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Game on: Jackson commissioner candidates go to the mat in three-on-three race

fr jaxcommissionersThree challengers for Jackson County commissioner opened with a strong offensive charge at a candidate debate last week, rarely letting up from their hard-driving line as the night wore on.

Their opponents — a trio of sitting commissioners fighting for re-election — were forced to play defense, fielding off a barrage of attacks against their leadership, policies, philosophy and style.

Brian McMahan, a Democratic challenger for the county commissioner chairman, said the sitting commissioners have let the voters of Jackson down over the past four years.

“Sadly they fumbled the ball, not just once but many times, and I sat on the sidelines the past four years and quite frankly I have been very disappointed, very disappointed in the lack of leadership. I have been disappointed in the lack of planning, in the failure to act on important issues,” McMahan said. “We need a change in this county.”

Watch the forum, courtesy of the Canary Coalition:

But current chairman Jack Debnam, an independent, countered that the past four years have brought progress.

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“I want to be judged on what I’ve done the past four years,” Debnam said. “That’s the only thing I’ve got to run on.”

The Jackson County commissioner race is an easy one for voters to dissect. Candidates have voluntarily sorted themselves into two tidy fields, with three running mates on each team.

Three Democratic challengers — McMahan for chairman and Boyce Deitz and Joe Ward for commissioner — want to return the Jackson County board of commissioners to a Democratic majority following an upset four years ago that swung the pendulum the other way.

Deitz said the county has merely been marking time the past four years.

“We need to lead the parade and not follow. We can be the light that shines for all the counties in Western North Carolina to follow us,” Deitz said.

Ward chimed in that Jackson County’s current leadership has not been proactive.

“Jackson County needs to get a plan in place that we don’t have right now, a plan for growth. Where we’re going and what we are doing. Without a plan, you are just heading for destruction. That’s just plain and simple,” Ward said.

Ward also said commissioners need to be more engaged and responsive to residents, pledging to do a better job listening to the people if elected.

“And we aren’t just going to listen we are going to hear, because there is a difference,” Ward said.

Jackson County is a Democratic stronghold. Republican victories in local politics are rare here. So rare that few predicted an election upset of such epic proportions four years ago, when three sitting Democrats were unseated from the county board in one fell swoop.

The three Democrats running as challengers now have framed themselves as the comeback kids. Only one — McMahan — was technically on the board the year of the upset. But all three say they are ready to take back the ball.

However, the trio of sitting commissioners who came into office following the upset four years ago say there is no reason to return to the policies of the past.

“It is time that we stayed the course for a change,” Debnam said.

The slate of three candidates running to keep their seats — Debnam, an independent for chairman, and Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders for commissioner — countered that county government is running better than ever and they’ve made progress over the past four years.


The resumé

Few in the audience, if any, were in the undecided camp when they walked in the door of the forum put on by students at Southwestern Community College last Thursday. A large number wore buttons supporting the Democratic slate of McMahan, Deitz and Ward.

Others wore Republican Party paraphernalia and handed out flyers listing accomplishments their slate claims over the past four years, many of them building projects like a new 911 emergency ops center, a Cashiers Recreation Center, a performing arts center and gym at Smoky Mountain High School and park improvements.

“If you read this list of accomplishments it will shed some light on how hard we have worked the past four years. I don’t know where they’ve been,” Cody said, referring to his opponents. “We have done numerous things to stimulate our economy and it is showing.”

Economic development is one platform the current commissioners are touting. They paved the way for a countywide vote on alcohol sales, which in turn has meant new bars and restaurants in Cullowhee. They reconstituted the defunct economic development commission and hired and fulltime economic development director. And they restructured the county’s tourism marketing initiatives under a single agency with a more focused, cohesive mission.

But Debnam said he and the other sitting commissioners had to spend the first part of their tenure taking care of business unattended to by their predecessors.

“We struggled the first two years. I am not going to tell any lies. It was hard. It took two years to get caught up,” Debnam said.

The criticism was aimed at McMahan, who’d been on the past board, but his running mates were lumped in as well.

Debnam cited an aggressive campaign to collect unpaid property taxes, but not before writing off $55,000 in back taxes because the collection window had sunset under the previous the previous board.

Debnam said they had to tie up other loose ends “kicked down the road” by the previous board as well. For example, the previous board built a new library with a bigger footprint, but didn’t take into account the larger operating budget it would need, Debnam said.

And the new board had to clean up a suite of loan defaults languishing under the county’s economic development revolving loan fund, Debnam said.

McMahan said the loan defaults were something he inherited himself, not created. Debnam didn’t see that as an excuse.

“He inherited those loans eight years before he passed them on to me and neglected to do anything about them. I felt like we needed to do some housecleaning and couldn’t afford to wait eight more years,” Debnam said.

The debacle of the business revolving loan fund haunted past boards of commissioners for a decade, with no clear mechanism to collect from companies in arrears other than shutting down their operations and seize their assets as collateral.

McMahan countered that such a move wouldn’t have made sense.

“Do you go in there when someone isn’t making a loan payment and shut them down, when you got 30 people working at sewing machines, and that’s the only way they have for feeding their family?” McMahan said, referring to a loan on one small sewing factory in particular.

Cody countered that the collateral for loans should have at least been secured, citing equipment serving as collateral that went missing in one case.

“People were cannibalizing that plant and it had been going on for months. They were stealing anything they could carry out of it. Where were these guys?” Cody asked.

Despite the current board’s claims of a good economic development track record, the challengers said more needs to be done to attract jobs.

“Every county in this country is trying to do the same thing and that’s create jobs. It’s tough. You are competing against all of them,” Deitz said. “We can do things to help our economy that is out of the box that we never think about.”

Ward agreed that more creative incentives need to be developed.

McMahan said the county hasn’t done enough to promote existing small businesses.

“If you buy and sell and trade in Jackson County, your return on investment goes so much further,” McMahan said.

Elders said he, too, wanted to support small businesses and perhaps recruit “some good chain restaurants” to locate in the county.


Property value plight

Candidates on both sides agreed the pending property revaluation was the biggest looming challenge facing whoever got elected. The county’s property tax base is poised to take a huge hit as real estate values on the tax books are brought in line with real world values, a mandatory squaring up known as “revaluation.”

The plummeting value of high-end luxury homes and second-home lots will cause the tax base to shrink by as much as a third, according to current projections. That in turn means the county will have to either cut its budget by a third, raise the tax rate to make up the difference, or something in between.

The challengers said more should have been done in the year leading up to the reval to brace the public.

“We need a plan. We need to educate people of this county right off the bat what is going to happen to them. This is going to be a tough thing. It is not going to be easy,” Deitz said. 

Borrowing from his days as a high school football coach, Deitz said pointedly, “We’re going to have to tackle.”

“It is going to be a rough row to hoe,” agreed Ward, a farmer.

Ward said if elected, his team would start working on a plan right away.

Only Elders, one of the sitting Republican commissioners, seemed unrattled by the reval around the corner.

“That’s why we have a good county manager and good department heads. We’ve got people working on this right now as we speak,” said Elders, although it was technically 8:11 p.m. on a Thursday. “I believe by the time this reval takes place we are going to be in good shape.”

Debnam had to disagree with his fellow commissioner on that one, however.

“It is going to be a shock, and anybody who thinks it isn’t, or even thinks …,” Debnam said, but didn’t finish the sentence.


Spending tables

A few moments in the debate sported a role reversal from the normal party stance of Democrats and Republicans when it comes to budgets and spending.

The Democrats called for more belt tightening, while the sitting commissioners claimed county government was already lean.

“We have been tightening our belt and trimming where we can,” Debnam said.

“We have run an efficient, tight ship,” added Cody, a Republican.

The Democrats weren’t convinced.

“We are fooling ourselves if we say all of these departments are as efficient as they can be,” countered Deitz, a Democrat. “They are not. We can work at it. We know we can tighten our belts, all of us, and save some money everywhere and I think we are going to have to try to do that.” 

McMahan said the county’s annual operating budget is $55 million now, higher than the $50 million it was four years ago under Democratic control.

Ward also questioned whether there has been growth in the number of county employees, although Debnam said there hadn’t been.

The Republican candidates and Debnam even bragged about their progressive spending, namely in the area of education and school projects, an uncommon stump for Republicans.

“We have been very generous with the school board and Southwestern Community College,” Cody said.

The current commissioners have increased annual funding for SCC by $400,000 and funded college building projects, Cody said. Likewise, the public school budget has been increased.

“Dr. Murray (Jackson Schools superintendent) told me they haven’t come to us and asked us for one thing we haven’t given them,” Debnam added.

During the forum, candidates were asked whether they would support a local sales tax increase if the revenue was devoted to public schools.

Ward, a Democrat, said ‘no’ to any new tax.

“I think I’ve got all I can stand and I think most of you all have, too,” Ward said.

But Elders, a Republican, said ‘yes.’

“This is a worthy cause and we have to keep our educational system number one and whatever it takes to keep our schools, let’s do it,” Elders said.

It was a rare turning-of-the-tables for a Republican to support for a tax increase in the name of schools and Democrat to take a stand against it.



Meet the players 

The Jackson County commissioner race is an easy one for voters to dissect. Candidates voluntarily sorted themselves into two tidy fields, with three running mates on each team.

The commission has five seats in all, but only three are up for election this year. Commissioners must hail from specific geographic areas in the county, but all voters vote in all districts.

Team one: three Democratic challengers

Brian McMahan, a former commissioner chairman who lost his seat four years ago.

Boyce Deitz, commissioner challenger.

Joe Ward, commissioner challenger.

Team two: sitting commissioner coalition

Jack Debnam, an independent, who’s been chairman for four years.

Doug Cody, Republican commissioner.

Charles Elders, Republican commissioner.



Tipping the scales

The past four years have been the first in recent memory that Democrats haven’t held a majority on the Jackson County board.

But likewise, Republicans haven’t had the majority either — a point Chairman Jack Debnam is quick to point out, and points out often.

Debnam is an independent, ascribing to neither party. It was a historical anomaly not just in the mountains but the entire state when Debnam won a county commissioner seat as an unaffiliated candidate four years ago.

But he has been criticized by Democrats for really being a conservative at heart — his independent status merely a ruse to help his election chances with a Democratic-heavy electorate.

But in defense, Debnam pointed to his voting record.

“I voted with the Democrats 95 percent of the time. I also voted with the Republicans. That’s because 95 percent of our votes were unanimous,” Debnam said.

Out of 586 votes by county commissioners over the past four years, 95.06 percent of them — to be exact — were unanimous. Only 24 — or 4.1 percent — were split votes.

But Brian McMahan, the Democratic challenger for chairman, questioned that bragging point. Most of the

“Of the 586, most are routine, procedural agenda items that pretty much are non-debatable,” McMahan said.

Things like approving the minutes, ratifying department head reports, approving budget amendments.

“Those are not a Democratic or Republican issue,” McMahan said. “Those that were split votes were of significance. Those 24 represent real issues where there is a difference of opinion.”

Debnam said Jackson is the only county in the state where neither party has the majority on the county board, and he believes it has brought balance.

“A split board has made things better in Jackson County,” he said. “We have done good things with two Democrats, two Republicans and myself.”

Debnam said it isn’t easy to run as an independent. To get on the ballot four years ago and again this time, he has to collect a passel of petition signatures — he gathered 1,100 in all this time.

Running as a team has posed a conundrum for Debnam. On one hand, aligning with the Republican commissioners could hurt his chances. It certainly won’t gain him any Republican votes. There’s no bona fide Republican running for chairman — it’s just Debnam and Democrat Brian McMahan on the ticket — so Debnam is likely the most palatable choice for conservative voters, regardless of official staking himself out with the Republican candidate camp.

But buddying up with Republican running mates could hurt his chances with swing voters and moderates who question how independent Debnam really is if he is running as a team with Republicans.

At the forum, Debnam addressed the apparent incongruity of running as a team with Republicans on the one hand, despite his partisan independence. A split board is in Debnam’s interest. He needs the two Republican commissioners to win to balance out the two sitting Democrats not up for election this time.

Without a split board, Debnam couldn’t lead from the center.

The other two Republicans likewise touted their ability to work with Democrats and avoid split votes.

“Since we are a mixed board of two Democrats and two Republicans and an independent chairman, we have had to work together to get these things done,” Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican running for re-election, said.

Still, McMahan questions how genuine it is to use the unanimous voting record as a litmus test of cooperation.

“The chair has so strictly controlled the agenda the more controversial votes have been denied access to the agenda in the first place,” McMahan said.

Some issues get decided by majority consensus without having a formal vote, like whether to give the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad a economic development loan. Regardless, the course has been different than it would have been under a Democratic majority.

“This election is about a vision for the future and where we are going,” Democratic challenger Brian McMahan said in his closing remarks. “We are at a crossroads. Now is the time to grab ahold of the reigns and to lay the foundation. We cannot afford to stumble.”

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