A work session this week on Jackson County’s room tax appears to mark the beginning of open warfare and the explosive end of a fragile truce that has existed on the board of commissioners since three newcomers were elected last year.
Commissioner Joe Cowan, in a simile that would have done Homer justice, compared himself and fellow Democrat Mark Jones to “mushrooms left to grow in the dark” when it comes to having rightful access to county information.
Cowan accused board Chairman Jack Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten of sneaky, underhanded dealings, and of deliberately not providing the two Democrats with adequate and advanced background on issues that would enable them to make informed decisions.
Cowan has undoubtedly been in a minority on the board following a power shift in last year’s election. As for why he’s now suddenly irked by having no voice? One might possibly attribute Cowan’s anger to self-induced chagrin.
Cowan voted “yes” in October to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. In doing so, Cowan abandoned the only other Democratic Commissioner on the board, leaving Mark Jones high, dry and visibly alone — Jones was the sole “no” vote against the hike. Cowan this week, without being explicit about the exact trigger for his public outburst, seemed to blame a lack of information for his previous, and apparently now regretted, support.
“In nine years on this board I’ve never experienced this before,” a bucked-up Cowan told his fellow board members, his face reddening. “And I resent the hell out it.”
“The chairman doesn’t communicate with me, this gentleman doesn’t communicate with me,” Cowan said gesturing toward Wooten, who was hired in place of longtime Manager Ken Westmoreland when the new board took over.
“If you’d come to the office more than 15 minutes before the meeting, you might know what was happening,” Debnam said in reply.
Cowan said that in his previous years on the board, information flowed to commissioners via copious emails and written communications.
“I’m just saying it’s not right,” Cowan said.
Wooten, after the meeting, maintained that he regularly emails four of the commissioners, including Cowan. Commissioner Charles Elders does not use email; he receives written documentation of county business, the county manager said.
Debnam again asserted that if Cowan doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s his own fault for not putting much effort into staying informed.
“You need to call me every once in a while,” Debnam shot back at Cowan during the lengthy exchange.
“I don’t know what to call you about, because I don’t know what you are doing,” Cowan said.
Commissioner Doug Cody wryly suggested that Cowan consider checking the upcoming agendas for board meetings as the other commissioners do.
Cowan told news reporters after the meeting that he believes he and Jones are being shutout of the information flow because they are in the minority.
“Hell, I’m the minority party,” Debnam said when asked if he was, as accused, persecuting Democrats by withholding information they need and are rightfully entitled to have.
Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent who won election, at least in part, through the use of GOP advertising dollars. The other two members of the five-man board, Doug Cody and Charles Elders, are bona fide registered Republicans.
Elders and Jones were silent during the verbal brawl.
The proposed tax increase has been rescinded because of a failure to hold a required public meeting. This time lapse, in turn, has allowed outraged Jackson County lodging owners an opening to express strong opposition. They have said an additional tax burden imposed in such a sour economic climate could put some of them out of business and severely damage the bottom lines of everyone in the lodging industry reliant on tourist dollars (see accompanying article).