Displaying items by tag: swain

The Swain County Department of Social Services falsified records relating to the abuse and neglect of a 15-month-old baby who later died, according to an investigation by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

The specific charge being investigated is “obstruction of justice being infamous, done in secrecy and malice, and/or with deceit and intent to defraud.”

The social worker who handled the case, Craig Smith, altered his reports, falsifying a hospital visit and doctor’s exam that never occurred, according to law enforcement statements.

Smith claims he did so at the direction of his immediate superior, Candace Lassiter, according to a search warrant executed by the SBI at the DSS office in Bryson City.

ALSO: Suspicious death of 15-month-old prompts SBI to seize Swain DSS computers

DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones met with Smith after he had falsified the reports, according to the warrant. Smith said Cagle told him at the meeting “we have to get everything in order and everything straight.”

The SBI seized computers and records from Swain County DSS offices this week. Workers were put on lock down during the raid and those with appointments to meet with DSS case workers had to come back another day.

Fifteen-month-old Aubrey Littlejohn was in the care of her great-aunt Ladybird Powell when she died on Jan. 10. Abuse and neglect are considered contributing factors, according to law enforcement records, but the investigation is still pending and no charges have been filed yet. The autopsy report is not yet final.

DSS had been to Powell’s trailer several times to investigate claims of abuse and neglect of children in Powell’s custody.

The investigation into Swain DSS was launched after Swain County Detective Carolyn Posey uncovered discrepancies in DSS records and found holes in the accounts from DSS social workers.

Posey had initially been assigned to investigate Aubrey’s death and determine what, if any, charges should be filed.

Over the course of the investigation, Posey encountered delays getting DSS records. When she finally got the reports she found there were missing pages and other things that didn’t add up.

For example, one report said that Aubrey had been seen by a doctor and was normal with no signs of injury. But when Posey called that doctor, she found that that the doctor in fact had never seen Aubrey.

Posey had interviewed several relatives and neighbors who witnessed abuse and neglect of Aubrey while in Powell’s care. Relatives said they had repeatedly informed DSS of the situation, made reports and requested intervention but got no response.

Information gleaned from relatives about the baby’s condition and treatment was “in direct contrast to the information provided by the Department of Social Services’ employees: Misty Tabor, Craig Smith, Candace Lassiter, Angela Biggs, T.L. Jones and Tammy Cagle,” the warrant states.

DSS Program Manager T.L. Jones and and DSS Director Tammy Cagle told Posey their agency had only received two reports of abuse and neglect, which Poesy noted was “in direct contrast” to what she had been told by relatives claiming they had made numerous reports.

Posey was aided in her investigation by Danny Cheatham, a private investigator hired by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to assist in the inquiry into Aubrey’s death.

Once Posey and Cheatham discovered what appeared to be cover-up by Swain DSS, they alerted District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, who in turn called the State Bureau of Investigation.

The State Bureau of Investigation raided Swain County Department of Social Services Tuesday, hauling off computers and records in an investigation allegedly tied to the death of Aubrey Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died Jan. 10.

Littlejohn was brought to a hospital emergency room at 3:30 a.m. that day, according to an affidavit filed to establish probable cause by the Swain County Sheriff’s Department. The 15-month-old’s left arm was fractured, and she had a bruise on her forehead. Interviews of people staying at the residence, a singlewide trailer at 187 Kenneth Cooper Road off U.S. 19 between Cherokee and Bryson City, revealed the baby had been left strapped in a car seat for about 12 hours.

“During that time period, Aubrey was not removed from the car seat, given food or drink except for some bites from a hotdog and sips of a soda around 5 p.m. that evening. Aubrey’s diaper was not changed during this time period,” the affidavit stated.

When the baby was admitted to the hospital, she was dressed only in a t-shirt and a urine-soaked, feces-filled diaper.

“Infant was limp and very cold to the touch, skin color dusky blue,” according to the affidavit, which noted law enforcement interviews indicated “abuse and neglect” contributed to the baby’s death.

DSS workers had repeatedly been called to the home where the baby lived over the past year, but failed to remove her, The Smoky Mountain News was told.

That’s what angers David Wijewikrama, an attorney in Waynesville.

“The Departments of Social Services across the state have had needless deaths occur multiple times a year because officials involved fail to follow up and do their jobs in the necessary manner,” Wijewickrama said.

The child had been living with her great-aunt, Ladybird Powell, because the child’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, was in jail on unrelated drug charges, he said. While they are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Aubrey Littlejohn lived off the reservation in Swain County. That’s why Swain County DSS was the agency tasked with investigating claims of abuse.

According to Veronica Callahan, next door neighbor of Ladybird Powell, there were often lots of cars and trucks at Powell’s trailer at all hours of the night. Callahan said that children were outside the home as late as 2 a.m., and just this past fall several children were sleeping in a tent in the trailer’s backyard. Callahan said Powell would lock the children out of the house and not allow them back in.

She said sheriff’s deputies and DSS workers were at the house repeatedly responding to complaints.

“It’s horrifying,” said Callahan. “A baby has no voice. I really hope this doesn’t get washed away.”

Tuesday, Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, declined to comment directly on the investigation, but did say: “we remain committed to following through to ensure justice is served in this case.”

Additionally, Hicks said the tribe had hired a private investigator to help provide “a more comprehensive level of information in this case.”  

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said his department is investigating the child’s death, but has not yet determined what if any charges might be filed against her caregivers. District Attorney Mike Bonfoey also confirmed the existence of an investigation, but declined to comment further. State and local DSS officials failed to return phone calls requesting comment before press time.

Wijewickrama has been retained by the child’s mother, who, he said, is devastated by her baby’s death while in the care of a relative. She retained him in a civil capacity to look into possible negligence by DSS.

“She’s sad. She is devastated. She wants to see if there is a law that can be passed that forces DSS to immediately remove children if there are visible signs of abuse,” Wijewickrama said. “What makes me angry is that DSS went to the house of Ladybird (Powell) and removed other children. They knew she was abusive but failed to remove 15-month-old Aubrey and provide her a safe placement.”

Staff writer Quintin Ellison contributed to this report.

A lawsuit waged by Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran against the county was shot down in court this week.

Cochran accused commissioners of cutting his pay in 2006 as a form of partisan retribution. State statute protects sheriffs from politically motivated pay cuts, making it illegal for county commissioners to reduce the sheriff’s compensation or allowances following the outcome of an election.

In this case, Cochran argued the all-Democratic board of commissioners retaliated against him after he narrowly beat out a long-time Democratic sheriff.

However, Cochran’s civil suit was thrown out by Judge Allan Thornburg this week following a hearing on Jan. 24. Cochran’s attorney David Sawyer said they plan to appeal the decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

The judge did not stipulate why he was dismissing the case, so it’s unclear which of the many defenses put forward by the county was the winning one.

One interesting argument in the case centered around whether county commissioners indeed reduced Cochran’s compensation as he claimed. While it seems like a clear-cut matter — either they cut his pay or they didn’t — it gets a little complicated.

Following an election upset by Cochran in 2006, commissioners put an end to a long-standing slush fund enjoyed by prior sheriffs. Prior sheriffs were paid a flat rate to feed jail inmates and could keep the surplus to use as they pleased, whether it was pocketing the difference or using it to subsidize operations around their office.

When making his case that the lost meal money equated to lost pay, Cochran needed to prove that previous sheriffs made a profit on the meal deal and by how much.

“The problem is we don’t know what that number is,” said Mark Melrose of Melrose, Seago and Lay, who represented the county in the suit.

Melrose said any dollar amount would be “highly speculative.”

The county never made prior sheriffs document what they were actually spending on inmates’ food, but instead dolled out a lump sum with no questions asked.

The lack of records means Cochran could not conclusively show how much previous sheriffs made on the meal deal, and thus how much he supposedly lost when it was taken away.

The previous sheriff got $10 per inmate per day. Sawyer said Cochran has complete records of his cost to feed inmates, so while the surplus made by past sheriffs remains a mystery, it would be easy to calculate what Cochran was due if the old formula was still in effect.

The state statute not only bars commissioners from cutting the sheriff’s pay, but also for reducing his “allowances.” Cochran and the county sparred over whether the inmate meal fund qualified as an “allowance.”

“His contention was that it was an allowance. Our argument was that it was a reimbursement for expenditures,” said Melrose.

Rather than paying out a lump sum, the county now reimburses the sheriff for actual food costs at the jail — but it still counts as a reimbursement, not an allowance, Melrose said.

In a dual claim, Cochran sued the county for breach of contract.  

“Cochran argued there was an implied contract based on the county’s dealing with prior sheriffs, but you can’t piggy back on top of that,” Melrose said.

The county commissioners never “implied” they would continue funding inmate meals the same way they had with prior sheriffs. In fact, government entities legally can’t make verbal promises to do business with someone, Melrose said, but must do business in the open through written public contracts.

The county argued that it had sovereign immunity in this case, meaning it could not be sued for such things. Sawyer said granting the county sovereign immunity in this case renders the state statute moot.

“If soveriegn immunity applies here, it is questionable whether there is any mechanism to enforce that statute,” Sawyer said. “We feel it is an important issue for the Court of Appeals to look at.”

But the county did not hang its hat on that defense alone, and it is ultimately not known whether it was the deciding factor for the judge.

“In order to defend the county, we had to recreate all the events of the food being supplied to the inmates for a long time to see what was the practice, what was paid, how was it paid, was there a profit. It was very fact intensive,” Melrose said.

Mike McConnell, an attorney with the same firm as Melrose, was the primary lawyer for Swain County in the case.


Lowest sheriff salary

Auditors had repeatedly warned the county the meal deal wasn’t exactly kosher and should be ended, but it wasn’t until Cochran came into office that commissioners heeded the advice. The county claimed it was simply time to embrace a new, better way of doing business.

At the time, Cochran asked commissioners for a salary increase if they were going to cut out the meal deal.

When Cochran filed the suit he was one of the lowest paid sheriffs in the state with a salary of just $38,000. He’s gotten incremental raises from commissioners since then, bringing his salary to $47,000, but he is still one of the lowest — if not the lowest — paid sheriffs in the state. His salary is the lowest according to a list of sheriff salaries put out by the UNC School of Government, but it shows no data for a few counties. Only two other counties showed sheriff salaries of less than $50,000.

In the end, the county may have been better off giving Cochran more of a raise to offset the loss of the meal deal rather than paying the costs of the lawsuit. County Manager Kevin King said he did not know how much the county had spent in legal costs defending the suit so far.

“To be honest I have not received any bills yet,” said King.

However, Melrose said the county has been billed regularly for work in the suit since 2008.

“There has been a good bit of billing,” Melrose said. “There have been three or four depositions and court hearings and time spent preparing the case. The legal arguments took a lot of time and research.”

King did not return subsequent messages and emails again requesting the cost of the lawsuit to the county. The county hopes to be reimbursed for court costs, but those amount to less than $1,000, a small sum compared to the legal fees for the attorneys.

“The sheriff is willing to talk with the county at any time and would like to resolve this in amicable but if not the appeal is the only other route that we have,” Sawyer said.

When asked whether the county was pleased the suit was dismissed, King directed questions about the lawsuit to county commissioners. Commissioner Chairman Phil Carson did not return a message.

The second and final public hearing on whether the N.C. Department of Transportation should widen and pave Needmore Road took place in Macon County last week.

Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane, 3.3-mile gravel road along the Little Tennessee River in Macon and Swain counties. It parallels N.C. 28, but on the opposite bank. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Energy.

Twenty-seven people spoke at the recent hearing. Additionally, the entire five-member Macon County Board of Commissioners turned out to listen, along with transportation department officials. These comments come on top of nearly 800 signatures on a petition supporting some type of paving or resurfacing, and at least 66 written comments sent in to the department of transportation earlier. Plus, about 25 people spoke publicly at a previous public hearing last fall.

In a follow-up discussion, DOT spokesperson Julia Merchant told The Smoky Mountain News a post-hearing meeting would be held in about six weeks “to discuss each and every comment that has come in on the Needmore project. Then, we’ll make a decision as to whether future studies will be conducted.”

Merchant said no percentage weight is assigned directly to public support or opposition.

“So I guess you could say it’s more intuitive,” she said. “Public comments certainly weigh in the decision making, but we have to balance them against engineering criteria. We also have to weigh other engineering criteria such as cost, traffic surveys and impacts to the human environment in order to come up with the best solutions.”

Are there boardinghouses still operating here in the Smokies region? There are, of course, hotels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and motels galore. But I’m wondering about the true, old-fashioned boardinghouse, which flourished throughout the region until the middle of the 20th century.  

Unlike any of the establishments mentioned above, a real boardinghouse had several distinctive features. It would often come into existence as an expansion of the proprietor’s original home site; or, it was sometimes established in a renovated commercial structure of some sort.  

Rooms would sometimes be let out for overnight guests. For the most part, however, a boardinghouse catered to those staying for at least a week. And it wasn’t unusual for them to stay either for an entire season or even on a permanent basis. Working-class guests were as common as vacationers. Long-term boarders were often adopted into the proprietor’s extended family. Concern for his or her general welfare became a part of the socio-economic relationship.

Family style meals were the mainstay of a boardinghouse. Sometimes all three meals were served each day. Serving times for each meal were posted and the proprietor expected boarders to be on time. Most guests honored this system as a matter of courtesy. They also realized that those arriving late had less — or sometimes very little — to eat.

Some of the rooms had bath facilities. These cost more. Most guests shared a bath, which always seemed to be located “Just down there at the end of the hall.” A guest taking too much time or using up all of the hot water would hear about it from his fellow guests. If the habit persisted, the proprietor would weigh in.

There was always a common sitting, reading, and TV room used primarily during the winter or just before meals were served. When the weather was fine, there was also a front porch with rocking chairs.  

In my experience, the last true boardinghouse in this region was the Swain Hotel located on Everett Street in Bryson City. From 1967 until 1996, it was owned and operated by Mildred and V.L. Cope. Swain County native Luke Hyde, an attorney, purchased and renovated the establishment, opening in 1997 as the Historic Calhoun Country Inn. Family style meals are still served, but the current operation is not a true boardinghouse in most regards. Although many of the guests return from season to season, none are of the long-term or permanent variety.  Most are vacationers.

“Until 1966, the business was known as the Calhoun Hotel,” said Hyde. “It was operated by Granville Calhoun and his family. My mother, Alice Hyde, worked at the Calhoun Hotel for 30 years. That’s why I converted to the old name.

“As far as I know the Swain Hotel as operated by the Copes was the last true boardinghouse west of Morganton. I stayed in a lot of places when I was looking for a suitable location of my own, and it was the only one I encountered.

“I remember when mother was working at the Calhoun Hotel that the Simonds family would come and stay for the summer. He operated a real estate business and had a sign right there in the front yard. She operated a clothing store.”

I stayed in the Swain Hotel on two occasions in the early 1970s shortly before deciding to move to Bryson City. For some reason, memories of those visits — once by myself and once with my wife and three children — remain vivid.               

Mrs. Cope, who orchestrated the meals, had jet-black hair, powder-white skin, and was something of a character. Her specialties were fried eggs and biscuits and gravy for breakfast; sliced cured ham, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce for dinner; and pork tenderloin or chops, baked sweet potatoes, and blackberry pie for supper. Fried chicken was reserved for Sunday dinners. Mr. Cope was one-armed but could perform any maintenance task with great dexterity.   

All of our fellow guests were exceedingly cordial but not intrusive. Most were working-class and dressed accordingly for meals. One elderly couple dressed up for meals. They were permanent residents. He was the only man in the dining room with a coat and tie. Everyone got along. Everyone was exceedingly courteous about passing food and not taking too much.  Personal matters, politics, and religion were not discussed. Weather was the primary topic at each meal, but hunting and fishing were well within bounds. Children were made over. The black-and-white TV in the sitting room was always turned off right after the evening news.  All in all, the boardinghouse provided the context for a functional and agreeable lifestyle.


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Swain County has lost more than $17,000 a month from their coffers, and that financial gouge may become a lot bigger following a suit filed by Graham County last month.

Graham and Swain county are at odds over property taxes collected from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fontana Dam and its hydropower equipment and generators. For 67 years — since the dam was built — the two counties split the revenue equally.

But Graham argued it deserves more, since more of the dam and generators are on its side of the county line. Graham succeeded in convincing the N.C. Attorney General’s Office of their position last fall, resulting in a new formula for divvying the TVA proceeds. The result: Swain gets $17,700 less a month, which is now going to Graham instead.

The October ruling stated that, according to the original channel of the Little Tennessee River, which has long been the boundary between the two counties, more of the dam and its taxable equipment belongs in Graham. And the Attorney General agreed that, if this was the case, they should get more of the money, as well.

Upon hearing this, Graham County commissioners decided not to rest on their laurels content with their newfound cash flow. They marched right up to the Graham County Superior Court and filed suit against their neighbor for 67 years of back tax revenue that Swain County gained on the erroneous measuring formula.

The suit doesn’t put a number on how much they want back, but Graham officials have pegged it at $15 million, according to an article published in the Graham Star last month. Graham named the Department of Revenue as a co-defendant to ensure they provided a formula and a number for how much Graham would be owed.

Raleigh mayor and tax attorney Charles Meeker is leading the charge as Graham County’s attorney, and he said that discussions about a possible filing started to be bandied about following the Attorney General’s October ruling.

He said the county is simply trying to recoup what was always rightfully theirs, but has long been distributed inequitably.

“Because of incorrect information from the TVA, the Department of Revenue had not distributed those payments correctly for years,” said Meeker. “We don’t know the exact amount, but the lawsuit requests the Department of Revenue to make that calculation.”

Swain County has yet to respond to the suit, but has requested a 30-day extension to file their response.

Swain County Manager Kevin King told the Graham Star last month that his county would be looking into a countersuit, seeking damages for the 51,000 acres of land lost to the Fontana Dam’s impounding in 1943. King maintained that they were never fairly compensated, especially stacked up against the mere 4,000 acres lost by Graham County. He said the county is planning a robust battle against the suit. They are due to respond in mid-February.

Technically, the TVA payments to the two counties are called Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, since government entities are not required to pay property taxes. But like property taxes, the payments by TVA are based on the value of the hydropower operation determined by the N.C. Department of Revenue and the tax rate set by the county.

Swain County’s West Elementary School will be getting a classroom expansion thanks to $1.8 million handed to them by Swain County commissioners in a special session on Monday.

The elementary school will gain eight new classrooms to deal with its burgeoning student population, though most won’t be completely new space.

“We’re replacing four modular classrooms,” said County Manager Kevin King. “We’re taking the trailers out and replacing them with classrooms,” which is in line with the steps a 2007 steering committee recommended the county take to alleviate the crowding that has plagued all of its schools over the last decade.

Next on the list of committee recommendations is Swain East Elementary, followed by a suggested new high school to be built on a plot near the current school purchased several years ago. Commissioners, however, didn’t discuss the timeline for bringing other suggested improvements to fruition.

Although the committee was formed and recommendations made four years ago, the projects were stalled slightly when financing options became scarce.

With the unanimous vote at Monday’s meeting, however, the board successfully secured a financing contract and will now be bringing in Kearey Builders of Statesville to start the construction.

Year in review 2010

Editor’s note: Here is The Smoky Mountain News’ annual Year in Review, but ours comes with a nod and a wink — and an award. News is serious and sometimes tragic, but in hindsight we can at least try to find a little humor in what the newsmakers endured and we all read about in 2010.


The Sisyphus award

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is sentenced for eternity to roll a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top.

The mountain gods showed a similar attitude toward human inhabitants this year, showing a particular inclination to shut down major thoroughfares. At one point, the three primary routes through the southern mountains into Tennessee were blocked with rock slides: Interstate 40 in Haywood County, U.S. 64 between Murphy and Chattanooga, and U.S. 129 running from Robbinsville to Maryville, Tenn.

The only passage was U.S. 441 over Newfound Gap through the Smokies, and even that route was temporarily reduced to one lane following a rock slide of its own.

Mountains have been running amok on the residential side as well. The biggest and most high profile was in Maggie Valley below Ghost Town amusement park, but there were also slides in the Water Dance development in Jackson County and the Wildflower development in Macon County that destabilized road grades and took out lots, as well as a slide in Macon County that led to a man’s home being condemned.


Popeye award

The construction crew restoring the historic Jackson County Courthouse could have used more spinach before tackling the structure’s crowning cupola. The domed top had to be taken down for restoration in June. But when a crowd of onlookers gathered at the bottom of courthouse hill to watch the day it was scheduled to come off, repeated attempts failed. Crews ultimately had to bring in a stronger crane the following week.

The $7 million restoration of the historic courthouse and construction of a new library adjacent to it was supposed to be finished by year’s end, but has been pushed back.


Pork award

When the U.S. Small Business Administration announced $1.4 million in loans for businesses hurt by the I-40 rock slide in Haywood County, business owners far and wide began hungrily licking their chops.

The October 2009 slide shut down the Interstate Haywood County for six months, choking off tourism traffic and commerce. Gas stations and hotels had to cut hours and even lay off workers as business dried up.

But of the 15 businesses that landed federal SBA loans, few were located in Haywood County. Among the more puzzling recipients: the Fun Depot in Asheville, an indoor kid’s amusement center; and an excavating company in Sevierville, Tenn., a business that hardly seems contingent on passersby on the interstate.

One local loan recipient was a bar in downtown Waynesville — a standard that would seemingly qualify every restaurant in the entire county.


Full House award

Despite a recession, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino barreled ahead with a $630 million expansion. The casino rolled out a major addition to the gaming floor, debuted a 3,000-seat concert venue and topped off a 21-story hotel tower. A 16,000-square-foot spa in the works is a testimony to Harrah’s mission to transform itself beyond a casino to a full-service resort.

The casino’s two existing hotel towers are consistently full.

The casino hit another milestone this year when it began serving alcohol for the first time in its on-site restaurants and at a new bona fide bar and lounge on the gaming floor.

The expansion began in 2009 and is slated for final completion in 2012. A 400-seat Paula Deen Kitchen restaurant also opened at the casino this year.


Best Power Struggle award

Solar panels. That’s what Haywood Community College and the Haywood County commissioners spent the better part of a year at loggerheads over.

HCC wanted to include green features, from rainwater collection to solar hot water in the design of a new $10.2 million creative arts building that will house its famed craft programs like woodcarving, pottery and jewelry making. But Haywood County commissioners accused the eco-efforts of driving up the cost of the building, and as a result threatened to veto the project. The college spent months trying to convince commissioners the building as designed was both frugal and necessary, while commissioner played hardball in an attempt to send the college back to the drawing board. The biggest sticking point were proposed solar panels on the building, which the college claimed would pay for themselves while commissioners remained skeptical.

In the end, the college won its quest to build a sustainable flagship creative arts building.


Last Laugh Award

To Sylva business owner Dodie Allen, who fought back against being ticketed for parking a van outside her downtown auction under the town’s new law designed to free-up prime parking real estate for visitors and shoppers.

Allen protested the citation — and the $50 fine it carried — for 45 minutes at a town board meeting, saying it infringed on her rights and hampered her ability to make a living. Allen argued she was simply loading and unloading at her auction house on Main Street.

Ultimately, Allen won her battle when it was discovered a key paragraph, the one specifying business owners and their employees can’t park on Main and Mill streets, wasn’t included in the ordinance passed. The town was forced to hold another public hearing and vote again on the town law, this time with the correct language intact.


Extreme Makeover award

Haywood County social workers will soon enjoy new digs. They are trading in a decrepit former hospital dating back decades for an abandoned Wal-Mart store being retrofitted for offices. Their new stripmall-esque working quarters will be a vast improvement over their current accommodations: a four-story brick building that’s cramped and crumbling, with makeshift offices in storage closets, perpetual leaks and rusted window jambs.

The Wal-Mart makeover project will cost the county $12.5 million — about half that to purchase the building and the other half to convert it into an office complex. Critics decried the move as an unnecessary cost in bad times. But county commissioners said the poor state of the DSS building could no longer be ignored, and scoring a bargain price for the old Wal-Mart made it the most attractive solution.

In addition to the Department of Social Services, the renovated building will also house the county health department and the planning department.

Initial construction bids came in higher than expected, so the county trimmed elements of the project to get costs down and then went back out to bid.


Most Creative Accounting

When the public learned Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe was funneling money seized in drug busts to youth sports teams — and as it happened to teams his own kids played on — he claimed it was all for a good cause.

Drug bust money by law must go toward drug crime prevention and enforcement, and Ashe argued that supporting wholesome diversions for kids keeps them off drugs.

The justification gets a little hazier though when it came to other uses for narcotics money by Ashe, like $20,000 to replace carpet in the sheriff’s office or $400 to get himself listed on a national “Who’s Who” list.

Ashe enjoyed an unsupervised, free rein of how to spend the narcotics fund. He failed to get approval from the county on the expenditures, violating state statutes governing fiscal controls for local government. The state Local Government Commission made Ashe comply with new accounting procedures after media reports brought the issue to light.


Janet Jackson award

Haywood County nearly had its own version of the infamous wardrobe malfunction when a river rafter protesting pollution by the Canton paper mill threatened to pull down his pants and bare his buttocks during a public hearing. He was one of several Tennessee river guides at the hearing who claimed to have sores and skin cancers from being in contact with the Pigeon River tainted by chemicals from the mill, and was willing to prove it until the hearing moderator advised him against such public displays.

Evergreen Packaging is seeking a new water pollution permit for the Pigeon River. The state was forced to ratchet down pollution levels in the proposed permit following objections by the EPA. But it wasn’t enough to abate environmentalists, who have filed a lawsuit to impose even tougher limits.

Evergreen is also facing a class action lawsuit by a group of Haywood County landowners. Downstream landowners in Tennessee have won similar class action suits against the mill.

The paper mill sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — and then dumps it back in the river again.


Survivor Award

It was a dismal election year for Democrats, but U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, managed to hang on to his seat despite his conservative-leaning mountain district. He handily smashed Republican challenger Jeff Miller and advanced to the next round where he took on none other than House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. He went into the challenge with the intention of losing — or at least knowing he’d lose — because the loss gave him incredible national exposure.

What’s next for the former football player from Swain County? He’s not saying, but former communications director Andrew Whalen left a coveted job as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party to rejoin Shuler’s staff. Something’s afoot with this fiscally-conservative Blue Dog Republican Democrat, that’s for dang sure.


The Mother of all Irony Award

To the Village of Forest Hills, which incorporated in 1997 for the express and unabashed purpose of keeping rowdy, drunken Western Carolina University students from taking over this residential community, is now considering annexing land at Chancellor John Bardo’s behest so that some unknown developer can build a town so students will keep going to Western Carolina University (there’s a little retention problem) because, finally, they won’t have to drive to Sylva to — is this for real? — get good and soused. They’ll instead drink beer and wine and shots of liquor within walking distance of campus as God intended for university students to do.

Additionally, WCU suggests the Boca Raton, Fla.-reminiscent name of Forest Hills be lost in favor of the name Cullowhee. We can only assume the town sign painted in pastels on U.S. 107 will have to go, too, folks.


Only in Macon Could This Happen Award

Where else would a county board of commissioners appoint a man who openly doesn’t support land planning to the county’s planning board, except in Macon County?

In a move so audacious in its sheer lack of thought and concern for regulating unbridled development, we salute the Republican (and one rogue Democrat) commissioners in Macon County for the appointment of Tea Party member Jimmy Goodman to the planning board. Never mind that he’d not been reappointed to that same board for (allegedly and all that) obstructing the other members in, well, their efforts to plan, those rascally planning-board members.

We take our hats off to you, Macon County, and offer sincere thanks for being in our coverage area. You help us remember that we still can be surprised by what actually does take place sometimes on the local political level.


Boomerang award

Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College since 1997, retired this year and headed to Texas for a relaxing retirement close to the grandkids.

“As for everything and everyone, there is a season. My season has now come,” Groves said of his departure from SCC.

Three months later, Groves announced his return to the area to be the CEO of Balsam West, an entity that controls a 300-mile fiber broadband ring looping the six western counties. Groves helped create the fiber ring while at the helm of SCC and considered it one of his biggest accomplishments, but with few users, it is struggling to realize its potential.


The Garden City award

In Maggie Valley, the new mantra is call on the name of beauty and ye shall be saved. Residents and businesses alike buried thousands of daffodil and tulip bulbs this fall in hopes that the bursts of coordinated color will swoop in this spring to help save the struggling city from economic depression and the gaping financial hole left by the death of Ghost Town.

The idea is being coupled with another aesthetic assault from the town government’s camp. In November, the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to impose a set of design standards for renovations and new builds that follow a general design plan town planners call “mountain vernacular.”

Officials hope that the visual double whammy will spruce up the town’s face which, they seem to be admitting, is a less-than-pleasant sight to behold.


The Long and Winding Road award

“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen …OK, I guess I’ll stay a little longer.” That’s the tune sung this year by Maggie Valley’s Dale Walksler, owner and curator of the renowned Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum.

After several years in its current location and several more bouts with local officials over the museum’s value to the town, Walksler threatened to pack up his collection and ship out to another, more friendly, but as yet unnamed, locale. This fall, however, he decided to make those empty threats and chose to keep the storied – and probably unrivaled – collection of American motorcycle memorabilia nestled snugly into its Soco Road home.

No word from local officials on how they’re reacting to the decision, but since sharing his thoughts with us in October, it’s been all quiet on the Walksler front. So maybe 2011 will see a happy ending to the animosity?


The Size Envy award

They say bigger isn’t always better, but Swain County’s Marianna Black Library isn’t so sure about that. After catching a glimpse of Macon and Jackson counties’ new, improved and enlarged library digs, they couldn’t help but want to gain some growth themselves.

So this October, the library system embarked on an exploratory campaign of their own, seeking input from local residents and guidance from the same consultants used by their neighboring counties. Patron suggestions ranged from expanded collections and more special events to requests for outdoor fire pits, presumably not to be stoked with the library’s contents.

Whether the county’s case of library envy has abated remains to be seen; the consultants won’t be back with final recommendations until the new year. But with Jackson County’s new facility opening up soon, it’s easy to hear cries of “but I want one, too,” on the not-too-distant horizon.


The Earmark to Nowhere award

To earmark, or not to earmark – that, of late, is the Congressional question. And for residents of Swain county, it’s the $52 million question. That’s how much they’ve been promised to repay the cash they laid out on the nonexistent North Shore Road over three decades. When the road was flooded for the war effort in 1943, the county took it on the chin, along with a pledge from the federal government that they’d put it back. But time went on, the county kept paying on the road loans and the promised new road was never to return.

Earlier this year, the county agreed to take a cash settlement from the government in lieu of a road they no longer needed, after laborious negotiations and a good bit of lobbying from Swain County native Rep. Heath Shuler.

But those dollars are in danger now that Congress is swooping in to slash earmarks. To some legislators, that’s just what the North Shore money is, an earmark designed to funnel federal money into local projects. But local proponents counter that it’s not just funding, it’s debt service paying off a 66-year-old IOU.

Whether the money will keep rolling into the county hasn’t been decided. But much rests on convincing Congress members that the settlement is an obligation, not an option.


Billy Graham Hall of Fame nominees

County leaders refused to stop praying in Jesus’ name during their public meetings, despite a federal court ruling that such overt prayers were tantamount to government endorsement of Christianity over other religions — and thus were unconstitutional.

A federal judge in Forsyth County found that specific references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioner meetings “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government.”

But county commissioners in Macon and Swain counties were undaunted.

“If there was a law that said how I could pray, I think I would have to break it,” said Swain Commissioner Phillip Carson.

Or as Swain Commissioner David Monteith put it, “I guess they would just have to arrest me.”

Macon Commissioner Ronnie Beale said Christian prayers reflect the vast majority of his constituents.

In Haywood County, commissioners chose to drop references to Jesus and stick with more generic, and thus legal, references to Lord or God. Jackson County does not hold a prayer during its county meetings.


S.O.L. award

This is exactly where homeowners down slope of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley found themselves this year. A massive landslide screamed down Rich Cove mountain in February, uprooting yards and bumping into houses on its way. While some residents remain without a well for drinking water and one couple still has not been able to return to their home, they had been unable to hold anyone accountable to cover the damages so far.

But Ghost Town’s liability insurance was canceled a week before the landslide due to late payments, according to the insurance company. Court documents verify that Ghost Town received warnings to pay up to risk cancelation, and eventually received a cancellation notice.

Ghost Town has blamed the slide on a company hired to shore up the slipping mountainside with a series of retaining walls, but the contractors blame Ghost Town for a leaking water line buried behind the wall, according to court documents.


Most Formidable Opponent

As a multi-billion Fortune 500 Company, Duke Energy is used to getting its way. But when it went up against the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians this year and came under fire for desecrating the tribe’s equivalent of an ancestral holy site, it seemed the utility giant had met its match.

Duke Energy had embarked on a $79 million electrical substation on a knoll overlooking an idyllic farming valley in Swain County — a valley that happened to be the home of Kituwah mound, an ancient ceremonial site and political center for the Cherokee. The massive electrical substation threatened to mar the landscape, which Cherokee considered integral to the cultural integrity of the spiritual site.

Duke faced three-fold opposition. The tribe’s government leaders condemned Duke for picking the site and failing to consult with the tribe first. A grassroots activist group formed to challenge Duke before the state utility commission. And Swain County leaders also got mad that Duke had started construction without applying for county permits, and even passed a moratorium barring work on the substation from moving forward.

It didn’t take long for Duke to throw in the towel on the controversial site and instead bought another piece of property in the Swain County industrial park to locate the substation.


Dumbest Criminal

Attorney John Lewis may as well have worn a flashing neon sign when he tried to forge a judge’s name in Jackson County.

Lewis forged a court order in a parental custody case, but no sooner had he filed the fraudulent document with the clerk of court then he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk — assuming it was a valid part of the case file — refused. But an agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document. As a last resort, he came around the partition in the clerk’s office, snagged the file himself and put a Post-It note on the document declaring it void, arousing enough suspicion to launch an investigation.

The 31-year-old attorney had also faked the signatures on limited privilege driver’s licenses for at least three clients in Swain County who had their real licenses revoked.


Head in the Sand award

When a recession took hold of the country in 2008, most counties got to work cutting costs to head off impending budget shortfalls. But Swain County was nearly a year late to the party.

Swain County continued with business as usual until summer 2009 when its fund balance dipped so low it was put on the watch list by the Local Government Commission, a state agency that monitors the fiscal solvency of counties.

Counties are supposed to have a savings account, known as a fund balance, that’s equivalent to 8 percent of their total annual budget. Swain’s dropped to only 6.67 percent. The county had to play catch-up to restore its fund balance by laying off workers and imposing furloughs, which amounted to pay cuts.

County Manager Kevin King failed to let the Local Government Commission know ahead of time that the county would dip below the safe threshold, but county commissioners said they didn’t know either until it had already happened.


The Life’s not Fair award

As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Haywood County nearly doubled its per capita recycling rate in two years under the leadership of a new solid waste director, Stephen King, who is passionate about recycling. The county will save money by saving landfill space in the long run, but in the short run, all those recyclables began to overwhelm the system. Faced with the need for more recycling staff, the county instead chose to simply shut down the recycling “pick line” and laid off workers who manually sorted recyclables before they were sold. Instead, the county started selling the recyclables in bulk without separating them first. They fetch a lower price, but allowed the county to save on salaries.


Biggest Loser(s) Award

The biggest election upset of the year was in Jackson County, where Democrats lost control of the board of commissioners for the first time in 16 years.

In a clean sweep, Democrats Brian McMahan, William Shelton and Tom Massie headed to the house, while the conservative ticket of Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody took over their reins.

The new guys immediately started shuffling the deck. County Manager Ken Westmoreland, a target in the election because, among other reasons, he helped institute a pay raise that most benefited longtime employees such as himself, has gone to the house as well. Chuck Wooten, just retired from Western Carolina University, has stepped into his shoes temporarily until a new manager can be found.


Easy Money award

As a new form of video gambling proliferated across the state this year, several towns decided to get in on a piece of the action by imposing hefty business license fees for establishments sporting the machines.

The fees were hardly a deterrent given the lucrative nature of the video gambling machines. When the Canton town board voted to set the fee at $2,500, a business owner attending the evening meeting pulled out his checkbook on the spot. The town manager advised him to come back the next morning.

State lawmakers banned video poker, but the gambling industry came up with a reincarnated version called “video sweepstakes,” which wasn’t subject to the ban. State lawmakers followed suit by broadening the language of the ban, outlawing the sweepstakes machines as well, effective with the new year. But not before towns cashed in.

Maggie Valley and Franklin also cashed in on licensing fees.


Don’t Have to Win to be a Winner award

Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lost his seat in last year’s election, landed a spot back on the board anyway. When former town board member Sarah Graham moved outside the town limits and had to step down, it was up to the remaining board members to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. By a 3 to 1 vote, Hensley found himself back in his old seat, a move that shifted power from the progressive voting bloc to a new majority characterized by a more traditional philosophy.

This marked the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board had to vote to appoint one of their own, the other being the seat of Maurice Moody who left his seat on the board empty after moving up to mayor.


Texas Hold ‘em award

After seven long years, Jackson County finally folded in its protracted and expensive battle against Duke Energy over, well, that’s where things get murky. What started as a noble fight by mountain people to get their due from a utility giant left most people scratching their heads and wondering why Jackson County was still anteing up, long before the game was eventually over.

To casual observers, the fight appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro Dam: Duke wanted to tear it down and the county wanted to save it. But the origin of the conflict was philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams?

Duke proposed removing the Dillsboro dam and restoring a stretch of free flowing river as compensation for saddling the Tuck with a handful of dams, but county commissioners believed they were being short-changed and wanted more, including a trust fund based on a percentage of the hydropower revenues.

Jackson County commissioners hoped to bring Duke to the negotiating table, but Duke repeatedly called the county’s bluff. Instead of folding, Jackson kept throwing in for the next hand until finally calling it quits this year.

Battles in Congress are nothing new. Practically every day that the legislature is in session, there is a fight, argument or debate about something, some more trivial than others. But there’s one issue that residents of Swain County are watching intently, because the outcome of this fight may cost them $40 million.

The issue is earmarks. The new congressional leadership says it doesn’t like them, and some members are looking to axe them altogether. If that happens, county’s massive $52 million North Shore Road settlement is in danger of being classified as an earmark, which means the lion’s share of the money may never arrive.

Leonard Winchester, chairman of citizen group Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County and active participant in the settlement process, said he thinks that’s unlikely. But it’s still a possibility.

“I think it’s more a matter of when, not if, “ said Winchester, of whether the money will arrive.

He thinks that the money will come through, but in the worst case, the county may have to go back to the bargaining table with Congress. Again.

The real issue, said Winchester, is education. The problem is just convincing Congress members that the settlement isn’t an earmark, it’s a debt owed to Swain County.

When the North Shore Road between Bryson City and Tennessee was flooded in 1943 as part of the war effort, there was little complaint in such dire times. Especially because the county came away with a promise from the federal government that a new road would be built. That was a pretty crucial promise, considering the county still owed $695,000 on the road when it was flooded.

The war came and went, as did two subsequent decades, and the county continued paying the loans for 30 years at the expense of the taxpayer for a road that seemed as though it would never come.

Cut to 2010, and fight still raged, both between Congress and the county and within the county itself. Today, many said, the road isn’t needed and cash would be a better deal. Others were adamant that the road was owed and should be built.

But when Congressman, former football star and native son Heath Shuler stepped in, he proved – along with his tireless efforts to persuade his fellow congressmen to his side – to be the missing piece.

A settlement was finally agreed to: $52 million over 10 years, with the county able to use the annual at its own discretion.

The county already has $12.8 million, and the next chunk has been added to President Obama’s 2011 budget. But the subsequent funds will come only if Congress doesn’t slice them out with other earmarks that may go under the blade in tough economic times.

Winchester said he thinks the county has the right amount of power on its side. Not only is Rep. Shuler plugging hard for the money, the Secretary of the Interior and the parks service are behind the measure.

“The Secretary of the Interior does not consider it an ear mark,” said Winchester. “But politics is an ever-moving target. I don’t think that it will be classified as an earmark. Certainly it’s not in Rep. Shuler’s mind or in Sen. Hagan’s mind. But there’s also other things that contribute significantly towards it not being considered an earmark,” and he’s hoping the clout from the interior department will prove enough to pull the settlement out of that category.

Even the money in the President’s budget is somewhat in jeopardy, since no budget has been passed and Congress has kept the country running by passing a series of continuing resolutions. They funnel money to necessary departments but don’t fund non-necessities of the budget — like the settlement.

For his part, Rep. Shuler said he’s committed to bringing this money back home, crusading against its classification as an earmark.

“No matter what happens with the appropriations process, there is a clear path for us to make sure Swain County gets this settlement funding,” said Rep. Shuler in a statement. “With strong support from President Obama and the Department of Interior, we will make sure that Swain County gets the funding it is due.”

Winchester said he’s actively trying to educate key Congress members, but isn’t too worried about losing the funding altogether, a possibility that he sees as highly unlikely. The economy, he maintains, will not be broken forever, and when the financial ship rights itself, Swain County will be on board.

“Once the economic conditions improve, it’s entirely plausible that the rest of the payments will be paid off in one payment,” Winchester said. “But we have to be at a point where the economic conditions are not so severe that everything that goes before Congress has to be compared with how important it is to the defense of the country.”

Opponents of the cash settlement say they are unsurprised by this unexpected turn. County Commissioner David Monteith, who was outspoken against the settlement throughout the process, said he opposed it for that very reason: because it takes control completely out of county hands.

“I was opposed to the settlement to start with,” said Monteith. “It was a bad deal because things like this can happen. It was real idiotic.”

The fight, however, is not quite over. The 112th Congress has yet to come in session, and the proposal to slash earmarks doesn’t have universal support among even one party. But Winchester and Shuler said they both recognize that it’s a battle of education, and to win, they have to get the sentiment of those outside the region on their side.

Having the interior department in their corner is the first step, said Winchester, but it doesn’t stop there. It is a complex issue that, at first blush, seems like a money-funnel straight from Washington for a road that will never even be built. It’s easy to see how Congress sees earmark all over it, and Shuler and his compatriots will have their work cut out for them in the new year.

“That political battle is not something we can say is behind us,” said Winchester. “Once we get that behind us, I think we’ll be OK.”

To Vida Cody, Dec. 6 didn’t seem unlike any other average Monday. She was the finance manager for Swain County, and with the new board of commissioners due for a swearing in, she expected an hour-long pause in her otherwise-busy day.

So when the usually routine appointment for finance manager was called and no nominations came, Cody was a little surprised. As the silence lengthened, a call for alternate nominations was made. A motion to appoint County Manager Kevin King interim finance manager was given, seconded and quickly ushered through unanimously.

Cody, a 14-year county employee who has spent the last three as finance manager, said she didn’t see it coming — especially since the county was coming off one of its best audit years in a while.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Cody said. “I just kind of had to get up and walk off because I thought, ‘did I just lose my job?’”

As it transpired, she had. The finance manager is one of several positions that serve at the pleasure of the board, and a new board can choose to reappoint those holding those jobs or, as in Cody’s case, not do so. No explanation or reason is required.

Cody, however, said that she was sacked for a very specific reason: campaigning during this November’s election.

After her initial departure, Cody said County Manager King gave her a letter from the law firm Melrose, Seago and Lay that gave a detailed review of the county’s personnel policy for campaign-related issues. Kim Lay is the county’s attorney.

Lay, the attorney who drafted and signed the letter, stated that “while current policy does not expressly prohibit employees from campaigning for candidates on their own time, it does require the employees to act appropriately and professionally in such campaigning, even on their own time,” and that county staff should not “openly campaign for anyone in a way that would negatively impact the relationship between the current Commissioners and the public in general. “

The campaigning in question was, apparently, a magnetic bumper sticker supporting Hester Sitton for clerk of court and Johnny Ensley against incumbent sheriff Curtis Cochran, and a trip taken to the Almond polling precinct on Election Day, which Cody took off. She set up shop with her pick-up truck and signs promoting Ensley, but said she didn’t approach anyone.

When King handed her the letter, Cody said, he told her it was the reason behind her dismissal.

“He said, ‘if you want a reason, this is the reason you weren’t reappointed,’” Cody said.

She, however, doesn’t agree with the assessment and intends to file a lawsuit claiming that her constitutional rights were violated.

“I was just insulted,” Cody said. “How can you tell me that I am not allowed to campaign for somebody off work time?”

Government workers are, however, often subject to more restrictions and scrutiny in election season. Swain County has no explicit policy against off-work campaigning like many states, and it has nothing similar to the Hatch Act that forbids a lot of partisan activity among federal employees. A memo was circulated, however, encouraging employees to use caution with their election-time activities.

Officially, the separation letter given to Cody cites only the statute that outlines the at-will nature of the finance manager’s position; the officer serves – or doesn’t – at the board’s discretion.

County officials acknowledged giving Cody both that letter and the letter from Kimberly Lay, but stopped short of saying that politics was the impetus for her ousting.

County commissioner David Monteith said that the decision not to reappoint Cody wasn’t discussed by incoming commissioners beforehand and wasn’t a retributory attack.

“I just chose not to make a motion or a second,” said Monteith. “Evidently everybody else chose to do the same thing. It was nothing personal.”

Monteith said they haven’t yet discussed appointing a new finance manager and are relying on King to fill the gap until the can make a decision going forward. King once held the finance manager’s position in Swain County.

Cody, meanwhile, has found a lawyer and is looking for a new job. When asked for her take on the ideal outcome of the pending suit, she confesses uncertainty about even wanting her job back.

“Are they going to do it again?” Cody wondered. “If you put me in a position and the next election comes up, are you going to fire me again? I don’t want to be scared all the time that I’m going to lose my job because I want to support someone.”

Page 30 of 47

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