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Old-style ‘machine’ a factor in Swain

A slate of challengers running in the Swain County commissioners race are speaking out against what they claim is decades of control by an elite handful in the inner circle of the Democratic Party known as “the machine.”

Lucky for voters, the candidates fall more or less neatly into two distinct camps — those backed by the so-called machine and those who aren’t. Otherwise, winnowing down 13 candidates in the Democratic primary — three running for chairman and 10 running for four commissioner seats — could get confusing.

Challengers advocating a change in leadership aren’t being shy this election, including Vivian Robbins, a candidate who said it was time to “clean house.”

“We need a total change,” Robbins said. It’s gotten to the point where something has got to be done.”

Lou Ball said it is high time the people elect their own candidates, not ones put in office by the political machine who are then beholden to it.

“You should be working for the people, not for a machine,” Ball said. “You have to do what the people want.”

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Andre Boyd Gunter, a challenger for county chairman, said he thinks momentum is building against the machine.

“A lot of people who I talked to who always voted for the machine in the past are very disenfranchised,” Gunter said. “Plus, we have a lot of new people who have come in and settled. They are already disenfranchised with the machine. It’s based on the old buddy system and they would like to see that end.”

Ronnie Barker, also running for county chairman, agreed.

“People in Swain County are wanting new blood and change,” Barker said, adding that he wasn’t “hand picked.”

Incumbents lumped into this “hand-picked” category disputed the notion of a party machine controlling their candidacy, however.

“They are grasping at straws,” Chairman Glenn Jones said.

“I don’t know where they are coming from,” Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay said.

Jones said he has no control over whether the local Democratic Party backs his candidacy or not.

“We all have people who back us when we run for something. You may have someone supporting you who you don’t want to support you, but you can’t pick and choose,” Jones said.

Lindsay agreed.

“I am thankful for having supporters who work with the party. But when it comes down to it, it’s who goes in and votes for who — that’s who is going to win,” Lindsay said.

Anthony said the machine does not control the direction of the county.

“I make the decisions I make in the best interest of the people in Swain County. No other reason,” Anthony said. “There is no machine telling me what to do. I just want to continue to try to serve the people of Swain County and I feel like we have done a good job.”

Anthony said he was “not going to down anyone” and that the challengers “can run on any issue they want.”

Two of the anti-machine candidates are running because of a vendetta against the county, according to some political observers. Ronnie Barker, a chairman candidate, is the former county economic development director and critics say he resents losing that position from the county. Lou Ball, a commissioner candidate who was fired from her job as an appraiser at the tax office in January, could have similar motives.

Not all the incumbents are part of the machine. Commissioner David Monteith is just as dissatisfied with the rest of the board of commissioners as the anti-machine challengers are. Likewise, not all the challengers are dissatisfied. In fact, four of the commissioner challengers say they support the current leadership. They say they were prompted to run when they learned only three of the four commissioners were seeking re-election — creating a vacant seat — rather than out of a desire to oust the incumbents.


Open government

Several of the challengers have accused the majority of incumbents of making decisions in private and not seeking out public input.

“There’s too much going on behind closed doors,” said Vivian Robbins, a commissioner challenger. Robbins said she reviewed the minutes from county commissioner meetings for the past several years and found them sparse.

“There is no discussion. There is so much that is left out,” Robbins said.

Three of incumbents — Glenn Jones, David Anthony and Genevieve Lindsay — said they are very open to the public.

“No one has ever been denied the right to speak their mind at a meeting,” Anthony said. “Don’t go out here and say we aren’t giving you a right and not come to meetings. A lot of our meetings are like an informal talk.”

Lindsay agreed their doors are always open.

“We can’t force them to come, but seriously we have encouraged everyone to come,” Lindsay said.

Simply waiting for the public to show up at county board meetings isn’t good enough, according to Ben Bushyhead, a commissioner candidate.

“The commsioners don’t go out to community meetings. They don’t do anything to inform or educate the community or involve the community on the issues coming before them,” Bushyhead said. “I don’t want to get elected and people not see me until the next election. There needs to be more community discussions.”

Bushyhead said commissioners have been hired by the people to represent them and should respond accordingly. Bushyhead said if your boss calls you into his office, you listen, and the same should go for the public. Bushyhead also used the analogy of a church: if it opened its doors and waited for people to show up, it wouldn’t have many members.

“You have to go out and invite them in,” Bushyhead said. “The commissioners need to do that if they want an open government.”

On his campaign rounds, Bushyhead is telling people the real work will begin if he gets elected.

“You should be the ones telling us how you want things to happen, not us telling you how things are going to happen,” Bushyhead said. “If you have a leader telling people how things are going to be that’s called a dictator in other countries. Here that’s called a commissioner.”

Jones, the county chairman, disagreed with that portrayal.

“Before we vote on everything, the question is asked ‘do we have any discussion?’ said Jones, county chairman. “I have never turned one person down who wanted to come to our meeting and make a statement.”

Jones said if the public does not come to the county meetings, there isn’t a lot else he can do.

“I can’t do nothing about that,” Jones said. “I can’t read minds.”

Barker, a challenger for the county chairman seat, said the public doesn’t come to commissioner meetings because they feel like their input won’t matter.

“During the public comment period, our citizens need to be treated in a manner that would encourage them to speak out, not a manner in which they feel the decisions have already been made prior to the meetings,” Barker said.

Andre Boyd Gunter, a candidate for county chairman, said the commissioners should be more candid about their decisions.

“They have a bad habitat of making decisions in closed sessions and coming out and springing it on people,” Gunter said. “Your main discussion should be in the open — ‘I believe this way’ or ‘I believe that way’ and explain yourself before you commit to something.”

Barker also said the incumbents are too focused on the greater Bryson City area and leave out other parts of the county.

“Representation should include each and every geographical community. I feel like that hasn’t been done,” Barker said.


Lone man out

While Commissioner David Monteith is an incumbent, he is just as dissatisfied as some of the challengers are. Monteith has not endeared himself to the machine, which tried unsuccessfully to oust him four years ago, he said. This year, they are trying again. Democratic Party leaders personally invited two candidates — Troy Burns and Steve Moon — to run for the seat being vacated by Commissioner Jeff Waldrop, who’s not seeking re-election. The machine didn’t miscount and recruit one too many people to run for Waldrop’s seat. Instead, they hope one will beat Monteith.

“I am a people’s candidate and not a party. I work for the people of Swain County regardless of their politics,” Monteith said.

Monteith said he often feels like the other commissioners have discussed issues before they come to the meetings.

“I think decisions are made before they ever come to the board of commissioners,” Monteith said. “When they swing them by me, they already have their votes.”

Monteith, who has served for eight years, said the prior board never stood around talking out of ear shot from the public during breaks in commissioner meetings.

“We made sure we did not gather three people outside shooting the bull in between two meetings because that gives the appearance,” Monteith said. “When the meetings are over, I go home. I don’t stand around talking for another hour. It’s not kosher.”

Commissioner David Anthony said the other commissioners have never had a private meeting to discuss county issues.

“There have been no decisions made behind doors. If there was, I wouldn’t be a part of it. I will be straight and up front about the people of Swain County,” Anthony said.

“We have to have open meetings,” Lindsay added.

But Monteith said it got off to a bad start shortly after the five took office four years ago when Chairman Glenn Jones made a motion to adopt a resolution in favor of a cash settlement from the federal government instead of insisting the Road to Nowhere be completed. The resolution was not on the agenda, Monteith said. But at the end of the meeting, Jones slid a piece of paper out from his notebook and said he had one more item.

“I felt like I was the only one who did not know this is coming up. It was snuck in from day one,” Monteith said. “They could have done it a dozen different ways.”

In reality, however, Monteith said he has voted against the other incumbents “very little.”

Monteith said the machine looks down on him for supporting U.S Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard.

“If we spend our time trying to get rid of Congressman Taylor, you spin your wheels trying to work the party rather than doing things for the county,” Monteith said.


The middle block

Meanwhile, Steve Moon and Troy Burns both got personal invitations to run for commissioner by Jack Hyatt, chairman of the Swain County Democratic Party. Both said they were asked to run to fill the seat being vacated by Jeff Waldrop, who isn’t seeking re-election. But in fact, Hyatt hopes one of them will oust Monteith.

Moon and Burns were among the first to register with the election office to run for commissioner during the sign-up period in February. They said they did not realize so many would come along behind them and sign up as well.

“A lot of people could have said ‘Here’s an empty seat, let’s run,’ without ever talking to anybody to know who else was running,” Burns said. “They didn’t collaborate with the (Democratic) Party and everybody just showed up.”

Both Moon and Burns have served on the school board as their intro into county politics. Neither Moon nor Burns had any criticism of the way the incumbents are running the county.

“I think they are all good people. I like everybody,” Moon said. Moon added that he would be available to listen to the public anytime. Just stop by his tire shop any day.

Burns ran against N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, in the Democratic primary two years ago and made a good showing for a primary election run against a long-time incumbent like Haire.

The other two commissioner candidates are Jonathan Douthit and Phillip Carson. They weren’t recruited to run by the machine like Burns and Moon, but they aren’t blasting the incumbents either.

Douthit said he supports all the incumbents except Monteith. Douthit’s top issue is getting a cash settlement for Swain County from the federal government in lieu of building the Road to Nowhere. Monteith is a purebred road supporter, while the other three incumbents want a cash settlement.

Phillip Carson said he has always wanted to run for commissioner but wasn’t personally recruited.

“I don’t think Jake knew I was an interested party,” Carson said. Carson said he was not in a particular camp.

“I am open minded to the issues. I will be able to listen to people’s concerns and willing to be their voice,” Carson said.


Splitting hairs for chairman

Swain County commissioner chairman Glenn Jones is facing competition from two challengers, both running on similar platforms. The two challengers could be each other’s spoiler. If more than 50 percent of voters are dissatisfied with Jones, their votes would be split between the challengers and Jones could still end up winner.

Jones has to receive at least 40 percent of the votes to avoid a run-off, however. If Jones gets less than 40 percent of the vote — regardless of if he comes in first — the runner-up can demand a run-off. Only the runner-up and Jones would be on the ballot in a run-off, eliminating competition from the other challenger.

One of the challengers, Ronnie Barker, ran against Jones four years ago. There were 1,685 votes cast. Jones won with 62 percent of the vote, compared to Barker’s 38 percent.

Jones’ other challenger, Boyd Gunter, said Barker already proved he couldn’t beat Jones four years ago. Gunter said he thought someone else should try.

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