Canton board split on candidate support
The Canton Board of Aldermen has made major headway in the last two years by putting policies in place that will hopefully set the stage for a more prosperous future, which is why the incumbents up for election this year are scratching their heads wondering why they don’t have the support from everyone on the board.
Aldermen Zeb Smathers has openly pledged his support for incumbents Ralph Hamlett and Gail Mull’s re-election, but Mayor Mike Ray and Alderwoman Carole Edwards refuse to say who they are supporting.
However, actions speak louder than words. Ray admitted to making contributions to the campaigns of both challengers’ — Kate Brown and Neal McCracken. Mull and Hamlett said Ray has not made a contribution to their campaigns.
Ray and Edwards both declined to have a sit down interview to discuss the issues facing Canton and speculations that they we’re supporting the challengers in the race, but they did email statements regarding the claims. They both asked that their statements be printed in their entirety.
“This election is not about Mike Ray, Carole Edwards or Zeb Smathers. We are not running for election. This election is about four people with good qualities and definite ideas,” Edwards wrote in an email. “It is up to the public to hear their stories and comments so they can make an informed decision on who they feel would be the best person for the job. All of our Canton voters are very intelligent folks and they do not need me to tell them how to vote.”
Ray’s response was similar.
“Each voter, including myself, will make our own personal decision as we cast our vote for the candidate/candidates that we feel will listen to our citizens, form their own opinions and dedicate themselves to the betterment of our hometown,” Ray wrote. “This election is not about me, Mrs. Edwards or Mr. Smathers but an election giving our citizens the opportunity to elect their town leaders and I will always place my trust in their decision.”
Though Smathers doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the mayor or an aldermen supporting other candidates, he said Edwards and Ray have failed to offer an explanation as to why McCracken and Brown would be a better choice for Canton leadership.
When all four sitting aldermen decided not to run again in 2013, the town had the opportunity for a brand new board and the beginning of staggered terms. Edwards, Hamlett, Mull and Smathers all promised change when elected. They feel like they have delivered on that promise.
Of course the aldermen haven’t agreed on every issue, but a vast majority of votes have been unanimous. The board as a whole hired a new town manager, revamped the town’s beloved Labor Day Celebration, adopted policies to better maintain downtown commercial property, installed new water meters and has tried to make bold decisions to revitalize the town.
“This was a new board that has been very active in making decisions together and making our priorities around those decisions,” Smathers said. “We couldn’t have accomplished all that we have if we were a divided board, but now in this election, it seems we are a divided board and it’s puzzling.”
Where did they go wrong?
While Edwards and Ray may not go on the record with who they support, Brown did say Ray encouraged her to run for the board. McCracken wouldn’t go on the record to say who asked him to run. But Ray says he encourages everyone in Canton to be involved.
“I have and will always encourage anyone who is interested in Canton and would like to be a part in moving our town forward to seek election as an alderman/alderwoman, as mayor or to become a volunteer,” he said in an email.
Hamlett and Mull are just as confused as to why they wouldn’t have the support of Ray and Edwards — not because the support may help them get re-elected but because they thought the board as a whole was working well together despite disagreements.
Mull said Ray encouraged her to run two years ago, though he didn’t make a contribution to her campaign then and hasn’t contributed to her campaign for re-election.
Hamlett said Ray never asked him to run but seemed supportive when he told him two years ago he was running for the board. He added that the mayor has not contributed to his campaign other than lending him a tent to campaign at the 2013 MaterFest.
“When I first ran, Mike was very encouraging … he told me he couldn’t endorse me because as mayor it wouldn’t be ethical, and I told him I understood,” Hamlett said.
There have been a handful of 3-1 votes — the mayor only votes in the case of a tie — when not all four aldermen agreed on an issue, but the majority vote always prevails and the board moves on to the next issue. For Hamlett, he believes the mayor may be holding a grudge against him for a vote he made more than a year ago.
In July 2014, the board was deciding whether to allocate $10,000 to build a firing range in the Gibsontown community of Canton. While a majority of the board, including Hamlett, supported it because law enforcement officers wanted a place to train and practice, Ray was against spending the money.
“I think it goes back to that when I went against what he wanted, but I believed it was the right thing to do for our officers,” Hamlett said. “And Mike hasn’t really talked to me since then.”
Mull said she didn’t really know Ray that well before he asked her to run, but she agreed to run and feels good about her decisions even though Ray has given her the cold shoulder. In hindsight, Mull said she should have known what it meant to disagree with Ray on issues.
“All the other aldermen decided not to run last time and no one knew why — I thought it was just the way it was supposed to work,” she said. “But we’ve voted our conscience and what the voters have expressed to us — I’m thick-skinned though.”
Ray said in his email responses that he does not hold grudges because of the way aldermen vote, and has most certainly spoken to Hamlett since the firing range issue.
“Sometimes my views and ideas line up with those of individual members of the board and sometimes they do not. I stand behind my views and opinions and I suspect they do theirs,” Ray wrote.
The number one priority the board had when taking office was hiring a new town manager to replace the retiring Al Matthews. Based on some recent conversations at board meetings and a closed session to discuss personnel, Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss’ performance appears to be in question.
Mull and Hamlett said the board pored through more than 80 applications to find the right person to lead the town down a more progressive path.
“It’s probably one of the best decisions we’ve ever made as a board,” Mull said. “He is a visionary. He’s been instrumental in initiating everything we’ve done — we express it and he makes it happen.”
Hendler-Voss was an unlikely choice — a young professional from Asheville with no experience as a town manager. What he did have was ideas, enthusiasm and experience as a recreation planner with the city of Asheville.
The decision to hire him was the board’s first 3-1 vote. Smathers voted against hiring him and instead wanted to give Assistant Town Manager Jason Burrell a chance since he had been serving as interim manager for the last several months.
“I voted against Seth, but I think he’s doing a great job and he’s earned my respect and support,” Smathers said. “Like all of us, there is room for improvement, but his enthusiasm to push the town forward is exactly the reason he was hired.”
With 20 months to gauge his job performance, Hamlett said Hendler-Voss has followed the objectives the board has set for him and is respected by the town staff.
“During his short time he has made more than 80 improvements to the downtown and its operations and pursuing economic development while providing us with two balanced budgets while restoring the health of the fund balance and the success of the recent Labor Day Festival,” he said. “We do have a positive spirit in this town, which reflects his leadership and performance.”
While Hamlett, Mull and Smathers stand behind the work Hendler-Voss has done, Ray and Edwards aren’t as willing to sing his praises.
“This is Mr. Hendler-Voss’ first position as a town manager and I appreciate the time that he has devoted to our town,” Ray wrote in an email when asked what he thought of the town manager’s leadership. “It is my hope that each of us together will work every day to continue to improve and make Canton the best that it can be.”
When asked the same question, Edwards said, “Since this is Seth’s first job as a town manager and my first time as an alderwoman, we are still learning what is important for the community and how to achieve the goals of our residents.”
Emails reveal discontent
Town emails obtained through the North Carolina Public Records Act show that Edwards is unhappy with the way Hendler-Voss has handled certain situations. She sent an email to Hendler-Voss following an article that appeared in The Mountaineer newspaper about the town’s ongoing legal battles to maintain ownership of Camp Hope. She expressed concern about Hendler-Voss discussing the issue with the press because she thought it could hurt the potential settlement that is in the works.
“I also was of the understanding that you had been advised by Mayor Ray not to discuss the issue with the paper in case this hurt our chances of a settlement,” she wrote. “This only stirs up more controversy and has folks asking questions rather than letting it lie until the final decision is signed, sealed and delivered.”
However, the email goes on to more broadly criticize Hendler-Voss for his decisions and communication style. Edwards accused the town manager of doing what he wants without consideration of the consequences and said she was approached by people in town who said he was hard to talk with and dismissive of their concerns.
“If you cannot improve on this then you are not doing a good job. We hired you knowing that you would have a learning curve and even though I had some reservations about you not having the experience I felt you would listen and learn as time went on,” Edwards wrote. “I wanted to give you a chance. I have wanted to work with you and support you but I simply cannot do that if you cannot listen and be mindful of how you treat and respond to others.”
An email Hendler-Voss sent to Ray and the rest of the board on Sept. 17 also shows some discontent between the town manager and the mayor.
According to the email, Ray had gone by town hall when Hendler-Voss wasn’t there and asked a town employee to provide him with a cost breakdown for the Labor Day festival, including the cost for each band, the cost of the press conference held to announce the festival line up and an explanation of why the town didn’t use a specific printing business when purchasing festival T-shirts.
Hendler-Voss told the mayor and board members that he would be happy to share all that information as soon as all the expenses were final. He also asked that in the future, board members and the mayor come to him directly with requests for operational information.
“Jackie mentioned you said numerous people have expressed concerns about the costs for the festival. Please extend a welcome to those individuals to come speak to me and my staff should they require additional information beyond what I provide you,” he wrote to Ray. “I hope we can all work together to disseminate the same factual information to minimize unnecessary confusion.”
The board went into a closed session during its next meeting on Sept. 24 to discuss personnel. Hendler-Voss confirmed that the closed session — that went on for more than an hour — was regarding his performance as town manager. While he didn’t give specifics, he said he and the board had a productive discussion about the roles and boundaries of their positions and how to have better communications. He is optimistic that the conversation will lead to better relations for all of them.
“I feel like we were able to get a lot out on the table and talk about how we need to move forward together to be united,” he said.
With all the questioning of the manager’s performance lately, Smathers, Mull and Hamlett can’t help but wonder if this election really comes down to Ray and Edwards wanting to get rid of him.
Hypothetically, if the mayor and Edwards wanted to fire Hendler-Voss, they would need the support from the board. Right now the majority of the board supports Hendler-Voss. However, that majority could potentially change if Brown or McCracken are elected.
Ray was asked about that scenario, but he wrote it off as hearsay.
“That is certainly a lot of speculation and rumor,” he said. “I trust the people will vote for the candidate/candidates whose ideas and values are best for Canton and I also trust that the candidates which will be elected to office will surely do their best for our town.”
When asked their opinions about Hendler-Voss, challenger Kate Brown would only say so much on the record. She serves on the town’s Appearance Commission, which has been at odds lately with the town manager over the commission’s budget. She did say she respected that Hendler-Voss was new and wanted to make changes to the town, but she also expressed concern that he was trying to change too much too fast.
“He has a lot of vigor and lots of good ideas,” she said. “He appeals to a younger group of people and I can see where he’s coming from.”
McCracken said the town manager plays a big role in how the town operates day-to-day. He said Hendler-Voss has brought in some new ideas and is overall doing a good job.
Even without the support of their mayor and fellow alderwoman, Hamlett and Mull hope to be re-elected so they can continue the work they’ve started in the last two years. Smathers said the two incumbents have earned another term.
“Everyone has said publicly how well Labor Day went and how well Seth is doing — I think they deserve four more years,” he said. “I have yet to hear the real issues from the other two candidates.”
Myrna Campbell, chairwoman of the Haywood Democratic Party, expressed similar concerns in an email she sent out to members. She was put in a unique position when it came to voicing support for certain candidates in Canton because all four are registered Democrats with a strong voting record.
However, when it came to which candidates have been actively campaigning and talking about the issues, Campbell had to give Mull and Hamlett the clear advantage because they attended forums and the Democratic rally last week.
“It’s my understanding that (Kate Brown) is well known and well liked in the Canton area, but it’s difficult to view her as a legitimate candidate when we know nothing about why she’s running or what issues are important to her,” Campbell wrote. “It would greatly diminish the importance of the alderman race if people vote for her simply because they ‘like’ her. It’s a political race, not a popularity contest.”