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Wednesday, 06 December 2006 00:00

Backroom deals should all just go away

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In the years I’ve been going to Swain County, David Monteith has emerged as a barometer of sorts. One may disagree with Monteith on a particular issue, but the independent-thinking county commissioner can almost always be counted on to vote with a conscience, a commitment to what he feels is right.

 

So it surprised me, at first, when I learned he had voted against ending the outrageous meals-for-pay arrangement that had provided a sort of back-door salary stipend for the county sheriff. But upon further investigation, it seems apparent that once again Monteith was voting his conscience, believing that ending this arrangement at the time a new Republican sheriff was coming on board just didn’t smell good.

The truth be known, though, this whole deal doesn’t smell very good, and Swain County officials should have ended it long ago.

 

The meal deal

For some time now, Swain County commissioners and its sheriff have taken part in a pay scam that sounds more like something out of an old movie than anything that would be occurring in 2006.

In order to make up for a sheriff’s salary that was the lowest in the state, Swain County contracted with its sheriff to provide meals for inmates in the county jail. This operation was set up as a side business completely under the sheriff’s control. He was able to use county facilities to prepare the meals, trustees to help cook, got food donations from local businesses and even used USDA commodities surplus food. No one is saying — yet — how much long-time sheriff Bob Ogle or the sheriffs before him made under this arrangement.

That is the crux of the problem with this meals-for-money deal. Ogle and sheriffs before him were able to profit at the expense of county taxpayers while those charged with making the county’s spending decisions — the elected county commissioners — have no idea how much money he was raking in. Plus, he was using county facilities and even inmate labor for profit. It’s really irrelevant if the county was getting a good deal. This arrangement clearly violates the faith we put in our elected officials.

In addition, it is probably illegal. Swain County Manager Keith King said he has been encouraging the county to end the deal for some time.

“We are the only county in the state that has this arrangement, and it is an illegal arrangement,” said King.

Auditors have also questioned the arrangement, but stopped short of telling the county it was illegal

 

Why now?

There’s still some confusion as to why county commissioners decided it was time to end this deal now, but most are speculating it had something to do with politics.

Incoming sheriff Curtis Cochran is a Republican, only the second member of the party to hold the sheriff’s office in Swain in the last 100 years, according to local politicos. Swain County Commission Chairman Glenn Jones, a Democrat, has not returned phone calls to our reporters seeking an explanation for the vote.

If it was retribution for Cochran’s political affiliation, though, the whole situation becomes even more confusing. Many Democrats, including the outgoing sheriff and the head of the local Democratic Party, say they think ending the meal deal without raising the sheriff’s salary to offset the loss of the kickback was a bad idea and do not support it.

And that’s where Monteith comes back into this confusing story. Two weeks ago Monteith, a Democratic county commissioner, was the lone person on the board to vote against taking the meal program away from the incoming sheriff, even though in the past few years he says he has lobbied to have it ended.

“I have brought it up with two different boards and it never went anywhere. It should have been stopped years ago,” Monteith said.

He supports ending the program, but he says doing now is simply a way to using political power in the wrong way. “If they had brought it up three or four months ago and told both candidates this is what we are going to do whoever wins, that would have been alright,” Monteith said.

Monteith’s opinion, as it is, remains a good test of whether something in Swain County politics stinks. This time though, I believe those who voted to end this shady arrangement made the right decision but probably for the wrong reasons. About every way one looks at this issue it stinks. It’s high time this arrangement was ended, though, regardless of why.

The issue that needs to be examined now is this: how many other nod-and-wink political deals are still in place behind the scenes in Swain County politics? Hopefully not too many. The sheriff and other elected officials must be above board in all they do, or else they can’t be trusted in anything they do.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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