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Wednesday, 05 September 2012 02:06

Maggie aldermen stumble over best practices for filling vacant seat

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The simple task of replacing an empty seat on the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen has turned into a process rife with finger pointing and faultfinding after the board failed to lay out a clear process for how the new alderman would be chosen.

Just two weeks ago, longtime alderman and Maggie resident Phil Aldridge resigned before moving back to his hometown in Alabama to get married, leaving it up to the four remaining board members to name his replacement.

 

Typically, the town puts out a notice asking people to apply for the vacant seat by a set deadline. The board could then choose to interview all of the candidates or narrow the pool down and only interview the top applicants. Then, it would collectively decide which person to appoint to the seat.

This time around, it didn’t go quite so smoothly. Some members of the board with a particular candidate already in mind attempted to fast-track the process.

First, the town limited the application period to just 10 days. When the deadline rolled around on Aug. 28, eight resumes had come in. Despite the large number, the town sent out a notice that the board of aldermen would meet two days later on Aug. 30 to appoint a new alderman.

In the meantime, however, a few Maggie residents began complaining about what they said was a lack of transparency. They suspected that some of the aldermen had already decided amongst themselves who they were going to pick without holding a public discussion or interviewing the candidates.

“I didn’t think I would ever be here in front of this group talking about how embarrassed I am by this town council,” said Maggie resident Bob Knoedler at the Aug. 30 meeting. “I am just absolutely shocked that within roughly 24 hours after the close of (applications), we have people that are talking about the no need for interviews.”

Prior to the meeting, the aldermen had not discussed in an open meeting or even seemingly amongst themselves how the process would proceed. However, there was some talk about a favorite candidate.

Aldermen Phillip Wight and Mike Matthews had both expressed a liking for their friend and businessman Steve Hurley, owner of Hurley’s Creekside Dining and Rhum Bar in Maggie Valley.

“That is who I was leaning toward, and that is who I still lean towards,” Matthews said, adding that, although it seems unlikely, he could change his mind.

Wight said it is silly to think that people would not have favorites coming into the Aug. 30 meeting.

Another board member disagreed, however. Alderwoman Saralyn Price said she did not want to pick a favorite right out of the starting gate. She would rather listen to each person and choose a frontrunner then, she said.

Leading to further scrutiny and concern that a decision about the new alderman was all but final was Hurley’s appearance earlier in the week at a gathering of local elected leaders from the seven western counties, known as the Council of Governments, who meet periodically to discuss topics such as economic development and collaboration.

According to Matthews, he invited Hurley to the reception dinner on a whim when his wife could not since he already had two tickets. 

“I thought it would be good for him to see everybody and meet everybody,” Matthews said.

Some felt Hurley’s presence at the event — a reception dinner and social hour — was malapropos.

“I have nothing against Steve. But, I think that wasn’t really appropriate,” said longtime resident and business owner Brenda O’Keefe. “You do look like fools now.”

None of the other aldermen knew that Matthews invited Hurley to the dinner. Mayor Ron DeSimone said he did not find out until he was already at the event. DeSimone said Matthew’s decision fell in morally grey area.

“Whether that is appropriate or not, I will let someone else decide that,” DeSimone said. “I kind of think maybe not.”

 

To interview or not to interview

When there have been vacancies on the town board in the past, the town had conducted interviews. 

This time, however, all indications were that the board would vote at its Aug. 30 meeting without interviewing the applicants first.

Residents, and Price, voiced complaints over the fast-tracked process.

“I think that is only fair to them and only fair to the people in Maggie,” Price said. “I don’t want to have a favorite. I want to make up my mind after I talk to them.”

Matthews had previously pointed out that the town did not have to interview candidates or even have an application process. In fact, it is not beholden by law to any formal process. If the board so chose, it could simply appoint a replacement alderman.

However, Matthews later clarified that statement. 

“Just because I said we didn’t need to do them doesn’t mean that I think we shouldn’t do them,” Matthews said, adding that he only wanted to interview the two applicants he did not know but would listen to additional interviews if the other aldermen wanted to question others as well.

Matthews went through the appointment process himself, which included an application and interview, last year after another alderman resigned.

Despite whatever the original intentions were, following the backlash, aldermen decided to conduct a full suite of interviews with all eight candidates.

Mayor Ron DeSimone announced before the Aug. 30 meeting that the town would be conducting interviews after all, and thus wouldn’t be voting on a replacement that night.

The Haywood County Board of Commissioners must regularly appoint people to fill seats on various boards. The commissioners set a date, interview all the applicants, no matter how numerous, giving each 15 minutes before making a decision at their regularly scheduled meeting.

Several residents who attended the meeting to speak out about the fast-track process got their wish when the board chose to go the interview route.

“The people, the eight people who submitted applications, should be properly vetted,” Knoedler said. “I don’t care about what you can or can’t do legally. I care about you doing the right thing, and the right thing is to properly vet these people.”

In a surprise twist, Hurley — who is allegedly a preferred candidate for some aldermen — himself rose to speak and announced that he wanted to rescind his application.

“I don’t know how this got started, guys; I really don’t,” Hurley said. “I don’t want to tear this town apart. It’s a beautiful town, and I’m not going to do it. I’m sorry, guys.”

Hurley later that evening decided to stay in the running after all.

After the meeting, Matthews said that special meetings do not usually include public comment sessions, and he felt it was pre-arranged after the hubbub surrounding the process and his actions. 

“I kind of feel like that whole thing was setup the other night,” Matthews said.

Wight agreed that something seemed not quite right.

“I just thought it was odd that we called for public comment,” Wight said.

Wight was particularly concerned about all the criticism the board was receiving before even making a choice. The board had not done anything yet beyond take applications, Wight said.

“I would rather have all this abuse after I make a bad decision, not before,” Wight said.

 

Where to go from here

The decision to do interviews and postpone the appointment until Sept. 10 has slowed the process of picking Aldridge’s replacement, to the joy of some.

“I am not very happy the way that it sounds like the process is going so far,” said Price prior to the Aug. 30 meeting. “Why are they in such a hurry?”

DeSimone chimed in at the meeting, saying that he saw no reason to rush things.

“We do not have any pressing issues,” DeSimone said.

Matthews, however, said why waste time. Matthews said he had been prepared to do interviews and make a decision that day, on Aug. 30.

“I thought we were doing it today,” Matthews said during the meeting.

But, in the end, no action was taken.

Because Hurley is a good friend of Matthews and Wight, some are concerned Hurley’s addition to the board would automatically add to their voting bloc.

“You don’t want to put your twin brother on the board, but you don’t want to put the polar opposite,” Wight said.

Although former alderman Aldridge had run with two other candidates, Phillip Wight and Ron DeSimone, who promised to bring change to the valley during the last election, Aldridge was somewhat unpredictable when it came to his voting record. He did not simply side with Wight or DeSimone because they had packaged themselves together during the election. Meanwhile, Matthews has ended up siding with Wight nearly all the time.

Hurley said he has his own ideas about running Maggie Valley as well.

“I will butt heads with anybody,” Hurley said. “I think I told Mike that I am not a puppet. I will not vote just because they are my friends.”

Hurley added that he had told Matthews that he thought everyone should be interviewed, and if he was not the best candidate, then so be it. But, he put in his application because, Hurley said, he wants to help Maggie Valley.

“I just feel like I could bring something good,” Hurley said.

The next step, in addition to holding the interviews, is finding a fair way to decide on a winner. Price has already floated the idea of awarding each person points during the interviews and approving the person with the most points. However, Price said that would not end with a fair result since two aldermen already have the same favorite candidate.

“I don’t think it would be now because I think they have already made up their mind,” Price said.

Both DeSimone and Matthews separately stated their amenability to the idea since it has been a tried-and-true technique in the past.

“That sounds like a good method,” DeSimone said. “We will probably do some sort of incarnation of that.”

 

Déjà vu in Maggie Valley

This is not the first time that the Maggie Valley town board has received flack for the way it handled the appointment process when vacancies arose mid-term on the town board.

In early 2011, then-alderman Colin Edwards resigned from the board citing differences of opinion with his fellow board members. When the town only received five applications, it chose to extend the deadline in the hopes that more would apply.

Six month later, another alderman resigned when he moved away because his business was struggling to survive in Maggie. That time, the town only received three applications — two fewer than the previous time — but decided to hold firm on the deadline. The board faced criticism for flip-flopping on how the appointment process should go.

Ironically, those who complained last year that the process was slanted by favoritism toward certain applicants are now being accused of doing the same thing themselves.

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