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Call me maybe: Catchy case of indecision circulating among Waynesville candidates

fr interestometerThere’s a unifying theme among candidates in the Waynesville town board election: “maybe-ism.”

Those up for election have been hedging their answers for weeks when asked on the street if they planned to run again. As for newcomers contemplating a run, there’s a marked void as well.

It’s a high-stakes race as usual, however. All five seats on the board are up for grabs this year — as they are every four years.

Although the sign-up period is right around the corner, candidates have been slow to make up their minds.

As of a few weeks ago, only one of the current town board members had formally declared, and only one outside candidate had stepped up as a challenger.

“That’s been a little surprising to me. I would have expected that other people would have made it known that they were running by now,” said Jon Feichter, owner of New Meridian computer and networking company.

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Feichter is the first and only challenger so far to officially announce he’s running. It seemed everyone has been waiting to see what everyone else would do before deciding if they would run, a political version of the game of chicken.

“I think everybody is concerned about what happens going forward. If good candidates didn’t step up, that would impact everyone else’s decision significantly,” Feichter said.

In just the past few days, as The Smoky Mountain News drew closer to press time on a “who’s running” story, more have begun to make up their mind. Here’s what we know for now.

• Alderman Leroy Roberson now says he is running.

“I was giving it some thought first and decided I will run again,” said Roberson, a retired optometrist. “I just want to see that the town keeps progressing.”

• Alderman Wells Greeley says he will not run, a decision that came with “much deliberation.” 

Greeley is the owner of a third-generation, family-run funeral business. “My vocation keeps me essentially on call 24-7,” Greeley said. Being a town alderman has been rewarding the past seven years, he said, but it’s time to make room in his life to pursue other interests with the little free time he has, like perhaps nonprofit work.

• Alderwoman Julia Freeman will most likely run. She’s the newest board member, elected for the first time four years ago.

“I have enjoyed it. We have come a long way with the town,” Freeman said. With all the seats in play and others potentially not running, Freeman is also compelled to run to ensure “some continuity and some history.”

• Alderman Gary Caldwell is going to run. There was never a question.

“I just love my job. I love working with the citizens and being a spokesperson for citizens and employees,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell wagers he gets more calls from citizens than anyone else on the board due to his reputation as a voice for the people.

“People say ‘We know you’ll get it done. You will look into a situation and at least find out what we need to know,’” Caldwell said. The calls run the gamut from speeding on neighborhood streets to junk cars in a neighbor’s yard.

• Mayor Gavin Brown will mostly likely run, but has stopped short of saying that he absolutely, positively, definitely will run. If a capable candidate with strong vision came along, he might decide to bow out. In the meantime, he doesn’t think his own waiting game is holding up other contenders from getting in the race.

“No one has come to me and said ‘Gavin, I would like to run. Are you thinking about running?’ I have not heard that from anyone,” Brown said. 

Brown has been on the board for 16 years, serving as mayor for the past 8 years. He’s tried to fulfill a vision for Waynesville as a vibrant town with exceptional quality of life, in hopes of appealing to business and entrepreneurial interests.

“I want to make sure businesses find Waynesville to be a welcoming entity and they come and locate here,” Brown said. “Part of my gut feeling is I want to be a part of fulfilling promises for the town’s growth.”

As for outside challengers, catching wind of them can be tougher. So far we’ve heard of:

• Jon Feichter, owner of New Meridian Technologies, a computer networking and repair company on Main Street, is definitely running. It’s partly a family legacy — his mother was a popular alderwoman for 12 years. But he’s also gained insight about what’s on the town’s horizon by serving on the planning board and Downtown Waynesville Association board. 

“I would like to have a larger impact in our community. Most of it is derived for my love for this town and I want to make it as wonderful of an experience for my kids as it has been for me,” Feichter said of why he’s running. “The simple answer is I love Waynesville. I am not gunning for anybody’s seat on the board.” 

• Lynn Bradley, former owner of a hardware and gun store who now runs a metal finish shop, is merely a maybe.

“I was approached by some people and they asked me if it was something I would be interested in,” Bradley said. “I am still trying to decide.”

Bradley’s recruiters told him that there were issues afoot within the town that needed fixing, but he’s trying to determine if that’s true.

“That’s something I am still looking in to. Trying to sort through them is actually quite time consuming,” Bradley said of the gossip.

 

Biggest issue

When asked about the top issues facing the next town board, the merger of Lake Junaluska with the town was hands-down the first answer. All the candidates interviewed support bringing Lake Junaluska into the town limits.

Mayor Gavin Brown sees the merger as a stepping stone for Waynesville’s continued economic growth and prosperity. Others agree.

“That represents a positive move for Waynesville and Lake Junaluska and will benefit our county as a whole,” Greeley said.

“I feel Lake Junaluska will be an asset to Waynesville one day,” Caldwell added. “It is a like an economic generator down there you know.”

Roberson also agreed. Roberson served a four-year stint on the town board during the 1990s when Hazelwood merged with Waynesville, and as a result, believes he could provide valuable insight if and when the Lake Junaluska merger goes through. 

But ultimately, it’s not up to the town board candidates. First it must clear the state legislature. Then, voters in the town election this fall would have to approve it, as would voters in Lake Junaluska.

 

Too good to be true?

Waynesville’s town board members are often flummoxed by the absence of the public at their twice-monthly meetings. But they take it as a good sign.

“If people are displeased with the way the town is being run or the service being given it is not evidenced by attendance at our town board meetings,” Greeley said. “We can only assume in the absence of negative comments that everybody is pleased with the job the town of Waynesville is doing.”

Caldwell said Waynesville’s current board has managed to steer clear of controversial decisions that would rile people up.

“We don’t get the rowdy crowd in there,” Caldwell said of their meetings.

But the general lack of interest by the public in town affairs is mildly troubling despite being an inherently good sign, said Feichter, who will be a newcomer on the ballot this year.

“We as a community need to figure out how to increase that type of participation,” Feichter said. “I think that local input is of critical importance.”

The town held two public hearings on its most recent budget, but had no takers.

“If you don’t show up then we assume you are satisfied with the budget,” Roberson said. 

Last year, state and county funding cuts forced the town to chose between raising taxes or cutting services and amenities. The board chose to raise taxes by three cents last year, but even then, public backlash was absent. So absent, Roberson forgot they’d even raised taxes.

“I don’t remember raising taxes last year. No, it wasn’t property tax, I am almost certain of that,” Roberson said. He said the town raised trash, water and sewer rates, but it had been several years since the town raised property taxes to his recollection.

Feichter said he’s curious about the justification for the tax increase last year, and wonders why it was necessary after the town had made it through the worst of the recession.

“We need to keep taxes as low as we possibly can. As a small businessman I am keenly aware of the sheer number of taxes we have to pay,” Feichter said. “That being said, I also don’t mind paying my fair share.”

 

Rosy times

Many of today’s board members have served together for years.

“It is a great working board,” Freeman said. “We get along well with each other.”

Despite the civility and serenity, they have disagreed from time to time. But like family, they disagree and still get along.

“It is not that we are all like-minded. I think it is just an air of respect for one another,” Freeman said.

They’ve had few split votes, instead preferring to compromise than draw lines in the sand.

“If we have a disagreement, we still walk hand in hand out there,” Caldwell added. “We got good harmony going on and not anything controversial.”

The town has been thrown plenty of curve balls the past four years, however.

The town lost its long-time town manager and key department heads to retirement. It’s faced tough decisions to raise water and sewer fees to keep up with line repairs and replacements. And it has struggled with how to protect its precious profit stream as a power provider in light of rising wholesale electricity costs.

And, of course, there was the economy.

“Several things couldn’t be accomplished simply because of the recession,” Roberson said.

The economy is turning around, witnessed by the increase in construction and building permits, but the town now faces a new financial threat. The state legislature has already whittled away at funding streams for towns, with more changes slated to divert part of the town’s share of sales tax.

“We have some significant revenue challenges coming down from the current legislature,” Roberson said.

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