Horton resigns-fired after taking heat for incubator vote
Haywood County Manager Jack Horton resigned today following a ?-hour closed door meeting with the Haywood County Commissioners on Tuesday (Jan. 3) where he was given the choice of stepping down of being fired.
Commissioners Mark Swanger, Kevin Ensley and Mary Ann Enloe supported Horton’s departure. Commissioners Kirk Kirkpatrick and Larry Ammons wanted Horton to stay.
Swanger, Ensley and Enloe say Horton disobeyed their directives and withheld information from them. It was not the first time, they said.
Horton’s departure was precipitated two weeks ago by a tug-of-war over the small business incubator in Waynesville. Horton is a member of the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation, a not-for-profit economic development group set-up to run the incubator.
Critics claimed the incubator had failed in it mission to support start-up businesses. A plan was hatched to dissolve the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation and transfer the incubator to the Haywood County Economic Development Commission.
Commissioners discussed the benefits of the county owning the incubator at two commissioners meetings in December with Horton present. But Horton voted against the plan at a meeting of the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation.
“I was disappointed because I believe it was not in the best interest of Haywood County,” Swanger said. “When you are employed by Haywood County you must put Haywood County first and our taxpayers first.”
Commissioners questioned whether something else influenced Horton’s vote.
“The way he voted it is obvious the interests of Haywood County taxpayers were not his top priority. There is not other way to interpret that vote,” Enloe said.
Ammons, who is also a member of the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation, voted against the plan as well. Ammons said he’s the one to blame for Horton’s vote.
“He got there late and I briefed him. I’m not sure he didn’t follow my lead out there,” Ammons said of the meeting.
Ammons also argued that it was not clear what commissioners wanted Horton to do.
“Do you really know the commissioners wishes unless we vote on something?” Ammons said.
“There were no instructions and there was no vote on anything,” Horton said.
Enloe said they couldn’t instruct Horton specifically because Horton never told commissioners he was a member.
“Neither Larry nor Jack said anything at the meeting when they were going within an hours to do this vote,” Enloe said. “That was the time for their concerns — when we were making plans to get back for the Haywood County tax payers what they had paid for in beginning.”
That bothered Ensley as well.
“If it had been me, I would have said ‘Wait a minute, y’all, I am going to this vote tonight,’” Ensley said of Horton. “It seemed kind of sneaky.”
“Our board has been very open and we discuss things in a public arena, especially something of this magnitude that could have such a potential positive impact on Haywood County,” Swanger said. “Anyone who had anything relevant in any way, shape or form should have brought it up.”
The rest of the story
Ammons and Horton said they, too, want the county to get the incubator and had every intention of voting that way.
“If the county wants the building, I am 100 percent in favor of doing that. It had nothing to do with that,” Horton said.
“I think the building needs to be used for economic development and I don’t think Smoky Mountain Development has been able to accomplish that,” Ammons said. “They need that off their plate. It is in Haywood County so let Haywood County take it and make something out of it.”
But the vote was not that simple. The proposal to transfer the incubator was linked to a plan to dissolve the corporation. A “yes” vote would apply to both.
Once a corporation is dissolved, it can’t be undone. He said there is still merit in the corporation’s other function: making loans for new and expanding businesses through the Small Business Administration.
Also at stake was the fate of $300,000 cash in the corporation’s bank account. The plan to dissolve called for the money to be split among the 10 counties represented by corpoartion for their own economic development initatives.
But at the meeting, the proposal was floated to put the money to work in a revolving venture capital fund for start-up companies. Ammons thought the plan had merit and he decided at the last minute to vote “no.”
“The circumstances changed when I heard the other proposals,” Ammons said.
Horton said he planned to vote “no” until he got to the meeting and other proposal were being thrown around.
“It seemed confusing. There were a lot of unanswered questions. I thought they would have more input from the members. There was a lot of confusion of the whole process,” Horton said.
Some argue Horton should not be penalized by commissioners because his vote would not have changed the outcome anyway. A vote to dissolve a corporation is so weighty and irreversible it requires a two-thirds majority of all voting. In this case, there had to be 12 votes.
“My vote one way or the other would not have made a difference in the passage,” Horton said.
Ensley disagrees. Ammons and Horton were sitting in the front row and like influenced votes of those behind them, Ensley said.
“If I am undecided and I see them vote not to dissolve it, I would think ‘Well, evidently Haywood County doesn’t want the building,” Ensley said.
Ammons said their vote did influence anyone sitting behind them.
“It was pretty obvious to everyone there that there was a significant group that had been part of that for a long time that felt like there were still possibilities,” Ammons said.