Watching the sausage being made at local government meetings isn’t most people’s idea of high entertainment … or low entertainment, or entertainment of any kind of all, for that matter.
Outside of the occasional spat between elected board members or, even more rarely, hot-topic issues that get everyone in a community revved up for a time, these meetings are amazingly the same no matter which town or county you might land in.
The same sorts of people with similar axes to grind generally speak during the public sessions, their words so familiar that anyone left listening could stand in and give the speeches, verbatim, themselves. In towns, water and sewer issues often dominate leaders’ agenda; at counties, such riveting topics as 911 road-name changes, landfill issues and resolutions in favor of apple pie and the American flag and resolutions against muffins, communists and unfunded state mandates proliferate.
But in Macon County, there’s a group of four regular folks who find the county commissioners’ meetings the best show in town — they say the price is exactly right in these times of economic restraints (free), the performances routinely scheduled (at least once each month), and the cast of characters and the storylines comfortably predictable, yet with enough variation to keep things interesting.
“We like knowing what’s going on, and hearing what they say, and it’s a good way to find out about how they think and how things really work,” said Kenneth McKinney.
“It’s part of the charm of living in a small town,” his wife, Dianna McKinney, said. “And, it’s cheap entertainment.”
The McKinneys are joined at the Macon County Board of Commissioner meetings by close friends Catherine “Cate” Robb and husband, Richard Robb. The four always try to sit together on the very back row. Not exactly the peanut gallery, but they do joke around with and greet commissioners familiarly before the start of each meeting. They are as predictable a sight as Mike Trammel, the Macon County deputy posted to the county beat to keep order at meetings, or any of the six or so local reporters assigned to write about the commission meetings.
“The more people that are here, it helps the commissioners,” Cate Robb said, clearly sympathetic to commissioners’ need for an audience. After all, no one enjoys performing to an empty hall.
The two couples have known each other and been friends for 20 years. Since Kenneth and Dianna McKinney made the retirement move to Franklin about three years ago from Texas, they and the Robbs have made a point of attending the monthly meetings together.
And, yes, they do actually believe in civic duty — and that’s one reason they attend. Though when civic duty becomes too boring, they bail out early and go eat dinner together at their favorite local restaurant, Monte Alban Restaurante Mexicano, a monthly double date.
The four made it an hour-and-a-half last week before fleeing the meeting, after having enjoyed the following entertaining acts:
• Act 1: An apology by Chairman Brian McClellan who was six minutes late. He explained that driving from Highlands to Franklin had been slow going. McClellan counted — the motorist in front smoked four cigarettes on that 10-mile drive.
• Act 1.5: Recognizing Commissioner Ronnie Beale for his election as an officer of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. Beale thanked many people for their support, but particularly all of the people in Macon County (not, mercifully, each by name) in something of an Oscars-type speech.
• Act 2: Prayer and pledge of allegiance.
• Act 3: Public hearings on 911 road names and the transit program — nobody from the public spoke, so that didn’t take long.
• Act 4: Public comment, in which Macon County resident Mark Hirstir complained at length about damage done to his property by Duke Energy, and urged Macon commissioners to please pass some land regulations (they thanked him for his comments, and made no commitments or promises).
• Act 5: Presentations by Jane Kimsey, director of social services; resident Jerry Cook about a floodplain issue involving Wells Grove Baptist Church; and resident Jean Jordon on healthcare access.
• Act 6: Pleas from the sheriff and Highlands police chief for commissioners to help the town persuade the state not to eliminate the magistrate post in Highlands.
Then the four left, entertained enough apparently, but already anticipating the next meeting.
“We’ll be here if we’re in town,” Dianna McKinney promised.
And that suits the commissioners just fine.
“I teach civics, what am I supposed to say?” Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, a Macon County educator when not performing on the political stage, said with a laugh when actually queried on that point. “No, really, it’s great that they’re engaged. I wish even more people would come.”
Sylva Commissioner Danny Allen announced he will resign from the town board, but has yet to say when, leaving the rest of the town board in limbo on how — and even whether — it will fill his position.
Allen still has three years left on his term. Typically, the remaining town board members would appoint someone to fill the vacancy. But Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower said Sylva might simply leave the position vacant until November’s elections. This would set up the potential for a 2-2 voting split on the board in the meantime, with Mayor Maurice Moody holding the tiebreaker vote.
Also interesting? If Allen follows through (and he hasn’t publicly stated why he wants off the board, much less given a date of exactly when), then Sylva would boast a town council in which three out of five members were appointed rather than elected — if they moved forward with replacing Allen themselves.
Allen won re-election in November 2009 after a two-year hiatus from the board. Harold Hensley lost that election, but was appointed to the board to replace Sarah Graham, who resigned after moving out of the town limits. Chris Matheson also was appointed to the board to replace Moody as a commissioner after Moody vacated his seat to become mayor.
In the quagmire that is politics in Maggie Valley, the most recent appointee to the town’s board of aldermen says it’s her lack of agenda that makes her the ideal candidate — and possibly a rarity in a town defined by allegiances.
Danya Vanhook, a local lawyer who just finished a stint as district court judge, was chosen by a three-to-one vote to fill the vacant seat on the town’s board until elections are held in November.
“The reason I applied to fill this position is that I have no agendas,” Vanhook told the crowd assembled at the March 22 meeting of the town board. Vanhook was chosen after interviews with several candidates who threw their names into the ring to fill the seat vacated in January by former Alderman Colin Edwards.
Vanhook told citizens that she sought the position because she believes in public service and was looking for a place to get involved. She lost re-election as district court judge in November after just two years on the bench.
“I am doing this because it is a way for me as a private business owner and a private practitioner of law to serve my community,” said Vanhook.
The lone vote against Vanhook was cast by Phil Aldridge, who has recently disagreed with the other board members at nearly every turn.
Aldridge said his vote wasn’t an indictment of Vanhook or her qualifications, but a salvo to his recent campaign to allow the next-highest vote-getter from the last election to take the seat. Since Edwards abdicated, Aldridge has maintained that it would be the most democratic way to replace him, railing against hand-picking by the board.
“I have to oppose simply because I support Phil Wight,” said Aldridge. “He was the citizens choice. I think we did have wonderful candidates but the people have spoken.”
The seat on Maggie Valley’s board was left empty after a rift over ABC operations, with Aldridge and Edwards on one side and fellow members Saralyn Price, Scott Pauley and Mayor Roger McElroy on the other. Edwards said the argument made it impossible for him to continue working with other board members, so he left.
In the wake of his departure, more conflict arose over precisely how his replacement would be chosen. After setting a deadline for applications, Town Manager Tim Barth extended the deadline at the last minute, which he said was to allow a wider field the chance to participate.
This rankled Aldridge, who saw it as a ploy by other board members to wait for hand-chosen applicants to express interest.
In this respect, thought, Vanhook is somewhat of a surprise appointment. While she has a history of public service, especially in the legal arena, her involvement in Maggie Valley politics has been negligible.
Despite that, Vanhook said she is eager to learn and sees local government as important decision-makers for residents and business owners.
“I think the most important thing is to serve our local town. The most important decisions happen right here in this room,” said Vanhook.
Maggie Valley’s town board has historically dominated by tourism-oriented business people. But as the town has annexed more subdivisions into the town limits over the past decade, the board has seen more representation from residents like Vanhook without commercial interests.
She will be sworn in at the town’s next monthly meeting and will serve for seven months before the seat is up for re-election.
One town commissioner, the town manager and two business owners will help pick Sylva’s next police chief.
The panel, agreed on last week at a board meeting, replaces one originally conceived by Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower that sparked dissent among the town’s five commissioners. She proposed using herself, two Western Carolina University employees, and the town of Maggie Valley’s police chief to select a replacement for Jeff Jamison, who steps down Oct. 1.
But Commissioners Harold Hensley, Danny Allen and Ray Lewis objected to the use of outsiders. They said there was ample wisdom on the town board to help guide the selection. The town’s leaders include two former police officers, Allen and Lewis, and a former district attorney, Christina Matheson. The board agreed to this panel makeup previously.
Allen and Lewis missed last week’s meeting. No explanation for their absence was offered.
Matheson volunteered to serve on the panel, and nominated Marion Jones of Jones Country Store. Hensley nominated R.O. Vance of Vance Hardware and Appliance Repair. The nominations of all three, Matheson, Jones and Vance, passed unanimously, 3-0.
While hiring choices and day-to-day management of town affairs usually fall to the manager, a town ordinance stating commissioners shall select the police chief further confused the issue.
Sylva hired its first manager eight years ago, but this represents the first time the manager has wielded hiring power for the police chief. Before, town board members selected the police chief.
Sylva Commissioner Christina Matheson surfaced as peacemaker last week for a town board that, among other matters, has shown signs of fracturing over the best method of hiring a new police chief.
Commissioner Harold Hensley bucked up at a meeting in August after learning about Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower’s plan to use outside help in deciding who would replace Police Chief Jeff Jamison, who retires Oct. 1. Isenhower had informed the board she intended to form a panel made up of herself, two Western Carolina University employees, and the town of Maggie Valley’s police chief.
At that meeting, commissioners Danny Allen and Ray Lewis echoed Hensley’s reluctance to allow Isenhower the full hiring power the town’s charter apparently stipulates. Often, town boards hire their manager, and the manager is in charge of hiring all other positions.
But no one seems entirely sure what the correct legal procedure is for Sylva because a town ordinance has confused the issue. The ordinance states commissioners shall select the police chief.
Hensley, Lewis and Allen emerged as a voting and speaking-in-one-voice bloc after Hensley was appointed in July to fill a board vacancy. This changed the constitution of the board. The minority is now the majority, and Commissioner Stacey Knotts has become the odd woman out after voting “no” to Hensley’s appointment.
Allen, who nominated Hensley for the board seat, upped tensions by sending a letter to The Sylva Herald demanding Isenhower and Mayor Maurice Moody consider resigning if they didn’t “work with us not against us.”
This, after commissioners’ summoned Isenhower behind closed doors for a time following last month’s dustup.
Against this backdrop of internecine warfare, Matheson attempted to throw oil on the water, at times even leaning back in her chair to directly negotiate with Hensley in a semi-private but still legally public manner.
Hensley sits on the other side of the mayor, as do Allen and Lewis, in a tidy but accidental alignment of what actually takes place in the boardroom. So the negotiations were literally, if not figuratively, going on behind Moody’s back.
“My suggestion is, to avoid confusion … we need to get a resolution of our charter, first,” Matheson said.
Matheson, a former assistant district attorney, outlined the following: Respect the autonomy of the manager, but have a board member present when candidates for high-level town positions are interviewed. In the vacancy for police chief, for instance, the number of applicants would be reduced to three by the manager, with the assistance of this special commissioner.
“Narrow the field to the extent the manager could (then) make the decision,” Matheson said.
“I think that’s a wonderful proposal,” Hensley said, as Lewis and Allen nodded in agreement.
Knotts, however, temporarily stymied the prospect of board unity by demanding a larger panel be formed.
“I don’t think one board member should be weeding all the applications down to three,” she said.
Hensley responded the size of the panel didn’t matter to him. He did warn that if too many board members got involved, the necessity of abiding by the state’s open-meetings law would come into play.
Ultimately, commissioners agreed one of them would volunteer for the panel, as originally proposed by Matheson. Additionally, at Hensley’s suggestion and with Knott’s agreement, a local businessperson who is also a town citizen will serve as a third body on the panel. Nominations for this post will be considered at the next meeting.
Isenhower, 27, was hired as town manager in March 2009 by a 3-2 vote of the board. Knotts voted for her, Hensley and Lewis against her. Allen wasn’t yet on the town board. The vote followed the board’s firing of former Town Manager Jay Denton in a controversial and split vote.
The Sylva town board is in for another shakeup. The board will vote at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 1, to appoint a replacement for Sarah Graham, who had to step down from her position because she and her family have moved outside the town limits.
It’s the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board has had to vote on an appointment. Mayor Maurice Moody vacated his commissioner’s seat after the November municipal election.
Harold Henson, who lost his board seat to Danny Allen, was bypassed for the appointment when the remaining members tapped Chris Matheson for the seat Moody left.
Now Matheson, Allen, Stacy Knotts, and Ray Lewis will have to vote to fill Graham’s vacant seat. As with the November appointment, the newest town board member could provide a decisive third vote on key issues.
The make-up of Sylva’s town board shifted this week when board members voted 3-1 to replace outgoing board member Sarah Graham with Harold Hensley.
The vote changes the town’s disposition from one with a progressive voting majority to one likely to be characterized by fiscal conservatism and a more traditional philosophy.
Graham, who came to the board after leading the Downtown Sylva Association, stepped down from her seat after moving outside the town limits, making her no longer eligible to serve as an elected town leader. Hensley formerly served on the board for four years, but narrowly lost re-election last year.
Graham and Hensley often had opposing visions for the town and voted on the opposite side of key controversial issues.
It’s the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board has had to vote to appoint one of their own. Mayor Maurice Moody vacated his seat after the November municipal election, and the board replaced him with Chris Matheson.
In the November 2009 election, board members Danny Allen and Stacy Knotts narrowly edged out Hensley. It was Allen who tipped Hensley for the spot at this week’s town board meeting.
“I think the fairest and the honest thing to do is consider the third runner up, previous board member Harold Hensley,” Allen said.
Only Knotts objected to the motion. In a dignified prepared statement she explained her opposition to Hensley, who was seated in the crowd.
“To respect the voters who voted for me I’m going to vote ‘no’ to the motion,” Knotts told Hensley. However, “I will work with you for the betterment of Sylva.”
Knott’s opposition to Hensley was based on her support for town initiatives like downtown improvements, funding for the Downtown Sylva Association, the expansion of recreational facilities and making a forray into land-use planning. That type of progressive platform is one that was largely shared in recent years by Graham and Moody — and more recently by Knotts, Graham and Matheson — giving them the three votes needed to push an agenda.
Now Hensley, Allen and Ray Lewis, who in general share a vision of fiscal conservatism, now hold the majority voting block.
Hensley downplayed his historic opposition to funding for the Downtown Sylva Association after the appointment.
“There probably will be a difference between mine and Sarah’s opinion, but I’m definitely not against the DSA,” Hensley said.
But he did indicate where is priorities lie.
“I hope I can do what I did before, which is never take a decision without the taxpayer in mind,” Hensley said.
Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody only votes in the case of a tie. Moody shares a progressive inclination with Knotts and Matheson, but has also used his energy to try to create consensus on the board. He had hoped to find a candidate that would result in a unanimous nomination.
“I’m not disappointed,” Moody said. “Harold and I agree on some things, and we disagree on some things. I can work with Harold. We’ve known each other most of our lives.”
Another result of Hensley’s appointment is that Knotts is the only sitting member of the board not originally from Sylva.
Moody said Graham had provided a fresh outlook and great experience to the board, and he said there was little point in attempting to draw meaning from a board member’s birthplace.
“I don’t put much importance on being a native, even though I am one,” Moody said. “I would put more importance on the welfare of the town.”
Sylva’s incoming Mayor Maurice Moody said he wanted to start his career with a consensus vote and that’s exactly what he did.
In its first act, the newly seated Sylva town board unanimously voted to appoint Christine Matheson to the commissioner’s seat left vacant by Moody when he became mayor.
The unanimous appointment could bridge the voting divide that had emerged on the board over the past two years.
“I really did not want to start off this board with a 3 to 2 vote and I think we made a significant step tonight,” Moody said.
In Matheson, the board selected a Sylva native who worked for over a decade in the district attorney’s office and has participated with the Jackson County Economic Development Commission.
Matheson announced her intent to operate as an independent voice on the board.
“I’m fairly independent, and I vote my mind,” Matheson said. “I’ll take each issue as it comes. I don’t want to label myself or place myself in any category.”
Moody had made clear his desire to fill the seat he vacated with someone with broad support in Sylva all along. The board was facing the possibility of a contentious 3 to 2 vote that could have set up a long-standing divide between two commissioners with so-called “progressive” voting agendas –– Stacy Knotts and Sarah Graham –– and two commissioners expected to espouse more traditional platforms –– Ray Lewis and Danny Allen.
In the run-up to last week’s town board meeting, Moody was busy seeking a consensus-building candidate and talking individually with the commissioners.
“I kept looking,” Moody said. “I think Chris had the most to do with everybody coming together. She’s well-known in the community and she’s an independent thinker.”
Over the past two years Knotts, Graham and Moody have consistently voted together and espouse what can best be described as a “progressive” agenda that favors channeling resources to the downtown district and investing in parks and recreation amenities. Ray Lewis and Harold Hensley had embraced a fiscally conservative platform focused on the nuts and bolts of providing public safety and infrastructure. Hensley lost his seat in the fall election and was replaced by Danny Allen, a close ally of Lewis and Hensley with a similar philosophy.
Allen indicated after his election that he would push hard for the appointment of Hensley, who narrowly lost re-election by a 10-vote margin. But Knotts said she preferred a replacement who would more closely represent Moody’s viewpoint, setting up a potential showdown between the board factions.
Both sides hailed the appointment of Matheson.
“I don’t think we could have replaced Harold with anybody but Chris,” Lewis said.
Allen said it was important to him that Moody’s replacement had grown up in the community.
“From my standpoint, yes, that was important,” Allen said. “That will help with the transition.”
Moody downplayed Matheson’s Sylva upbringing, instead emphasizing her past participation in local government.
“I don’t put that much weight on where you come from,” said Moody. “All of our ancestors came from somewhere else at some point. I think you just need to have people who are interested in the community.”
Knotts, who moved to Sylva later in her life, showed she had won the confidence of her peers as the board unanimously voted her to serve as vice mayor. Knotts said she voted for Matheson because of her work with the EDC and her visibility in the community.
“I thought it was important for the person to be well-known in the community,” Knotts said.
The series of unanimous votes in the board’s first meeting may represent Moody’s crowning achievement as a first-term mayor –– building consensus in a board with two distinct ideologies.
The moment of truth arrives for Sylva’s new town board on the day it starts work.
When board members convene this week, the first item on their agenda will be pivotal in defining the town’s ideological direction for the next two years.
Newly-elected Mayor Maurice Moody will vacate his seat as alderman, and the task of naming his replacement will fall to the rest of the board.
While split 3 to 2 votes have characterized the board the past two years, Moody is hoping for a fresh start.
“You’ve got two different ideologies on the board,” Moody said. “Three of us are of one persuasion and two of us are of the other. I’m not sure that’s not healthy.”
Whoever fills the vacant seat is likely to tip the voting balance to one of the ideological sides that have emerged over the past two years.
Moody is keen to have the board come to consensus on naming his replacement, but he has indicated he is willing to cast a tie-breaking vote to preserve the progressive voting block that currently holds the majority on the board.
“Your majority normally does not vote to get rid of their majority. I believe that would be highly unusual,” said Moody.
Stacy Knotts, Sarah Graham, and Moody have consistently voted together and espouse what can best be described as a “progressive” agenda that favors channeling resources to the downtown district and investing in parks and recreation amenities.
Ray Lewis and Harold Hensley have embraced a fiscally conservative platform focused on the nuts and bolts of providing public safety and infrastructure. Hensley lost his seat in the fall election, but will be replaced by Danny Allen, a close ally of Lewis and Hensley with a similar philosophy.
Allen said Hensley should be appointed to the vacancy since Hensley was the third highest vote-getter in the election — separated by a mere 10 votes.
Allen said unless Hensley gets the appointment, there is unlikely to be consensus — with him and Lewis on one side in support of Hensley and Graham and Knotts on the other. Moody would vote in the case of a tie.
“It’s going to be difficult for Maurice,” Allen said. “I think a lot of it’s going to come down to him.”
Knotts doesn’t accept the idea that Hensley’s third place position in the fall election — which saw just 14 percent turnout — has earned him his seat back.
“I think that oversimplifies the decision that has to be made. When the voters went out and selected the balance of the board, that was factored into their decision,” said Knotts.
Instead, Knotts thinks the board needs to replace Moody with someone Moody-like.
“I’ve going to think hard about a person who represents the ideas and the mindset he represented,” Knotts said.
As with the election two years ago, Canton will once again see three new faces on the board.
Voters had a deep bench of candidates to chose from: 10 running for four seats on the board. The only two returning board members are Alderman Eric Dills and Mayor Pat Smathers.
Town politics in Canton have been marked by division the past two years, and the vast majority of candidates running this time claimed they would rise above the fray and bring an end to opposing camps.
The two town leaders most at odds — Smathers and Dills — are the only two returning to the board, leaving it up to the three new board members to forge a new direction.
“I think we will sit around that table and come up with some good ideas and discuss them and come to a consensus hopefully a lot quicker than what was done in the past,” said Ed Underwood, one of the new candidates winning election to the board.
Candidate Jimmy Flynn agreed.
“I just feel like the three new people need to concentrate on bringing everybody together,” Flynn said.
Flynn said personality conflicts need to be put aside to do what’s best for the town.
“They have to concentrate on listening to each other more than talking,” Flynn said.
Two years ago, voters ousted three long-time board members and ushered in a slate of new faces for the first time in years. A power struggle between Smathers and Dills rooted in philosophical differences bogged down progress, according to both candidates and voters.
One voter interviewed for an exit poll, Paul Moore, said he went for a “complete change” when casting his ballot. Moore had supported a change on the board two years ago but was disappointed in what they had accomplished.
“Nothing,” he said.
Luckily for Moore, all the seats on the Canton board are up for election every two years, so he didn’t have to wait long to vote for another clean sweep.
Dills has been among the first to admit that the change promised by candidates two years ago hasn’t come to fruition but says progress was stymied by hold-overs in the town leadership who resisted the change.
“People haven’t been satisfied with the progress that has been made, but I know I will continue to stand in there with their best interest,” Dills said.
A hot topic in the race was forging a new place for the historic, blue-collar mill town in the 21st century economy.
“I think everybody in Canton wants Canton to be a vibrant community again,” said Randy Burrell, a voter interviewed on his way out of the polls. “I think all the candidates have that in mind. It is the main issue. Canton has a little niche somewhere and once we find it, we’ll be back.”
Indeed, most candidates made revitalization a central issue — but they differ on how to best target the town’s efforts. Some want the top focus to be on the core downtown. Others want to upgrade water and sewer around the Interstate 40 interchange to lay the groundwork for commercial development. Yet others believe Canton’s strength lies in its neighborhoods and want to clean them up.
Underwood said it is crucial they agree on some priorities, or they won’t be any better than the last board, which was chastised for getting nothing done.
“You hear presidential elections with a mandate. The mandate here was get down there and work together,” Underwood said. “I think if you didn’t hear that message, you got a problem.”
Mayor Pat Smathers published an op-ed piece in a local paper listing 17 priorities he wants to see the town tackle and challenged voters to elect candidates who would follow his lead on them.
Dills said he is going to come up with his own list to put before the board. He said the board should commit to priorities on paper rather than a piecemeal approach that is hard to track.
“We have to come to some concensus and figure out what we want to accomplish the next two years, put it on paper and let’s go do it,” Dills said.
Troy Mann, a current board member who lost re-election, wished the new board good luck.
“If they can fulfill Mayor Smathers’ list of 17 projects, they have their work cut out for them,” Mann said.
Smathers was running unopposed, and nearly a third of the voters chose not to vote at all in the mayor’s race and instead marked no name at all. Another 88 voters wrote in a candidate for mayor, but the names were not available as of press time.
Barry Mull, a worker at the mill, was among those who chose not to vote at all, rather than vote for Smathers.
“I think it’s time for him to slide out of there,” said Mull.
Most voters wouldn’t say who they voted for to avoid hurt feelings in a small community. For Cassie Erwin, 22, members of her own family were split over who to vote for and therefore she wouldn’t share her picks.
Flynn, a safety manager for Buckeye Construction, was the top vote-getter. He chalks it up to his experience working for the town for 30 years in a variety of jobs from the police department to recreation department to streets. He also served as town clerk and assistant manager.
“I think people were looking for experience,” Flynn said.
Pat Smathers (I) 448
Seats up for election: 4
Total seats on board: 4
Jimmy Flynn 364
Ed Underwood 337
Eric Dills (I) 288
Kenneth Holland 257
Carole Edwards 246
Patrick Willis 229
Charlie Crawford 216
Troy Mann (I) 214
Angela Jenkins 195
Gene Monson 171
Registered voters: 2,880
Voter turn-out: 648 (24%)