The greatest show in town?Written by Quintin Ellison
Watching the sausage being made at local government meetings isn’t most people’s idea of high entertainment … or low entertainment, or entertainment of any kind of all, for that matter.
Outside of the occasional spat between elected board members or, even more rarely, hot-topic issues that get everyone in a community revved up for a time, these meetings are amazingly the same no matter which town or county you might land in.
The same sorts of people with similar axes to grind generally speak during the public sessions, their words so familiar that anyone left listening could stand in and give the speeches, verbatim, themselves. In towns, water and sewer issues often dominate leaders’ agenda; at counties, such riveting topics as 911 road-name changes, landfill issues and resolutions in favor of apple pie and the American flag and resolutions against muffins, communists and unfunded state mandates proliferate.
But in Macon County, there’s a group of four regular folks who find the county commissioners’ meetings the best show in town — they say the price is exactly right in these times of economic restraints (free), the performances routinely scheduled (at least once each month), and the cast of characters and the storylines comfortably predictable, yet with enough variation to keep things interesting.
“We like knowing what’s going on, and hearing what they say, and it’s a good way to find out about how they think and how things really work,” said Kenneth McKinney.
“It’s part of the charm of living in a small town,” his wife, Dianna McKinney, said. “And, it’s cheap entertainment.”
The McKinneys are joined at the Macon County Board of Commissioner meetings by close friends Catherine “Cate” Robb and husband, Richard Robb. The four always try to sit together on the very back row. Not exactly the peanut gallery, but they do joke around with and greet commissioners familiarly before the start of each meeting. They are as predictable a sight as Mike Trammel, the Macon County deputy posted to the county beat to keep order at meetings, or any of the six or so local reporters assigned to write about the commission meetings.
“The more people that are here, it helps the commissioners,” Cate Robb said, clearly sympathetic to commissioners’ need for an audience. After all, no one enjoys performing to an empty hall.
The two couples have known each other and been friends for 20 years. Since Kenneth and Dianna McKinney made the retirement move to Franklin about three years ago from Texas, they and the Robbs have made a point of attending the monthly meetings together.
And, yes, they do actually believe in civic duty — and that’s one reason they attend. Though when civic duty becomes too boring, they bail out early and go eat dinner together at their favorite local restaurant, Monte Alban Restaurante Mexicano, a monthly double date.
The four made it an hour-and-a-half last week before fleeing the meeting, after having enjoyed the following entertaining acts:
• Act 1: An apology by Chairman Brian McClellan who was six minutes late. He explained that driving from Highlands to Franklin had been slow going. McClellan counted — the motorist in front smoked four cigarettes on that 10-mile drive.
• Act 1.5: Recognizing Commissioner Ronnie Beale for his election as an officer of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. Beale thanked many people for their support, but particularly all of the people in Macon County (not, mercifully, each by name) in something of an Oscars-type speech.
• Act 2: Prayer and pledge of allegiance.
• Act 3: Public hearings on 911 road names and the transit program — nobody from the public spoke, so that didn’t take long.
• Act 4: Public comment, in which Macon County resident Mark Hirstir complained at length about damage done to his property by Duke Energy, and urged Macon commissioners to please pass some land regulations (they thanked him for his comments, and made no commitments or promises).
• Act 5: Presentations by Jane Kimsey, director of social services; resident Jerry Cook about a floodplain issue involving Wells Grove Baptist Church; and resident Jean Jordon on healthcare access.
• Act 6: Pleas from the sheriff and Highlands police chief for commissioners to help the town persuade the state not to eliminate the magistrate post in Highlands.
Then the four left, entertained enough apparently, but already anticipating the next meeting.
“We’ll be here if we’re in town,” Dianna McKinney promised.
And that suits the commissioners just fine.
“I teach civics, what am I supposed to say?” Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, a Macon County educator when not performing on the political stage, said with a laugh when actually queried on that point. “No, really, it’s great that they’re engaged. I wish even more people would come.”