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Long-time Haywood commissioner plans to not run again

haywoodHaywood County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger publicly announced this week that he plans to retire from elected office next year and won’t be on the ballot when his seat comes up for election in fall of 2016.

It’s no secret that Swanger planned to step down from public life when his elected term was up next year. He’s been saying it for three years, making it clear during his last election in 2012 that it was his last.

But Swanger wanted to go on record in a public way so people would know it isn’t merely a rumor. 

The definitive news of Swanger’s retirement from elected office will touch off a scramble of political maneuvering over the next two months. While the election itself is more than a year away, the sign-up window for candidates is rapidly approaching.

The filing period for candidates planning to run in 2016 is in December — a month earlier than normal now that the state has moved the primary up from May to March. 

Swanger said his decision is completely a personal one — not driven by his wife wanting him to quit, an illness, or a desire to spend more time with grandchildren. Nearing 65, he simply wants a chance to live his own life.

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“I have been doing public service since 1996 and it is just time to experience a little more freedom and a little bit less responsibility,” Swanger said.

Swanger served as school board chairman from 1996 to 2002, and as a county commissioner since 2002.

As chairman, Swanger plays an incredibly active role. He’s not the sort who simply shows up to meetings and dials in his votes.

“To make good decisions you have to have good information and be sure of the accuracy of the information. At that point, the decision making becomes just a matter of judgment,” said Swanger, who’s a glutton for research and analysis.

But Swanger’s in-the-trenches style of leadership allows little time to peruse his own life. His bucket list includes a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and a road tour across Canada from Nova Scotia to Lake Louise.

Swanger has led the county through many milestones during his long tenure as commissioner, including eight years as chairman. He’s steered the county through painful budget cuts and staff reductions during the recession. He helped ensure the viability of Haywood Regional Medical Center by taking part in negotiating its sale to a larger hospital network. He’s taken proactive steps to insulate the county from exorbitant costs it would have otherwise faced to close out its landfill by negotiating a transfer of landfill operations to n private waste management company. And he’s upheld support for education, making Haywood County’s school system one of the better funded and, in turn, better performing public school systems in the state.

But it’s the routine county business that makes his role as commissioner a full-time job despite only a modest stipend of about $14,512 per year, with a $100 a month technology allowance and $200 a month travel allowance.

“There is a lot more to it than attending bi-monthly meetings and hearing what is going on,” Swanger said.

Swanger’s not been without opponents, some of whom equated his hands-on style to micro-managing. But most of his past critics have come around over time, admitting he’s done well by the county, even donating to his last campaign.

When Swanger was first elected commissioner in 2002, the county board was often in the crosshairs, with large turn-outs at county meetings and public distrust

These days, few pay much attention to what the commissioners do anymore, which Swanger reads as a vote of confidence in how the county does business. He chalks up the shift in sentiment to transparency guidelines the county now follows.

“I think we have earned the trust of the citizens,” Swanger said. “You can look at our agendas and it is very clear what we are doing. People don’t assume bad motives automatically any more.”

While there’s been a marked absence of widespread controversy surrounding county government over the past decade, Swanger and his fellow commissioners have been vexed by a new breed of opponents: a small but persistent club of conservative activists, who Swanger equated to “anarchists” on a mission to “burn things down.”

“Some of the crazies, if government is for it, they are automatically against it. But you just have to navigate that,” Swanger said.

Swanger has been asked — begged even — not to step down, fearing a wide open race for his seat could set the stage for the anti-government faction to get a toehold on the county board.

But Swanger said it’s time. Two of the five commissioners seats will be up for election next year. Swanger’s seat is one of them. The other seat up for grabs is held by Kevin Ensley, a moderate Republican. 

The other three seats on the board aren’t up for election until 2018, and Swanger said he has faith that those commissioners will stay the course no matter what the election outcome is in the short term.

“We have institutionalized good government,” Swanger said.

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