A meeting of the Sylva Town Board took an unexpected turn last week when mayor-elect Christina Matheson announced that she would not be able to accept the office. The board then appointed outgoing Mayor Maurice Moody to continue in office until the next municipal election.
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, her new address making her ineligible to serve as an elected town leader. Hensley, 72, 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 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 as a board member to move up to mayor after the November election. The other board members 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 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 his 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.”
Hensley’s appointment lasts until November 2011.
Sylva Commissioner Sarah Graham will step down from the town board at the end of June because her family has decided to move outside town limits.
Graham said she and husband, Bill, had been looking at homes that offered more land for their growing family, when they found a perfect place on Fisher Creek Road.
“Because the house isn’t in the town I have no choice but to resign my position on this board,” said Graham, who lived downtown and loved being part of its vibrant scene.
As a result of Graham’s announcement, the four remaining board members –– Chris Matheson, Danny Allen, Ray Lewis, and Stacy Knotts –– will be left with the task of naming a replacement in June. Mayor Maurice Moody only votes in the case of a tie.
The board underwent a similar process last December. Moody was a sitting town board member when he ran for mayor. He won, but still had two years left on the town board, leaving a vacant seat to be filled on the board.
During that process, Moody was instrumental in searching out his own replacement, Chris Matheson, and ensuring she had the support of the entire board before she was nominated, although he technically couldn’t vote except in a tie.
“Chris has had a unifying effect on the board and has done a good job, and I would hope to find the same type of candidate this time,” Moody said.
Graham said she wanted to serve until the town’s budget for next year was finalized, which means serving until the end of June when the fiscal year ends.
The town board has been divided on the some budget issues for the past four years, most notably over whether the town should make annual financial contributions to the Downtown Sylva Association, a cause particularly close to Graham’s heart.
Moody commended Graham for her work as a commissioner, particularly on issues directly affecting downtown.
“I hate to lose her, but I think when someone is putting their family’s best interest first, you have to support them,” Moody said.
In leaving, Graham said she felt the town is moving in the right direction, and she will continue to work in its best interests.
“I think the town is moving in a great direction and that, given the state of the economy, the town is in a great financial situation,” Graham said. “I look forward to serving Sylva in any way I can.”
Graham served as the director of the Downtown Sylva Association before being elected commissioner. She was instrumental in the revitalization of Bridge Park, a downtown green space and concert venue.
For the past year or so, Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody has been focused on cleaning up his town.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and in the last year we’ve made significant progress,” Moody said.
The city’s health and sanitation ordinance says the town can order property owners to clean up public health nuisances on their property within 24 hours of being notified of the hazard. The so-called hazard abatement ordinance draws its force from state statutes that outline the rights of property owners and municipalities in the cases of public health nuisances.
In the past year, the town has gotten nine property owners to clean up perceived health hazards that range from rusting hulks of trailers, to piles of junk parts, to old tires in yards. Businesses haven’t been exempt from the push either, with Jackson Paper and a local auto repair shop making the list.
In town, the nuisance abatement program is considered Moody’s pet project, since he has pushed the stalled conversation forward.
Sylva’s updated list of residents with health risks on their property identified between 2009 and the present contains 17 names, and nine of the nuisances have already been abated.
The way the program works is that members of the town staff or board identify potential nuisances. In the event that there is confusion over a property, the town’s attorney, Eric Ridenour, evaluates the site and makes a determination about the town’s legal ability to enforce the ordinance.
The town then sends legal notice in the form of a letter from the town manager to the property owner to clean up the health hazard. Upon receiving the letter, property owners have 24 hours to start the process of eliminating the nuisance.
Not everyone is thrilled with the program.
William Woodring was cited under the ordinance for junk car parts in the yard of his Rhodes Cove property.
“I don’t think it’s a health concern if it’s car parts,” Woodring said. “If it was trash, they might have something.”
Woodring said he got the notice in the mail, and was never spoken to in person. His mother died at the beginning of the month and much of the junk belonged to his brother, who was living in a trailer with his mother. It was a difficult time to get things cleaned up.
Woodring agreed to clean up his property, but he wonders whether the program is really about removing health risks or people making assumptions about other people’s property.
“I guess it’s just people nosing around and saying that’s junk,” Woodring said. “Some people’s junk is really worth something. Somebody ought to come talk to me about it anyway because I do pay my taxes.”
But Moody is unapologetic about the program.
“It’s certainly a health and sanitation thing, but it’s also an appearance thing,” Moody said. “What you do in your backyard does make a difference.”
Moody said that as land tracts in town get smaller, the effects of health nuisances on neighboring properties are accentuated. He allows that some people might object to the idea of being told to clean up their land.
“Some people might feel that way, but I don’t think our ordinances violate anybody’s property rights,” Moody said.
Commissioner Chris Matheson said the program isn’t designed to harass people or enforce aesthetic standards. She said calling people on the phone or talking to them doesn’t qualify as legal notice, and the town does what it can to help property owners clean up their land, including offering yearlong extensions in certain cases.
“We don’t go through the final steps without really trying hard to work with the property owner. It’s really just about getting the health nuisance cleaned up,” Matheson said. “There’s also grounds for someone who feels like it is just an aesthetic issue and not a health abatement issue to challenge it.”
In the end, the program relies on cooperation from property owners, and its record of success has shown that most people are willing to clean up health hazards on their land if they are given enough time to do it.