Swain County citizens might have been more thrilled about a candidate forum that was held Thursday, April 22, than the people actually running.
About 75 residents came to forum to see candidates candidly answer questions submitted by fellow citizens. It was an unprecedented opportunity to get directly acquainted with candidates.
But only four of the 10 sheriff candidates showed up, and only one out of three candidates for county chairman made it to the forum. Nine out of 14 commissioner candidates came that night to speak to citizens on pressing issues.
Among those who were missing were elected officials, including Sheriff Curtis Cochran, Commissioners Steve Moon — who had already agreed to attend a Chamber of Commerce dinner that night — and Philip Carson.
Sheriff candidates John Ensley and David Franklin committed to the event but didn’t show up. Sheriff candidate Steve Ford sent his regrets, as he had to undergo an unforeseen medical procedure, though he expected to be released a few days later.
Commissioner candidate Jerry Shook openly expressed his disappointment with those who did not participate in the forum.
“Everyone has been cordially invited to this,” said Shook. “There is some who chose not to be here, chose not to share their opinions with you, chose to keep their ideals behind closed doors...We didn’t, and I will not.”
Several citizens expressed the same sentiments as Shook.
“I’m disappointed more candidates didn’t turn out,” said Valerie Harrison, a senior advocate in Swain County. “If you’re running, why weren’t you here tonight?... This, to me, is important. I would like to have seen this place packed.”
Despite less than full participation by candidates, the evening was full of healthy discussion about issues ranging from animal control to open government to Swain’s drug problems. Citizens said they were grateful for the opportunity to meet the candidates.
Bryson City resident Mary Ann Byrd said she’s usually skeptical of media coverage in general and wanted to see how the candidates answered questions, unmediated by the press.
“I want to hear it from their mouths,” said Byrd.
Bill DeHart, 62, said the night was a golden opportunity to learn more about candidates and he couldn’t imagine why any Swain County resident would miss the forum.
When asked what he looked for in his leaders, he replied, “Somebody that doesn’t bullshit.”
“I think that’s the highest priority,” said DeHart. “If you say you’re going to do it, do it. If you can’t do it, don’t say you can.”
John Howard, a 37-year-old Swain County resident, said he was concerned about the relationship between the sheriff’s department and the county commissioners.
Howard added, “I’m tired of the good ol’ boy system. People need to be held accountable.”
His wife, Leanne Howard, 44, said curbing the drug problem should be a first priority, as should making law enforcement’s response to crime more consistent. Howard said she’d once called in to inform the sheriff’s department of a suspicious car in the neighborhood. “They called the SWAT team,” said Howard. But when she informed them of an identity theft case, in which she lost $1,500, she never got a call back.
Bryson City resident Beth Zimmerman said she was concerned about unemployment in the county. She supported sheriff candidate David Thomas’s idea of hiring staff locally.
Meanwhile, Harrison said she wished candidates had paid more attention to senior citizens. Only commissioner candidate Raymond Nelson and sheriff candidate Steve Buchanan mentioned the elderly in their speeches.
Harrison said there’s a significant senior citizen population in Swain County that needs to be attention from county leaders.
“These are people who’ve been here for generations,” said Harrison.
Formulating the forum
Two Swain County citizens, Robin Hamilton and Vickie Crews put together the forum after going through an election cycle in Swain County without knowing any of the candidates.
Hamilton said she’d initially hoped other citizens would lead the effort. “I was hoping someone else would take the ball and run with it, but nobody did,” said Hamilton.
So the duo got to work contacting candidates, lining up a venue, recruiting Smoky Mountain News Publisher Scott McLeod as the moderator and publicizing the forum.
Citizens and candidates both said they were grateful for their hard work.
“This was a tremendous service,” said Harrison.
All candidates were given time for opening and closing speeches. Supplanting the usual format where all candidates answer the same questions, each Swain candidate was asked a different question.
Below are some notable comments from each candidate:
Wayne Dover, Republican sheriff candidate: “I will give you my word — There will be an officer 24/7 dedicated to nothing but animal control and animal care.”
Steve Buchanan, Democrat sheriff candidate said being a newcomer is a positive: “I haven’t lived here my whole life... As a sheriff’s candidate, I don’t owe anyone anything, I don’t have to repay favors.”
David Thomas, Democrat sheriff candidate: “I’m going to have an open door policy with all the commissioners and citizens of Swain County.”
Chuck Clifton, Democrat sheriff candidate: “How can you be a leader of a law enforcement agency if you have no knowledge? There is no substitute for experience and education in law enforcement.”
Mike Clampitt, Republican candidate for chairman: “My one and only promise is I will be accountable to you because you are the ones that put me there... This county will be a team. Public service will be our business.”
Tommy Woodard, Democrat commissioner candidate: “What we need is openness and honesty, Swain County reunited with a common vision and a common goal. This board of commissioners has the ability to start that process.”
Raymond Nelson, Democrat commissioner candidate on interest from North Shore road settlement: “We need to have an input on what you want done with it. Use it wisely, use it frugally, use it for the benefit of all and not a few.”
John Herrin, Republican commissioner candidate: “Elect me because I’m going to come hunting you down, and we’re going to run this government together.”
William (Neil) Holden, Libertarian commissioner candidate: “As a Libertarian, I owe no allegiance to party politics. That is one thing that sets me aside from all these good folks you see here today.”
Gerald (Jerry) Shook, Republican commissioner candidate: “I don’t take the backseat. I’m not afraid to face any issues... We need to stand up and stop taking the bullying, and we need to start fighting for the community.
Judy Miller, Democrat commissioner candidate, in direct response to Shook: “Fighting’s good, but consensus is better.” Miller supports public involvement in creating a long-term plan for Swain County.
David Monteith, incumbent Democrat commissioner candidate after being asked whether he supports the county manager style of government or the older style, where department heads reported to commissioners: “I would like to go to the other style of government. I think it better keeps commissioners more involved in all of the decisions. The more commissioners know, the better decisions they can make.”
Billy Woodard, Democrat commissioner candidate: “We got to capitalize on what little revenue we have, promote our beautiful mountains, our quiet lifestyle, and our small business.”
Andy Parris, Republican commissioner candidate on the budget and tax increases: “I want to see what we have, what we can do with it before we go pushing anything else on the people.”