to see the town’s retail sector expand and downtown developed. He has pushed for parks and recreation complexes, from ball fields to river walks. He also wants to create and implement a long-range economic development plan.
Smathers has worked to make Canton more of a player in the region, be it politically or economically. He sees having events as one way to achieve that.
“We need to be more active in having events. Who would have thought two years ago we would have the Beach Boys in Canton and Charlie Daniels? It puts us out there,” Smathers said.
Dills said some of the initiatives have not been worth the time and effort, citing the $175,000 fund-raising campaign to bring the Beach Boys to Canton for a concert. Dills wants to see more energy put into making the town’s neighborhoods attractive, which means more stringent enforcement of the town’s ordinances.
“What Canton must do is promote itself as a family-oriented, family-friendly town. These people moving into WNC will look at Canton as a place to come and raise families,” Dills said. That means ensuring good, clean, safe neighborhoods — one of the chief assets Canton has going for it, he said.
Patrick Willis, 29, a challenger seeking a seat on the board this year, agrees that Canton should focus on developing its image as a good place to live.
“Canton has a lot of charm and a lot of personality. There is a growing younger crowd that is discovering the town and moving here to start families,” said Willis, himself being one example. Canton has been discovered for its proximity to Asheville, affordable homes, and traditional neighborhood feel, Willis said.
But Willis said the town is at a crossroads and town leaders are too busy arguing to get focused.
“I don’t think the board has done enough in the last two years to try to act on the town’s potential,” Willis said. “Looking at the past two years now, I don’t think the town has gone forward with economic development. I think the mid-term and long-term planning are not there.”
At odds with little progress
The shake-up two years ago when three new members were elected — shifting the majority control on the board — has produced no shortage of disagreement, but tangible change has been little.
Dills said the board has been stymied in some of its attempts at change. Despite drawn-out, heated controversy, the town board has kept on the same town manager, Al Matthews, which Dills said has made it difficult to accomplish some of the reform he would like to see.
“The town manager, not the board, truly has 75 percent of the power,” Dills said.
A hot button issue two years ago was a move by the former board to raise the property tax rate by 5 cents. It became a top campaign platform of the new aldermen that won election.
While the new board members haven’t raised taxes further, they failed to lower them back to the former levels, however.
“Sometimes when people are running, they will promise people stuff they can’t do because they don’t know about city government,” said Ted Woodruff, a former alderman who was ousted two years ago.
Woodruff said they had to raise taxes to cover costs incurred by flooding to the town in 2004, and a decrease in taxes paid by the paper mill, which accounts for a large chunk of the town’s budget.
Charlie Crawford, another former alderman who lost re-election two years ago, said that town residents don’t like the turn the board has taken the past two years.
“I’ll be honest — I think there is a lot of dissatisfaction,” Crawford said. “I don’t know whether they voted for the opposition the last time, but they are expressing dissatisfaction with what they got.”
Crawford added they failed to deliver on their promises.
“They definitely didn’t lower taxes like they said they were going to do,” said Charlie Crawford. “They raised water and sewer rates, building permits, trash pick-up — anything they could raise without raising taxes they raised.”
Alderman Troy Mann said they never promised to lower taxes.
“I just said I hoped not to raise it like the board then had,” Mann said.
Another platform of the new board members — Dills in particular — is reforming the general administration of the town. Dills said there is an engrained way of doing business based on favoritism. Far too many town employees are given town vehicles to drive home and use for personal use, including one employee who works only 10 hours a week for the rec department. The town was also paying a cell phone stipend to its retired town clerk because they occasionally called him with questions.
“I wanted to break the good old boy system,” Dills said.
The division on the current town board has also been defined by those who support Mayor Smathers and those who don’t. The three new board members felt Smathers was exerting too much unilateral control over town affairs. Those who were ousted were pleased with Smathers leadership.
“I think Pat is a wonderful mayor, really I do,” Woodruff said. “Pat loves Canton and has worked hard to make canton a better place.”
Patrick Willis, a challenger for town board, said the old board agreed with Smathers too often, while the new board seems to oppose him every step of the way.
“It is not good to have a board that says yes to the mayor and town manager all the time, but at the same time the board is put there to get things done. They either need to work out with their personality conflicts and differences and try to work together better,” Willis said. “There needs to be a middle ground.”