Political posturing once again waylays vote on Lake Junaluska, Waynesville merger

fr presnellA bill paving the way for the merger of Lake Junaluska with the town of Waynesville was blocked at the 11th hour this week in the N.C. General Assembly.

N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, once again worked against the bill to stop it just as it neared the finish line. The bill was scheduled for a vote Monday night, but Presnell spoke out against it during a gathering of the Republican caucus.

“She has gone out of her way to raise a bunch of bogus issues. It is a litany of red herrings and we just keep answering them and moving down the road,” said N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, who supports the merger.

Presnell blamed Queen for the bill being pulled, however. Presnell said Queen obviously had not worked hard enough to usher it through the House.

“Rep. Queen should own this bill. The annexation of Lake Junaluska would affect two of the larger communities in his district, and the effects of annexation would be upon him,” Presnell said in a press release distrubuted Tuesday afternoon. “He hasn’t spoken to me about the bill whatsoever.”

As a Democrat, Queen can’t attend the Republican caucus meetings, so he had no way to defend it, thus the only option at that point was to pull the bill and regroup.

The merger of Lake Junaluska with Waynesville has widespread support among homeowners and unanimous support of local elected leaders throughout the Haywood County. The merger has been in limbo for three years, however, lacking the blessing of the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly.

While Presnell has held up the bill in the House, the bill has cleared the Senate with flying colors three times in three years. There, it has been championed by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who’s been willing to carry water for the local elected leaders back home.

As a senator, however, it can be difficult for Davis to influence what happens in the House.

“I think truth always wins out in the end. When I get down there I’ll go to work,” said Davis.

Davis wasn’t around for the scheduled vote Monday, having remained in the mountains through Tuesday morning to attend the funeral of Maggie Valley’s mayor, where he delivered the eulogy. 

Queen traveled back home for the funeral as well.

“We were out-of-pocket due to the tragic death of our good friend Ron,” Queen said.  “We will bring this sensible bill back to the floor in a bipartisan manner when we are both able to present it and not both away at a funeral.”

Queen said Presnell told him and Davis earlier in the year that she wouldn’t try to block the bill this time around, but did anyway.

Presnell in a press release said a “legislative misstep” by Queen was to blame for the bill being pulled, but Queen countered that she was “blowing smoke.”

Representative from the town and Lake Junaluska have made countless trips to Raleigh over the past three years, but come home empty handed. This week was no exception.

“We were surprised to travel to Raleigh Monday night only to have the bill pulled just before session,” Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal said.

When Presnell was contacted for a comment about the issue on Tuesday morning (July 21), someone who sounded identical to Presnell answered her office phone in Raleigh. 

After being asked for a comment for this article, the woman on the phone who sounded just like Presnell said Presnell was in a conference and would then be tied up in the legislative session into the afternoon. 

When confronted about her voice resemblance to Presnell, the woman denied that she was Presnell but would not say who she was. When asked if there was an email address where questions could be sent, she replied, “That would be great” but quickly hung up.

Presnell doesn’t have a female office assistant. Her male assistant usually answers the phone. 

A call placed immediately to the legislative office across the hall from Presnell confirmed that Presnell does not have a female office assistant. 

Presnell did not reply to a follow-up email or phone call inquiring about the identity of the woman who had answered her phone line.

The merger bill was unanimously approved by the House subcommittee on annexation earlier this summer, and also approved by a majority of the House finance committee. In both cases, representatives from the town and the lake had an audience with the committee lawmakers to explain the rationale behind the merger and answer questions.

But it has been challenging for the lake and town to address concerns being raised behind the scenes with the larger House membership.

“We have attempted to address all the questions that have been raised, but they continue to come back,” Lake Junaluska Conference Center Director Jack Ewing said. “From the beginning we began with the principal of integrity and transparency and honesty and we have stayed with that throughout.” 

Lake Junaluska property owners have twice shown that a merger has widespread community support. Both a mail-in survey and petitions have demonstrated two-thirds of property owners — both year-round and part-time residents — want to join Waynesville town limits.

Meanwhile, the anti-merger camp attempted to oust pro-merger board members on the Lake Junaluska Property Owners Organization at the group’s annual meeting two weeks ago.

Three anti-merger candidates were nominated from the floor at the meeting in an attempt to gain power from the pro-merger leadership of the property owners’ organization, according to several homeowners who were in attendance.

But the coup attempt by the anti-merger camp failed, again signaling that the majority of property owners support a merger.

The exact vote among the 140 in attendance has not been disclosed. A four-member election panel — including at least one merger opponent — counted the ballots, which were kept under lock and key by a deputy. The extreme ballot counting measures were taken this year to prevent the anti-merger camp from claiming the board election wasn’t properly counted.

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