Commissioners voted 3-2 at a special meeting on Jan. 31 for County Manger Kevin King and County Attorney Kim Lay to represent Swain in negotiating the cash settlement.
Commissioners Genevieve Lindsay, Glenn Jones, and Steve Moon voted in favor of the decision; road supporters Phil Carson and David Monteith were against it.
The purpose of the new contract is to replace an agreement by the federal government to build a 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that was flooded in 1943 to create Fontana Lake. The new contract will call for a $52 million cash settlement in lieu of the road.
Recently, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) worked to set aside $6 million in the federal budget to be used as a down payment for the cash settlement. The money can only be distributed to Swain County once all four parties of the original agreement sign a new contract in favor of a cash settlement.
Commissioners called the meeting after receiving a letter from the U.S. Department of Interior on Jan. 18 informing the county that it needed to choose representatives to negotiate a contract by Feb. 6.
Some of the 40-plus audience members took issue with the short notice of the meeting, which was called less than 48 hours before it was held.
Pro-road supporter Mike Clampitt spoke out about the commissioners’ quick decision to appoint representatives for the contract.
“I heard no decisions about any contract negotiations at the last meeting and all of a sudden the commissioners are holding a special meeting,” Clampitt said. “This is such a hot topic in Swain it seems to me you would want more people involved.”
Road supporter Virginia DeBord questioned why notice of the meeting wasn’t published in local newspapers.
“Why was notice not published earlier?” said resident Virginia Debord.
After public comments, the board went into closed session to select a representative. Commissioners cited the North Carolina Open Meetings Law exemption of consulting with an attorney as their reason for going into closed session, although it wasn’t made clear how selecting representatives fell into the attorney-client exclusion.
After 15 minutes, commissioners returned, saying no decision was made and decided to put the decision to vote.
Moon said he voted for King and Lay because they are county employees and will not present a biased opinion.
“I feel they will do a good job representing Swain County,” he said.
According to Great Smoky Mountain National Park spokesman Bob Miller, no official meeting date has been set between the original signatories of the agreement.
As Swain County receives the cash settlement in lieu of construction of the North Shore Road, the money will be put in a trust account. County commissioners have voted to only use the interest that the money accrues — unless two-thirds of registered voters vote to use the principal. County Manager Kevin King says it is unclear whether the cash payout will be in installments or all at one time. Six million dollars has already been set aside as a down payment on the settlement.