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The good ole days: Former Macon commissioners draw lessons from the past

fr macon daysA group of past Macon County Commissioners spent an hour reminiscing about their triumphs and reflecting on lessons learned in front of an audience that included two Election Day hopefuls last week. The lunchtime program was the third in a series from the Macon County League of Women Voters examining the county’s growth from the perspective of those who served it during key moments. 

This board, which served in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, was tasked with handling the increasing revenues coming from the building boom at a time when a good bit of infrastructure, particularly school buildings, was crumbling. Over the course of four years, the commissioners managed to build a justice center, an emergency medical services center in Nantahala, the Macon Transit station and an airport terminal. They started the Little Tennessee Greenway project, bought the property that would later house Southwestern Community College and, perhaps most importantly, built two elementary schools, funded the English building at Franklin High School and completed several other school renovation projects. 

“At the time we had 100 mobile units, 100 trailers that kids went to school in,” said current Macon County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin, who at the time was chairman of the school board while his father Harold was commission chairman. “At the time when we opened the Iotla Valley two years ago, there were zero mobile units in Macon County Schools.” 

Getting those projects done took a lot of cooperation, and at the time the board was split politically with three Democrats and two Republicans. Harold Corbin, whose battle with illness kept him from attending, and now-Sen. Jim Davis, were the Republican members while attendees Janet Greene, Mark West and Allen Bryson were Democrat. Much of the retrospective conversation last week centered around the importance of keeping politics from getting in the way of serving the community. 

“You’ve got politics in the country where you’ve got liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, but in Macon County you could be a Democrat or a Republican and you were probably just this close together on your political view,” said Greene, who served from 1998 to 2002. 

Instead, the former board members said, they made an effort to prioritize functionality and conversation over politics. Case in point: as the top vote-getter in the 1998 election, Greene should have become commission chairman. 

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But, she said, “I didn’t know anything about politics” at the time. Harold Corbin, meanwhile, did. As longtime chair of the local Republican Party, he knew his way around politics and knew how to get things done. Though the 1998 board had a 3 to 2 Democratic majority, Greene turned over the chairman position to someone of the opposite affiliation. 

“If I had been willing to fight for a position, we would have had nothing in those four years,” she said. “Harold knew how it worked, and he trained all of us to know how to work in politics.”

“It was because of Harold that I became a registered independent, because I wanted to vote for Harold in the elections,” said Susan Ervin, of the League of Women Voters. Until that point, she had a been a lifelong registered Democrat. 

That was possible, the former members said, largely because they were good at communicating with each other and considering each other’s viewpoints. 

“A lot of our success was because we did talk about things,” said Mark West, who served from 2000 to 2004.  

The board had a chairman who worked fulltime as a commissioner during his 1998-2002 term, constantly communicating with the other members about issues being raised and decisions to be made. And the other members, in turn, were willing to listen to other points of view. 

“We would all voice our opinion and we would give and take back and forth until we could come to a clarity,” Greene said. 

Communication with community members was also an important tool for success, Greene said. Not everyone liked every decision that was made, but explaining why an action was taken often helped alleviate resentful feelings afterward. 

“If you could tell them why you were doing what you were doing they may not like it still, but they were far more willing to accept what you were doing,” Greene said.  

That interparty give and take stood out to Democratic Senate Candidate Jane Hipps, who was there to see a League meeting in action before heading up for the candidates forum in September. 

“I thought what was interesting was the way people worked together and cooperated and had the needs of the people in mind,” Hipps said. “I thought that was mainly it. The fact that the Democrats were in the majority and yet they felt it was important to have the real leadership skills, and that made a positive impact.”

“I think it’s useful, the past perspective of our county commissioners, former county commissioners,” said John Martin, a Libertarian candidate for Macon County commissioner. “I wanted to hear their thinking on matters and their experiences that helped form their decisions and helped them in the position as county commissioner.”

Martin said he admired the fact that, though, the commissioners had varying perspectives and beliefs, they were passionate enough about the good of the county to work toward what they believed should be done. 

The experience, the former commissioners said, was a valuable one. 

“I think everyone should help their community,” said Allen Bryson, who served from 1998 to 2006, when asked whether he’d encourage someone close to him, like his children, to run for office. “I would want my children to do that.”

But it’s an office for people who have that community service spirit, Greene said, and she gave the audience a warning about what to look for when they choose someone to represent them at any level of government. 

“If you’re looking for a person who’s running for office, I want to know what they’ve done, what they’ve contributed to their community, what extracurricular activities they’ve done,” Greene said. “Do they give their time as softball or little league coaches? Are they serving in their church? Have they volunteered their time and effort in the past to their community?”

If the answer is no, Greene said, watch out. 

“If you have a person who has spent all their life making money for themselves and they go into politics, that will be their motivation,” she said. 

With the desire to serve, though, things change for the better. 

“It was quite an experience, eight years on the Macon County Board of Commissioners,” Bryson said. 

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