More than 50 people packed the town hall last Tuesday night to hear the candidates’ positions on the issues before deciding who they want to lead the town for the next four years.
When candidates started signing up to run in July, Maggie’s lineup wasn’t too surprising. Mayor Ron DeSimone signed up to run for a second term. Though he had competition from two of his critics — Justin Phillips and Jasay Ketchum — DeSimone was fairly confident that his track record would see him through the election for for another term.
Then tragedy struck. Thirty minutes after the sign-up period closed on July 17, DeSimone died in a construction accident. As the community mourned his unexpected death, the future of Maggie Valley also weighed heavy on people’s minds.
The mayoral race was now between two political newcomers who have been publicly dismissive of the current board’s agenda and initiatives. While it was too late for another candidate to get on the ballot, Maggie Valley Alderman Saralyn Price, who has served on the board for 10 years, announced she would run as a write-in candidate in an effort to carry on DeSimone’s vision.
Under his leadership, the aldermen were finally able to get along and function as a cohesive board to make important decisions. Price said she doesn’t want to see the town backslide to the days of bickering and split votes that often led to standstills.
“We’ve come a long way,” Price said. “The attitude of the board has changed — we work great together now and we’ve learned to agree to disagree.”
Even though Price is a Maggie Valley native who is well known in the community, she knows that being a write-in candidate puts her at a disadvantage. It may be an uphill battle, but she does have the support of Alderman Janet Banks — who is seeking re-election — and alderman candidate Billy Case.
“I think Saralyn is the most qualified person to be mayor in the town,” Banks said.
Case agreed, saying that the wrong people in office could result in reverting back to the petty bickering that has made previous boards ineffective.
Alderman Phillip Wight, who is also seeking re-election, and alderman candidate Nikki McCauley said they weren’t supporting any one candidate for mayor and would be happy to serve with any of the candidates running.
Mayoral candidate Justin Phillips said Mayor DeSimone misled the people of Maggie Valley and “flip-flopped” on issues. He added that electing Price would only mean more of the same for Maggie Valley.
“Saralyn can’t do anything for us,” he said. “She’s been in there for 20 years and has just gotten along — elect her and see what happens.”
Ketchum said the feedback he hears from residents is that they are tired of the way things are going and want a new regime.
“A lot of people were really upset with Ron (DeSimone),” he said. “He had some good ideas but sometimes the way he went about it didn’t work.”
Some speculate Phillips’ criminal record could put him at a disadvantage in the race, but he thinks people appreciate his honesty about his past. He said he disclosed his past when he signed up to run and his record has since been publicly reported. It was a drug addiction that led to felony charges for writing about $14,000 worth of bad checks. He served some jail time and repaid his debt and says he’s been on the straight and narrow for more than five years.
“There’s not a person on the planet that doesn’t have something they’re not proud of,” Phillips said. “I’ve overcame every obstacle in my way.”
Ketchum has been following local politics since he moved to Maggie Valley more than 20 years ago. He is a regular at the town meetings and frequently takes his turn at the podium for public comment. While he has seen some improvements since the last election two years ago, he said it isn’t enough.
“There’s been improvements and downfalls,” he said. “The board’s quit arguing in the last two years and they’ve really tried but it’s been so slow moving.”
Ketchum said he is concerned that the public is being kept out of the board’s decision-making processes. The board has always had an agenda-setting workshop the week prior to its regular meeting to give aldermen the opportunity to know what issues were coming up.
The workshop is held at 9 a.m. on Thursday morning and even though they are technically open to the public, it is rare that anyone from the public attends. In the last two years, the board has been having more discussion about agenda items at their agenda-setting workshops and less discussion at the actual meetings. Ketchum said he would make the process more transparent.
“Everything is done at the agenda meetings and they just come and vote on it at the regular meetings,” he said. “The first thing I would do is give the citizens a voice in the process by eliminating the agenda meetings.”
Phillips also spoke of transparency at the candidate forum, specifically in regard to issues at the police department. Detective Archie Shuler was fired in July from the Maggie Valley Police Department for professional misconduct and is now under investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations.
Phillips said the public wasn’t privy to the specifics of Shuler’s misconduct because the state Public Records law exempts personnel files from being released. Other states, including Georgia and Florida, have broader laws that allow the public to have access to public employees’ personnel files, especially disciplinary actions against them. Phillips said officers with offenses shouldn’t be allowed to just move on and get another job without an employer knowing why they left their last job.
“As mayor I would be talking to state legislators to repeal that law,” Phillips said. “The public needs to know what’s going on when bad things happen.”
Price, who was in law enforcement for 30 years and served as the Maggie Valley Police Chief for 15 years, responded by saying prospective employers would be aware of any investigation when they run a background check on an officer.
With a background in marketing, Phillips said he would implement a community development program in Maggie Valley that would give grants to property owners allowing them to do upgrades on their buildings. He said LISC — Local Initiatives Support Corporation — was a nonprofit that secured billions in federal grants to complete community development projects in rural areas.
“If we make the outside of the buildings look better we’ll get people to pull off the road and patronize our businesses,” he said. “The dilapidated buildings need to be fixed.”
Because Maggie Valley is about 30 minutes from many attractions in the region, Phillips says there is no reason why the valley can’t be a year-round tourist destination. He said he would like to see the town focus on the eco-tourism niche given the surrounding natural resources.
For example, Phillips said the town owns property with a trail and beautiful waterfall that the public can’t access. About 9 acres on Old Still Road was donated to the town years ago but nothing has been done with it. If the town would put some money into rebuilding the stairs and trail that lead up to the waterfall, Phillips said it would be a great tourism asset.
“Saralyn said to give it away to somebody. Are we going to give it to a Sutton or a Carver?” Phillips said, insinuating Price wanted to donate it to one of her family members.
Price said the town’s insurance company advised the board to close off the dilapidated staircase to the waterfall because of liability issues. She said the increased liability cost as well as the cost of repairing and maintaining the trail was not something the town wanted to be responsible for. Old Still Road also is a private road maintained by a homeowners association that probably wouldn’t appreciate the additional traffic on their road. The lack of a parking area is another challenge. Price said she was in favor of the town selling it to a private party who could develop it.
“If someone wanted to take it and open it up for the public to see that would be great,” she said.
Price said the town is working on other projects that will increase tourism dollars — a town center master plan to get more people to stop in town and winter lights and WinterFest to help expand the winter season. The town has had several of these types of development plans that never produced anything concrete, but Price said this one was different because the community is involved in putting the plan together.
“I like it because the engineers have held public meetings asking for public input —they are wanting opinions on what you want the valley to look like,” she said. “I want us all to come together and have the plan we all want.”
Ideas being kicked around include more bike lanes, landscaped medians, more green spaces and parks, water fountains and perhaps even a roundabout near the festival grounds to slow down traffic.
The current board is excited about the town center plan, but Price’s challengers scoff at the idea. While Phillips and Ketchum are all in favor of beautification efforts, they don’t have much faith that the town center plan will ever come to fruition because of the cost and how spread out the town is along U.S. 19.
“It’s 30 years too late — Maggie Valley is not laid out for a town center,” Ketchum said. “We’ll never be a main street like Brevard or Waynesville — we’re too stretched out.”
Ketchum said it would take all business owners and residents working together to clean up the town and make it more attractive. He said the town needed to do a better job of enforcing the ordinances on the books and the planning board needed to not require so much of new businesses.
“If we play our cards right we could get some decent restaurants and get things to do for kids,” he said.
Phillips asked how the town was going to require private property owners along U.S. 19 to make improvements to their property if the town center plan is approved and funded. He said the better option would be to get a private developer interested in developing some of the for sale properties in town.
“You can’t tell people what to do but you can find a piece of property to shop around to Realtors and brokers — surely they could find us someone who wants to develop it,” he said.
Taxes versus services
If elected mayor, Phillips promised to cut the town budget by 30 percent over four years without cutting services, but he said he wasn’t ready to share his ideas for where the savings would come from. However, he did mention that the town had plenty of money in its reserve fund and that the police department budget was too high. Phillips said he also had a problem with the town giving taxpayer money to a handful of charities each year while at the same time charging a $5 vehicle fee to residents.
Price said a 30 percent cut over four years couldn’t be done without cutting services or taking money from the fund balance, which shouldn’t be done. She said the board had already made all the cuts it could over the last few years. Taxes were cut by 3 percent, the festival director position was eliminated, town hall debt was paid off and the police department was refinanced to save money. She added that the town implemented the $5 vehicle fee to make up for lost state revenue — the $10,000 to be collected from the fee will go toward road repairs.
The town is also looking to get its employees enrolled in the state’s health insurance plan, which would help cut costs. Price is all for finding additional savings, but she also wants the taxpayers to receive the services they’ve come to expect. She said cutting the police budget would impact the department’s ability to provide round-the-clock protection for residents and businesses.
“I’m for the taxpayers — I want residents to feel like they get the services they deserve,” she said.
Ketchum didn’t make any promises regarding the budget. While he would like to see the town do a better job at providing services like snow and brush removal, sidewalk maintenance and road repairs, he said he would have to really go over the budget closely to see if he could find opportunities for savings.
Ketchum said the town could do a better job of offering services to residents using the assets it already has. He would like to see the festival grounds be open to the public when a festival isn’t scheduled. He suggested moving the playground equipment behind town hall to the festival grounds to give children a place to safely play.
“The people are paying for it so they should be able to use it,” he said.
Jasay Ketchum, 75
• Profession: Retired X-ray technician
• Political experience: None
• Why are you running? “I think Maggie Valley needs a change — we need to move forward and the people need a voice in the city.”
Justin Phillips, 35
• Profession: Owner of Organic Bean Coffee Shop
• Political experience: None
• Why are you running? “Other cities don’t close in the wintertime – with a few modest corrections we can make Maggie Valley a year-round destination. I’m running to bring year-round security to Maggie Valley — we all deserve it.”
Saralyn Price, 60
• Profession: Retired after 30 years in law enforcement, 15 years as Maggie Valley police chief
• Political experience: Has served 10 years as an alderman
• Why are you running? “I’m running because I felt like the good lord told me I needed to do this and also after Ron’s tragic death I definitely felt like I needed to do this. I love Maggie Valley — I was born and raised here and would love to see Maggie move forward.”