In the lead-up to the primary elections on May 4, criticism of the current administration is stewing underground in Swain County.
Most commissioner candidates admit reluctantly that much of that frustration is directed toward County Manager Kevin King, though few would openly criticize King themselves. Others have heard complaints that county commissioners seem to sit back while King makes decisions for them.
Complaints include concerns over King’s close family relationships with his uncle, Philip Carson, a sitting commissioner who is running for chairman; and Sue Carson King, Kevin King’s mother, who is running for clerk of court.
Still others protest what they perceive as a lack of transparency and entrenched partisanship in county government.
King characterized the criticisms as being baseless and simply a routine part of the usual election cycle.
“The county manager is always looked at,” said King. “[But] he is the one that is basically following through with the orders of the board.”
Moreover, King said the economic downturn is playing a major role in citizens’ dissatisfaction. “In this recession, everybody’s wanting to point the blame,” said King.
Since political backlash goes with the territory, county managers are offered hefty severance packages that discourage politically-motivated firings.
King’s contract, which doesn’t expire until December 2013, comes with a particularly generous golden parachute. If he gets fired without adequate cause, he would continue receiving his salary plus benefits until his contract runs out. King’s current annual salary is $65,776. In comparison, Jackson County’s manager makes $144,304.94, while the county manager for Haywood County receives $125,320 per year.
In addition, King would get a lump sum payment equal to a year’s salary and benefits, including car allowance, medical insurance and retirement. The county would also provide major medical hospitalization and life insurance for both King and his immediate family for a year.
If King resigns at the recommendation of a majority of commissioners, he receives the same benefits, but if he voluntarily resigns, he would not.
King said he’d let his record speak for itself in spite of citizens’ grumblings against the county administration.
Almost all candidates admitted that they’ve heard negative comments about the job Kevin King has done as county manager.
“Most of the time, in the heat of emotion, I’ve had several people say that Kevin King was one of the first people that needed to be fired,” said Democrat candidate Tommy Woodard, adding that he has not made his own evaluation on King’s job yet.
Democrat Robert White, who is running for commissioner and is the former superintendent of Swain County schools, said he’s heard people don’t like Kevin King, but admits that King has a tough job to do. White has also heard that Kings is making most of the decisions behind-the-scenes — rather than the elected officials calling the shots. White pledged a more proactive role if he gets elected.
“I think we’ll make the decisions as a board,” said White. “He is an employee, more or less, working under the board of commissioners.”
Democrat candidate Billy Woodard said, “I heard that he runs the county as he wants to, but I don’t know that because I’m not in there.”
For Republican candidate John Herrin, it’s not King who’s the real problem. While Herrin “tends to agree” that King has too much power, he added that King directly reflects what the current board wants.
“If they want to be laidback, be absent from the post, let him carry their load, that’s their prerogative,” said Herrin. “[But] the people did not elect Mr. King. They elected the board.”
According to current Commissioner Steve Moon, who is running for re-election, however, it’s ridiculous to say the board has not been proactive.
“I just don’t see any solid proof behind that statement, that we’re a do-nothing board of commissioners,” said Moon. “Whoever would say that is either a malcontent or don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Current Commissioner David Monteith, who is also up for re-election this year, refuses to blame one person for all of Swain County’s problems. If Monteith did have a problem with King, he would deal with it personally.
“He works for me, and four other commissioners,” said Monteith. “I would not air it publicly. That’s a personnel problem — if there is one.”
Monteith says King has done an “OK” job in his opinion, adding that many who do criticize King have little information to go on.
“Until they put his shoes on and do his job, it’s easy to criticize when you’ve not been there,” said Monteith.
However, Monteith admits there’s always room for improvement in the job that King is doing, and that he would like to be kept in the loop by King in the future. Monteith said he usually has no clue what will come up at a Monday meeting until the Thursday or Friday before.
“Informed people do not create a problem, it’s the uninformed,” said Monteith.
Meanwhile, King maintains that a weekend is plenty of time to review the packet for an upcoming meeting.
Monteith says he calls Kevin King every morning at 8:15 to ask about the agenda and King’s activities. “I should not have to do that,” said Monteith.
King retorted that he keeps all commissioners equally informed of significant developments as soon as they occur. There’s a difference between keeping commissioners informed and bugging them with the day-to-day occurrences or being “micromanaged” by them, King said.
Commissioner Moon said King makes sure he’s fully up-to-date on all the latest happenings.
“He keeps us informed about what we need to know and sometimes, what we don’t want to know,” said Moon, who receives calls from King “quite often.”
Moon said he hasn’t heard much negativity about King’s performance.
“If you look in the right nooks and crannies, you’ll find critics,” said Moon. “Harsh critics, sometimes.”
Most candidates say they just have to wait and see how King performs if they are elected to the board. Republican candidate John Herrin said he would not hesitate to fire King if he did not meet Herrin’s high expectations.
The state Local Government Commission recommends that counties set aside at least 8 percent of their budget for a cushion. Last year, Swain’s reserve funds fell to 6.6 percent, prompting state oversight of the county’s finances.
King and commissioners differ on whether King warned them of the pending financial crisis before it was too late.
In his defense, King said the board was “fully alerted” about the potential that the fund balance would fall below the 8 percent benchmark. King said he stressed the need for additional revenues or to cut additional positions or add furloughs.
“The board chose not to do anything during the time period,” said King. “The board at the particular time wanted to wait it out to see how everything would shake out.” King said anyone who looked at the meeting minutes could see that he suggested the board cut back. King admitted he knew by September 2008 that the fund balance would be compromised by at least $250,000. It ended up being short by $1 million, however, and that information wasn’t made public for nearly another year.
Commissioners say they were not aware of the problem until April 2009, when the LGC contacted them. The commission said Swain County had appropriated more than $2 million from the emergency fund. It was only legally authorized to appropriate about $1.8 million, however.
The letter also admonished King and the board for not authorizing changes to the budget by passing budget amendments. It’s widely known that commissioners must pass a budget amendment even if they spend a penny more than what was appropriated in the budget they passed at the outset of the year.
Contradicting King, Moon said he was not aware that the fund balance was going to fall below the 8 percent benchmark until after the fact. Moon would not comment on whether King should have informed the board sooner about the issue.
“We can’t blame bad economic times on Kevin King,” said Moon, adding both King and Finance Officer Vida Cody have done a good job working to create a balanced budget.
“I don’t understand it myself, but I think Kevin does a great job,” said Moon.
With the new $10 million jail eating up much of the county’s revenues — and sitting half-empty — many are looking back to how such a mistake could have been made.
Swain County’s previous board decided to build the 109-bed jail, expecting to receive overflow prisoners from surrounding counties even as they planned jails of their own.
Now that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is moving forward with its plans for a jail, Swain stands to lose half of the prisoners it is currently housing in its jail — leaving it only a quarter full.
King was a major advocate of such a large jail and convinced commissioners at the time it was the right thing to do, insisting it would be easily filled with future growth.
According to King, the difference between building a 75-bed jail and a 109-bed jail was only $1 million, accounting to $50,000 in debt payments each year.
“That’s not going to make you or break you,” said King.
But every year, Swain struggles to meet $450,000 in debt payments and an additional $160,000 on overhead and staff at the jail. The new jail annually costs the county $610,000 more than the old jail.
Monteith says he is glad to have voted against the facility, pointing out that he had argued all along to drop the jail to a 75-bed facility. Originally, a 150-bed jail had been planned.
“I stood on that then, I still stand on that,” said Monteith. “It is too big, it’s costing too much to heat, costing too much to cool, costing too much all the way around.”
Meanwhile, Moon said he was not involved in the planning of the jail, but that the county would have to live with the decision that has been made.
King admits that the jail is having a significant negative impact on the budget since it’s not pulling in enough revenue.
But it was absolutely necessary for the county to replace its decrepit 80-year jail, which only had 55 beds and often had to turn away overflow prisoners from surrounding counties.
King said the previous sheriff Bob Ogle wanted a larger jail and had reported that no other counties were planning on building its own jail at the time.
According to King, Swain planned its jail before the other counties.
“We were really the first one at the rotation. We started our process in 2005,” said King. In reality, however, Jackson, Haywood and Cherokee counties were already well on their way to building new jails of their own.
Calls for open government
Another issue brought up by critics is what they see as the county government’s antipathy for operating transparently.
Republican John Herrin said he’s asked for all documents related to the North Shore Road settlement, but received only a few emails.
King retorted that not all board members use e-mail, and they are not required to tape one-on-one conversations. Moreover, King sent all emails in his possession and personally made a request to commissioners to forward any relevant emails on to Herrin.
Monteith responded with about 10 emails, but no other commissioners responded to the request.
Republican sheriff candidate Wayne Dover said earlier that he had asked for records on all DARE program funds. A response letter from Finance Officer Vida Cody, however, states, “I regret to inform you that we will not be able to provide you with any information regarding the DARE program. I have made multiple verbal request [sic] for this information. On Feb. 9, 2009, I was informed by Jenny Hyatt, that Sheriff Cochran had said that this information would not be provided to the county.”
King said he could only make requests to other departments, not force them to make it available.
In recent weeks, King instructed Cody not to speak to the media and to direct press to his office.
“The board instructed me to send everything through the public requests officer,” said King, who as county manager serves as the public requests officer for Swain.
The request came after Cody spoke to The Smoky Mountain Times about her decision to pay for a K-9 dog’s surgery after Sheriff Cochran refused to pay for it with his department’s budget.
King said the new policy will allow him and commissioners to be more informed about what information is given to the press, and to make sure the facts that are presented are accurate.
King said Cody might sometimes give out numbers, without knowing proper background information to contextualize those numbers.
However, Herrin called the recent decision absurd, adding that King should not be a gatekeeper of information.
“That’s foolhardy,” said Herrin. “She’s the finance officer, what should she not know?”
Herrin added that citizens have to ask very specific questions to get public information at times, and other times, no information comes from a request.
“It’s very easy for a request to be sidetracked,” said Herrin. “If we ask for something, we should be able to see it.”
Herrin proposes following in Wake County’s footsteps and posting all expenditures and revenues online for citizens to see.
Billy Woodard said the county government must be an open government in order to suppress the spread of inaccurate information.
“The people are supposed to know what’s going on, but we don’t,” said Woodard. “If we get information, we get information that’s not factual...there’s too many rumors going on around the county, nobody knows the facts.”
It’s all in the family
Critics have raised concerns about the close family relationship between Kevin King and Philip Carson, King’s uncle who is commissioner and running for chairman; and Sue Carson King, Kevin King’s mother, who is running for clerk of court.
Democrat Candidate Robert White said that the relationship had crossed his mind, though he isn’t necessarily concerned about it.
“I can see where people would be concerned about that,” said White. “The criticism is that there’s too many of one family associated with county government.”
White later said the public has full right to elect Philip Carson and Sue King, however, if they so choose.
Moon agreed that the majority will rule on this case, adding that he personally didn’t see a problem with the relationship.
King said when he started working for the county 15 years ago as a finance officer, no one in the building was related to him.
“This is a small county,” said King. “There are a lot of people that I’m related to, and board members are related to. This is something that can’t be helped.”
King said with such a small population, it’s difficult not to run into family members at the county building. He said Hester Sitton, who is also running for clerk of court, is related to at least four people in county government. King said family relations should not hinder a candidate from running, however.
“It’s their own prerogative,” said King. “If they want to run for office, hey, feel free.”