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Wednesday, 23 November 2016 14:55

The last chapter: Reflections on Mark Swanger’s political era

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Mark Swanger tucked into his leather armchair beside a roaring gas fire, an expansive view of his Fines Creek family farm unfurling beyond the bay windows of his log home.

Calm, cool and collected as always, he was ready for another round of a marathon interview aimed at capturing the sweeping tenure of his 20-year political career in Haywood County.

It was a daunting undertaking. Few men can claim the lasting impact Swanger has made on his community for generations to come.

“We are very, very fortunate. He has been a great asset to this county,” said Juanita Dixon, a local political observer who’s closely followed Swanger’s career. “I have cried a few tears over it, asking him ‘Mark are you sure you won’t change your mind?’”

But, 16 years after retiring his FBI shield, Swanger, 65, is retiring once more, hanging up his commissioner name plate as well.

Patsy Davis, the director of Mountain Projects nonprofit, said Swanger was a tremendous leader with unrivaled diplomacy skills.

“He always gathered all the facts. I guess that was his background with the FBI — he wanted as much information as you could give him and he would evaluate everything before making a recommendation,” Davis said.

Everyone who worked with Swanger during his two-decade political career — six as school board chairman and 12 as a county commissioner — cited his capacity for processing every conceivable option plus some and weighing their possible outcomes and consequences.

“He has a great mind. You could say he has a gift,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, one of Swanger’s close friends and long-time political ally. “He put his whole heart and mind into it. I think the whole board will miss that.”

As Swanger’s tenure draws to a close, his legacy transcends his many tangible accomplishments — from navigating crises like the Pigeon River floods of 2004 to securing a viable future for Haywood Regional Medical Center. His true hallmark as a leader was his diagnostic governing style.

“He brought an extreme intelligence with him. He had such a way about him of cutting to the core of something and not only seeing the problem but seeing the solution,” said Mary Ann Enloe, a former commissioner and political ally of Swanger’s. “I could trust him, that he had done his homework.”

As the chair of the Haywood Community College board, Enloe said she often thinks to herself, “OK, how would Mark handle this?”

Swanger never went with his gut, nor crossed his fingers and hoped for the best. He had to know first — know how it would work, how it would turn out, what the pitfalls were and the contingency plan to contain damage if something went south.

“Everything of any import that I’ve done, I’ve tried to make it evidence-based. Otherwise you are just flailing around,” Swanger said. “It is not unlike investigating a crime.”

Swanger spent 32 years with the FBI, building complex cases on mobsters, drug traffickers and corrupt politicians.

“I am very process oriented. If you have a good process you will generally deliver a good product,” Swanger said. “If you do it in any other way good decisions occur only by accident. You can make a good decision with a bad process, it just won’t be very frequently.”

Swanger’s intellectual rhetoric isn’t the type of sound bite that wins small town elections. But he wasn’t your usual politician.

“He was a visionary who looked at not only what was good for Haywood County at the time but, the future as well,” said CeCe Hipps, director of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. 

Hipps characterized Swanger as someone willing to ruffle feathers when needed, like his initiative to revamp the county’s economic development program.

“He felt like things needed to change, but it wasn’t a very popular idea at first and was met with resistance,” Hipps said. “But that once again goes to his character. If he feels like something is the best thing to do for the county he holds true to that.”

Known as an ideas man, Swanger knew all his initiatives wouldn’t be embraced by the masses, whether it was enacting steep slope building rules, privatizing the county’s landfill or increasing taxes to cover raises for county employees.

But Swanger believed the true measure of a policy’s success would be judged by history — not the here and now, but whether it was right for future generations.

“He was very thoughtful and analytical in coming to decisions. We are in good shape as a county because of his leadership,” said Ted Carr, a Republican.

While Swanger is a Democrat, he paid little heed to parties when it came to local government. He worked with anyone he could to advance goals he thought would make Haywood County a better place. 

At a going away reception last week, N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, presented Swanger with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest civilian honor for service to North Carolina. 

For the first time in his 20-year political career, Swanger got choked up in public.

“This is beyond words for me,” Swanger said.

 

Letting in the light

One of the most lasting marks from Swanger’s tenure is busting up good old boy politics that all too often put the interests of those in power ahead of the greater good. His platform during his first run in 2002 was clear: to bring government business out of smoke-filled backrooms and into the open.

“The overriding concern I had was the lack of transparency and the lack of good government,” Swanger said. “We had to get into the 21st century. And we couldn’t do that conducting the people’s business behind closed doors in a way that didn’t involve them even if they wanted to be involved.”

Commissioners routinely discussed and voted on issues without notice to the public. Meeting agendas — akin to a table of contents for what’s coming up — were a mere suggestion at best, with commissioners concealing things they planned to do by leaving them off the agenda. 

Commissioner meetings were held in a cramped basement down a narrow hall — an analogy in Swanger’s eyes to how business was conducted.

“You could get about 10 people in there and that was it. There was no outreach to try to accommodate the public. I knew the first order of business had to be the transparency of public board meetings,” Swanger said.

To help restore broken public confidence, commissioners imposed a waiting period before voting on major issues so the public would have time to digest what was being proposed.

Swanger also led a charge to start broadcasting commissioner meetings on a government channel. It was long before the days of online video, but for those who didn’t have cable, VHS tapes of the meetings were put in county libraries so no member of the public was unable to watch what their local government was up to.

Swanger won a statewide open government award from the N.C. Press Association for his sunshine campaign. The other commissioners followed Swanger’s lead and eventually transformed the commissioner’s public image and conduct from amateur hour to a professional board.

Ensley wagers that’s why the current board is the longest serving set of commissioners in the county’s history.

“I feel like we professionalized the board and the public isn’t afraid of being blindsided. I think that has brought stability to the board,” Ensley said. “Before it was a revolving door. They would get some guys in and throw them out.”

Swanger brought the same changes to the school board years earlier.

“He wanted to open things up — no more meetings before the board to decide what you are going to do before the official board meeting,” Commissioner Bill Upton recalled, who was hired as superintendent shortly after Swanger went on the school board.

 

Serendipity

The most vexing and controversial issue in the run up to Swanger’s first run for county office was the construction of a new justice center. Anger over the cost of justice center — dubbed the “Taj Mahal of Justice” — and the botched design process had gripped the entire county. Commissioners flip-flopped frequently on where the justice center might go, and despite a public hue and cry over the design, commissioners blindly — or stubbornly, or both — forged on with their heads down.

Swanger saw the justice center drama as a symbol of willy-nilly decision-making.

“When I campaigned I said this is an example of bad government,” Swanger said. “That building still doesn’t fit downtown Waynesville. I was for a justice center, I just wasn’t for that justice center.”

Swanger was one of 14 candidates running for just three commissioner seats in 2002 — proof of widespread public dissatisfaction.

When Swanger ran for school board in 1996, he was likewise swept into office on the coattails of a rallying cry. The school system was embroiled in controversy over an ill-fated school bond. Swanger emerged as a leading opposition voice, and the movement catapulted him into office. 

He wasn’t a well-known figure before the school bond drama in the mid-1990s. He’d just moved home to Haywood County in 1990 after an FBI career away from here.

It was a major upset when Swanger beat long-time school board chairman Robert “Bob” Cathey. Unwittingly or intentionally, Swanger had launched his career as a political powerhouse in Haywood County for the next two decades.

Upton, who became superintendent under Swanger, said it’s no surprise he prevailed.

“He out-works you. He out-researches you. He would go everywhere,” Upton said. “I think that separates him. And he is still that way, very focused. I was impressed with his intellect the first time I met him.”

In hindsight, Swanger’s rise to office followed the same formula — both in his run for school board in 1996 and for county commissioner in 2002.

Each time, Swanger was the ringleader of an opposition movement and rode the tide of discontent into office. Swanger said he didn’t plan it that way.

“There was no nexus there at the time. It became apparent after the bond failed we needed some leadership,” Swanger said. “And academically we weren’t doing that well. We were mediocre compared to our peers.”

Swanger still had his hands full with his career and family in the mid-1990s. He was still working for the FBI as a regional field supervisor and was raising two daughters on his own for much of the week while his wife pursued her PhD in South Carolina.

“I was Mr. Mom,” Swanger said.

Nonetheless, Swanger is known for his calculated planning, and has often been suspected of creating the climate of discontent that got him elected. 

Swanger rejected the notion. 

“Never trust a single-issue candidate. I was not a single-issue candidate,” Swanger said.

 

Upsetting the apple cart

As a political powerhouse, Swanger inevitably left some carnage in his wake. You can’t run on an anti-establishment platform without a few heads rolling. 

Swanger didn’t set out to rack up a body count. But when there’s a new captain at the wheel, you either get on board or jump ship.

Those dispatched by Swanger — and the power establishment who liked things the way they were — never forgave him.

“I’ve never worried about people being mad at me,” Swanger said. “You can’t make hard decisions without stepping on toes occasionally, you have to keep your eye on the greater good. Worrying about a few people’s feelings are counterproductive.”

His third year as commissioner, Swanger led a movement to fire the County Manager Jack Horton for insubordination. Horton was accused of concealing, doctoring and manipulating information he gave commissioners to steer them toward the decision he wanted to make.

This didn’t sit well with Swanger, a man who hangs his hat on diligent research behind his decisions, so after a particularly egregious misstep Swanger, along with Ensley and Enloe — later dubbed the “gang of three” — fired Horton by a narrow 3-to-2 majority.

As school board chairman, Swanger was blamed for running off the superintendent at the time, Karen Campbell, although Swanger claims that is “revisionist history.” Campbell had applied for the superintendent’s job with Asheville City Schools a few months before Swanger was elected, and Swanger claims she would have moved on regardless.

Swanger also led a revamp of the Economic Development Commission early in his years as commissioner.

The county’s EDC board was stacked with upstanding and well-meaning business and civic leaders. But he thought their methods were outdated, and the economic development director was stuck in the 20th century, largely lacking the new kind of thinking needed to bring new kinds of jobs.

“Everything was still focused on manufacturing, bringing in a plant,” Swanger said. “It is a buffalo hunt if you’re looking for something that’s extinct. We weren’t going to recapture the manufacturing jobs because they weren’t to be had anywhere.”

Haywood County was “crucified” by a series of factory closings in the 1990s, Swanger said, and chasing factories to replace them with didn’t make sense. 

But he had to get others to realize that there was a better way to do economic development, so he convened a blue-ribbon task force to study it.

“I believed if we really shined a light on it and looked at it critically, then most people and the majority would come to the conclusion there needed to be changes made,” Swanger said.

Ultimately, the old EDC was disbanded and a new one formed, with Swanger as co-chair. The EDC director, Jay Hinson, seeing the writing on the wall, stepped down. 

For Swanger, performance comes before personal allegiances. That was something he tried to change in the school system.

“It is not about doing people favors or hiring someone’s daughter who isn’t qualified. It is about being excellent,” Swanger said. “Everything we do is about education.”

Swanger set a new bar for education in Haywood County, one that is still playing out today. Haywood County Schools are in the top 10 percent in academic performance, thanks to the shift in mentality Swanger ushered in.

“The expectation was that we were going to be an outstanding school system. I made it very clear that was our goal,” Swanger said. “Every employee has to buy into the fact that we are going to be an excellent school system.”

 

Micromanager

Swanger’s ousting of Horton and Hinson came back to bite him.

While his obsessive attention to detail was lauded by some, he was called out as a micromanager by critics trying to unseat him during his 2006 re-election campaign.

But Swanger stood up for his management style — which he prefers to call “hands-on.”

“I despise being reactive,” Swanger said. “Being chairman was a very consuming thing for me. I never went a day without thinking about county business, ever — vacation, holidays, whatever. I tried to anticipate problems before they became severe.”

As chairman, Swanger got an annual stipend of $15,000 plus health insurance, a meager compensation in exchange for the 30 to 35 hours a week he put in on average.

Commissioner Bill Upton, who served as superintendent during Swanger’s six years on the school board, said he was the same way then.

“He was always proactive and not reactive. He said to me as superintendent ‘The best surprise is no surprise,’” Upton recalled. “We probably conversed every day, but that didn’t bother me. People have criticized him in the past for micromanagement, but if you don’t have someone intense and focused you don’t get anything done.”

But Swanger’s inclination to work alongside staff — pushing them to research all the options, justify every decision and quantify every outcome — was portrayed as iron-fisted by his critics, by those who didn’t like the changes he was making, particularly the firing of Horton.

A political action committee was formed with the intent of ousting Swanger and his main ally Commissioner Kevin Ensley. They both lost in 2006, Swanger by less than 100 votes.

Ensley doesn’t understand why Swanger was criticized for taking his role as an elected leader seriously.

“I know people say he is a little bit controlling, but he is like a watchdog really to make sure everything is done properly,” Ensley said.

Commissioner Mike Sorrells agreed.

“I think Mark took the idea that ‘the buck stops with me,’ or with the commissioners, so I am going to formulate policy. We were not a laissez faire board. We were an engaged board,” Sorrells said. “I fully expect and think that will continue.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, who came on the county board at the same tumultuous time as Swanger in 2002, will take his place as chairman of the board. Things will be different without Swanger around.

“Mark makes things happen. I’ll give him his due. I won’t feel as comfortable knowing he’s not there,” Kirkpatrick said. “Even if we disagree on something, at least we knew all the facts and all the aspects so you don’t have tunnel vision.”

Swanger and Kirkpatrick weren’t always on the same side, however. They were elected from opposing camps in 2002 — Swanger opposed the new justice center while Kirkpatrick supported it. They were on opposing sides of the vote to fire County Manager Jack Horton as well.

Tension between the two was apparent during their early years serving on the board.

“There was a lot of animosity there,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not there anymore. I have grown to have a great deal of respect for Mark and his leadership and he’s learned to respect me as well. We are friends now.”

Kirkpatrick still disagreed with Swanger occasionally, more so than anyone else on the board — from voting against little things like Swanger’s proposal to put sprinklers on the courthouse lawn to the big things like the $3.7 million animal shelter that Swanger championed his final year in office.

“We are able to disagree, but once a decision is made we are able to move forward in the same direction,” Kirkpatrick said.

In his early years on the school board, Swanger had to mend fences with past rivals as well. His campaign motto when running for school board — “change you can trust” — had disparaged the performance of some school board members and they didn’t take it well.

They refused to back Swanger’s choice for a new superintendent, Bill Upton, the former principal of Pisgah High School. Swanger got five members in his camp, but three refused to budge.

“He called me and said ‘Do you want the job or not on a 5-3 vote?’ I decided to take that chance,” Upton said.

The board division was eventually quelled, however.

“It didn’t continue very long at all. We soon had the support of the full board,” Upton said. “You can’t argue with the results, and Mark not only had a plan for curriculum, but to fix our school buildings that were in bad shape.”

 

A comeback

Swanger believed his loss in the 2006 election was a fluke, not an indictment of his leadership. Turnout was extremely low that year, giving those disgruntled by Horton’s firing a disproportional voice at the ballot box.

But Swanger said he wouldn’t change his mind if he could do it over again.

“Had I known I was going to lose the election by 59 votes I still would have done it,” Swanger said of firing Horton.

That’s typical of Swanger. He always owns his decisions and was always comfortable once he made them.

“Sometimes you have to make hard calls and decisions, and he didn’t shy away from them,” said Davis, the director of Mountain Projects nonprofit.

In 2008, Swanger ran again and carried the race as the top vote-getter.

“I’ve never actually given up many times in my life,” Swanger said of his comeback.

During his two-year hiatus from the board of commissioners, the county was shaken by a management scandal that threatened to close Haywood Regional Medical Center, the county’s only hospital.

Swanger’s campaign ad in 2008 pictured him in front of the hospital with the words “Leadership and Truth in Government when it’s needed most.”

Ensley said the hospital crisis made people rethink their criticisms of Swanger.

“We got voted out because they accused us of micromanaging and then the hospital ran aground the next year and I thought ‘You know, maybe micromanaging isn’t that bad,’” Ensley said.

Former Commissioner Wade Francis said Swanger didn’t back down in the face of opposition, like the decision to cut down the maple trees on the lawn of the historic courthouse.

“People fought him on that, but I tell you, it is beautiful,” Francis said. “He and that board fought through that.”

Francis said he had misgivings about the sale of Haywood Regional Medical Center, but had to admit Swanger was right on that, too.

“Since it has happened I think it has been a good thing,” Francis said. 

While Swanger’s known for his calculating demeanor, he wasn’t serious all the time. A master of deadpan delivery, Swanger’s wry sense of humor would catch people off guard if they weren’t paying attention. 

Swanger also carried around an arsenal of jokes and was known to end a serious conversation with “Got one more second? I’ve got a joke for you.” 

 

A golden era

After reclaiming his seat on the board, he served eight more years. It was a golden era characterized by stability, progress and professionalism.

“He looks at the broader picture. You’ve got to think and look where we are going. We can’t look back but have to look what’s out there and what can we do to make it better,” said Juanita Dixon.

Haywood County was lucky to have Swanger’s insightful leadership, Dixon said. He permanently changed the county’s trajectory for the better for at least a generation to come.

Voters responded well. Since 2008, no commissioner has been voted off the board, resulting in the longest team of commissioners in Haywood County’s history.

Swanger lives in the rural northern reaches of the county — a solid 25-minute drive to town, mostly through countryside. 

He cherishes the rural character of Haywood County but he rejects the stereotype of an Appalachian backwater.

“I wanted people to think of the county in a positive light,” Swanger said. “There are those now who want us to remain in the 1950s and 60s.”

Swanger always wanted to move the county forward, with good schools, a strong community college, robust civic institutions and professional government.

But not even Swanger can brace against everything. 

There were the Pigeon River floods of 2004, a hospital to save and a recession to navigate.

“The biggest crisis, or challenge that we faced, was the recession, because the remedies were so difficult,” Swanger said. “It had the most impact on people’s lives of any matter we’ve dealt with and it was the longest duration.”

The county laid off 50 people and imposed furloughs and froze wages.

“It wasn’t fun,” Swanger said. “But I am proud of how we handled it because I believe we made the best of a bad situation. I think we went through a very measured process and did a complete analysis of county services and needs and tried to reduce spending in the areas that had the least impact and still provide a sufficient level of service.”

When a problem struck, having Swanger at the table was a relief.

“Mark handles crisis well,” Upton said. “I think it is his FBI training. He pays attention to detail.”

Swanger saw every crisis as a moment for introspection, trying to find ways the county would be better prepared next time.

After the floods of 2004, emergency management officials retooled their action plans, adopting new protocols that trigger a mobilized response well in advance of flood watches.

After Haywood Regional Medical Center ran aground, commissioners became more diligent in the appointment of hospital board members — refusing to simply rubber-stamp the CEO’s board picks like they had historically.

“I think we had more of a critical eye,” Swanger said.

And since the recession, the county’s reserves have been rebuilt to provide a cushion.

“Future boards, should there be a catastrophic event in the county, they will have resources,” Swanger said.

Swanger was always ready to roll up his sleeves and rise to the occasion. When a nonprofit agency that managed senior services for the county was embroiled in a scandal in 2005 involving the misappropriation of county funds, Swanger put a new policy in place requiring all non-profits that get county dollars to provide a copy of their annual audit as a condition of funding.

Rarely are elected leaders lauded for spending tax dollars on government buildings. But Swanger’s reign witnessed the biggest building spree in county government history.

During Swanger’s dozen years in office, the county built a new jail and sheriff’s office, a new election office, a senior day care facility, a new county complex housing the health department, social services, planning and environmental health, a new emergency services base, a new animal shelter, two new buildings at Haywood Community College, and renovated the historic courthouse.

The systematic modernization of county facilities was needed after years of kicking the can down the road, according to Swanger. While county facilities aren’t sexy to voters, they speak volumes for the county’s reputation.

“You have to present yourself as a successful community if you want other people to be interested in living here. We are judged on that and are compared to other communities,” Swanger said.

Swanger said the foresight his board had in tackling these projects now will save future generations from the burden of providing adequate county buildings. Swanger didn’t endorse opulence, but insisted on spending enough to build a quality building.

“To do anything else is a waste of money. When you build a building cheaply, you are doing the taxpayers a disservice, because you are going to be building that same building over again in 20 years,” Swanger said.

 

A distraction

Swanger’s last eight years as commissioner didn’t pass without criticism. He was continually dogged at every turn by a faction of conservative watchdogs who routinely spoke out at county meetings and took to the internet airwaves with frequent indictments of Swanger and his fellow commissioners.

Swanger was accused of everything under the sun — from bankrupting the county to taking bribes.

But he always seemed unfazed.

“You come to expect these incessant ramblings. Seldom does the expected rattle me,” Swanger said.

On one hand, Swanger fancied himself as a champion of open government and welcoming of public discourse. But Swanger saw no place at the table for the conspiracy theory antics of the watchdog faction.

 “You can’t allow yourself to become paralyzed by people whose goal is to paralyze and terrorize. It is just like U.S. policy not to negotiate with terrorists,” Swanger said.

The group’s self-appointed leader, Monroe Miller, sent hundreds of emails to county officials every year, seemingly aimed at hijacking county government.

“I think that was the intent, to wear them down,” Dixon said, who publicly spoke up in the commissioners’ defense a time or two. 

“It was all I could do to hold my tongue up there. Good gracious, it was just craziness,” she said.

But no matter how much Miller skewered Swanger, he shrugged it off. 

“I just viewed Monroe Miller as an unimportant distraction,” Swanger said.

When faced with a marauding critic, it would be human nature to circle the wagons and batten down the hatches. If county government went dark, Miller would be left without ammunition to use against them.

But Swanger said he didn’t do that.

“The only reason Monroe Miller had any information to manipulate and distort is because of how transparent and open we were. We never clamped down on anything we made public because of what he said,” Swanger said. 

Still, it was a stressful time for county employees, who feared they would be next to land in Miller’s crosshairs for a public crucifixion. And that’s the part that made Swanger mad.

“That had more of an effect on me than the elected board being maligned,” Swanger said. “But they all held up remarkably well. Not once did they not do their job. I think they knew we had their back.”

Still, a lie repeated loudly and often enough can slowly creep into public consciousness. Yet Swanger nor any of the other commissioners attacked in Miller’s muckraking tirades were unseated, and that’s where Swanger gives voters credit.

“Most people don’t like bullies, and in my opinion Monroe Miller is a bully,” Swanger said. “We were making good decisions, we were making honest decisions, we were making transparent decisions. I believe the public saw through these distortions and lies.”

 

Powerhouse

Swanger claims he never set out to have a 20-year reign in Haywood County politics.

“I have never looked ahead to another term. I always concentrated on the present,” Swanger said.

When Swanger ran for school board in 1996, he didn’t plan on using it as a stepping stone for higher office. But he realized he had a bigger contribution to make.

“I saw my ability to make effective, real change in the community was limited just being on the school board,” Swanger said.

He toyed with the idea of a State House run when he was still on the school board.

“Ultimately, I didn’t want to spend half my life on I-40. I decided I could do as much or more good for my local community by being a county commissioner,” Swanger said.

Without fail, every two years Democratic Party leaders come knocking, hoping to recruit him to run for the State House or Senate. But he was committed to being a commissioner.

“I’d rather be one of five in Haywood County than one of 120 in Raleigh,” he said.

While Swanger’s influence on the county’s trajectory is undeniable, Swanger disagrees that he’s been a one-man machine.

“One person cannot do anything. It is a five-member board. I had to have people who agreed in order to be able to accomplish what we’ve been able to accomplish the past two decades.”

He’s been the conductor, but not the only one in the orchestra. Something he came back to repeatedly during interviews.

“This isn’t just me. Please say that. I have always acknowledged you have to have partners on your board,” Swanger said.

Swanger’s tenure for the past eight years was marked by uncanny consensus, with dissenting votes by commissioners few and far between. 

“We got a lot of grief sometimes that nobody ever votes ‘no.’ But the things we worked on were all to benefit the county, so why wouldn’t you vote for it?” Sorrells asked. “It wasn’t that we were all rubber stamping each other, but we had the same vision.”

The consensus among commissioners these past eight years wasn’t an accident. Swanger called his fellow commissioners frequently, sometimes daily, to fill them in on county business and ask their opinion on something being considered.

 “When he would get on something and wanted it he would really push to get it. He wanted a consensus and he worked to get that, but we always made the comment that Mark could count to three,” Commissioner Mike Sorrells said.

Swanger’s closest friend and ally on the board was Commissioner Kevin Ensley. The men talked daily. As a Republican, Ensley got heat from some in his party for being so chummy with Swanger and usually voting in lockstep with him.

Swanger said the relationship with Ensley wasn’t a one-way street.

“It is good to get Kevin’s perspective on things,” Swanger said. “The county is now almost evenly split on political philosophy, so I value his input. He’s a friend.”

Ensley said Swanger genuinely wanted to keep them in the loop.

“We bounced ideas off each other and it helped us come to a solution. If he called me with a problem, he would ask what I think about it,” Ensley said.

Swanger rejects the notion that his frequent contact with fellow board members was designed to shore up his agenda or keep the troops in line.

“We have a very intelligent board. There’s people with a lot of common sense. You get a better product if everyone is involved,” Swanger said.

Still, Swanger couldn’t always pull it off. His final initiative in public office — building a $3.5 million animal shelter — was the only major issue where he couldn’t rally the whole board. Kirkpatrick and Sorrells both voted against it. The animal shelter is perhaps the biggest blemish on Swanger’s record in the court of public opinion.

“I think a lot of people out there in the community are disappointed with him building this,” Francis said.

But Swanger never tried to cut deals to get votes.

“You see politicians in DC say ‘If you vote for this I’ll vote for that.’ We never did any of that. We did what was right for the county,” Ensley said.

Upton said he never felt pressured by Swanger’s frequent contact with the other commissioners.

“I know Mark better than anybody, and I go back to the comment I made earlier. He lets you voice your opinion one-on-one and you still come out friends,” Upton said. “I think he does two things well. He make sure the research is done b

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