Meet the candidates in Haywood County’s commissioner primary
Over the past two weeks, The Smoky Mountain News has explored where Haywood County commissioner candidates stand on education, economic development, land-use planning, the county’s direction and partisan labels.
This week, we asked candidates to tell us a little about themselves and why they are running. Two of the five seats on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners are up for election this year.
A collection of past articles can be found under Special Coverage at www.smokymountainnews.com.
Democrats: pick two
Robin Black, 53, accountant
Black said knowing how to navigate budgets and finances would be one of her strengths as a commissioner.
“I would be able to hit the ground running,” said Black, who has audited numerous local government entities and nonprofits. “That 10-digit number code for each line item means a lot of different things. It is all well and good to get up there and say you are going to cut spending, but if you don’t understand the difference between mandatory spending and discretionary spending and how to pull that out, you won’t get very far.”
Black didn’t promise to cut the county budget, but questions some of the spending priorities she’s seen.
“It’s not that the projects haven’t been good ideas. But it’s a choice. The consequences of funding this thing cuts this other initiative out,” Black said.
Finding money to spend on economic development would be her top priority.
“We can’t do economic development without money, and if we have already cut everything we can, we have to explain to the voters that either some money has to come from somewhere or we don’t do it,” Black said. “I think you do have to invest some money in order to save money. Sometimes you got to think outside the box.”
While some tout the harmony and unanimous decisions by the current board as a sign of good governance, Black suspects dialogue and debate leading up to the decisions is happening behind the scenes.
“Nobody else has a different opinion? It seems there has obviously already been discussion. That discussion between the board members needs to happen in the board room,” Black said. “I would like to see more open debate, public debate.”
Black, who lives in Beaverdam, said it is important to get more representation from the eastern side of the county. Black also noted there aren’t any women on the board.
“I hope people will actually read my qualifications and not decide to vote for me just because I am a woman, but I think women do see things differently,” Black said.
Black served on the Haywood County School Board from 2004-2008, serving as finance committee chair during that time. Her grandfather, Carl Green, was a county commissioner in Haywood.
Black has been a CPA for 17 years, and now owns her own firm. She was also the office manager of the Waynesville Public Housing Authority for four years, overseeing a $1 million budget.
Steve Brown, 62, nonprofit director
Brown believes he is the most qualified and most experienced of the Democratic candidates.
“I am good at building consensus and working with groups to achieve a common goal,” Brown said.
That’s largely due to the past 20 years he’s spent in the nonprofit foundation and philanthropy sector — he’s served as the executive director of the Haywood County Schools Foundation, of the Haywood Regional Medical Center Foundation and currently for the Arc of Haywood County, a nonprofit that serves developmentally disabled adults.
But the first half of his career was as the part owner of Cline-Bradley Hardware store in Waynesville, and he hasn’t forgotten what life is like as a businessman.
“Running a small business you have to make hard decisions every day. It is a full gamut. Doing the things it takes to run a small business, you got to get in there and work,” Brown said.
In the nonprofit world, Brown has always reported to a board of directors and has become adept at navigating group dynamics, including bringing people together around a common vision.
“You have to learn to build a team and put the pieces together to be successful,” Brown said. “You learn how to build consensus.”
Brown said people have suggested he run for office and get involved in politics for years now.
“But I felt like I was really making a difference working behind the scenes. I love to jump in there and give 110 percent. I really like to make a difference and was doing successful things,” Brown said.
But a sense of obligation got the better of him.
“I need to step up and protect the same great life experiences we had when we were growing up,” Brown said.
Coming from the do-good, feel-good nonprofit world, Brown said he is not accustomed to the strife and criticism that sometimes goes along with being in local politics.
“When I am elected, I know that every decision you make some people are going to like and some people aren’t, but you are doing what you think is good for the community and what is right,” Brown said.
His top issue is education, and he said would do what he could to provide as much money for the local school system as possible.
Brown, who often talks about the importance of his faith, is a church leader with First United Methodist in Waynesville. Brown grew up in Waynesville as the son of a doctor. His brother, Gavin, is the mayor of Waynesville. He’s been involved in many civic groups including Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, REACH and Rotary Club.
Terry Ramey, 61, retired towing and auto repair business
Ramey is proud of his blue-collar roots and background, but also sees himself as an influential mover-and-shaker who can move easily between realms.
“I have made lots of money and I’ve been busted. I know both sides of the fence. I got real good friends that don’t have nothing, and real good friends that are rich,” said Ramey, who wore a T-shirt to a televised candidates’ forum last month, said, “I don’t want people to look at me as trying to act like something I’m not.”
Ramey said people who don’t understand how the political system works come to him for help navigating their issues.
“I am one of those people, if people got issues, they come to me for some reason. They know I don’t quit. If I get on to something, I’m going to get to the bottom of it,” Ramey said. “It gives me a bad name sometimes for trying to help people. But I’m an advocate for the people, more or less. You aren’t going to get nowhere if you don’t try. I just don’t have no quit in me.”
Ramey believes the current board of commissioners isn’t open enough about its decision-making process, witnessed by their unanimous votes all the time.
“It seems like the decision has already been made before they come out and vote on it. I don’t think they discuss stuff enough,” Ramey said. “If they were up front with the people you wouldn’t have near as many problems.”
If the tables were turned, and Ramey was on the receiving end of the peanut gallery that camps out in the audience of commissioners meetings, he knows just what he would do.
“I would say, ‘Get your ass in here and help us then. Don’t just sit out there and criticize us.’ I feel like I could get these people to work with us instead of against us,” Ramey said.
Ramey said if elected he would “give people a voice” but he also said “if I think something is right I will stick to it to the end.”
Ramey worked at Dayco for 17 years, most of them on the graveyard shift so he could devote his days to his towing business. He eventually went into towing full-time, with a special niche for big-rig towing of tractor-trailer trucks on I-40, even setting up his own mechanic shop and motel catering to the broken-down truckers.
Charles Boyd, 67, owner of WNC Landscaping
Boyd did not participate in an interview for The Smoky Mountain News election coverage, but here’s a little about him. Boyd has served on the Haywood Community College board for seven years. Other than his landscaping business, he has taught horticulture and agriculture at HCC, Blue Ridge Community College and in high school. He has been involved with the Jonathan Creek Fire Department and Haywood Soil and Water Conservation.
Republicans: pick two
Brandon Rogers, 44, businessman and former plant manager
Rogers believes his conservative values, Christian faith, devotion to family and fiscal sense make him a good choice for county commissioner.
Rogers, a native of Bethel, was the production manager of Day International plant in Buncombe County. He started out on the graveyard shift at $7.30 an hour out of college, but ended up running the plant — managing 85 employees, a multi-million budget, quality oversight and production efficiency.
Today, however, Rogers owns and runs Rogers Express Lube and Tire in Canton, which he started with his dad a little over 10 years ago. Even though Rogers had a great job — he even got to travel, being sent by corporate to check up on plants in other counties — his father had been laid off from the Evergreen paper mill and needed something else to do. Rogers loved cars and always wanted his own business, but more so liked the idea of building a family business in his hometown.
“Family is extremely important to me. The way my parents raised me, we have always been a close family,” Rogers said. Rogers and his wife have three children — ages 15, 17 and 18 — and live in Bethel.
Rogers had been approached about running for office by people in the community and was praying about what to do. That’s when a sermon by his pastor in church one Sunday spoke to him.
“He said us as Christians, we need to get involved in our local communities and our local governments,” Rogers said. “I feel like too many times we say ‘We need to do this and need to do that,’ and too often we don’t get off the couch and do anything about it.”
His top two issues are education and economic development.
“I feel like those are the two biggest issues we have in the county. And that ties back in to my family. From an economic development standpoint, if we have jobs we can keep our kids here, and if my kids stay here they are going to have kids attending our schools, so that’s why it all ties together and is important to me.”
Rogers is a conservative, traditional Republican, upholding all the core tenets of the party’s platform. But he also believes government has a role in making the community a better place to live, work and raise a family, but wants to make sure that spending is focused on things that matter in people’s lives.
“I want to be a voice for the people. For the common core guy like myself trying to raise a family in the county, I want to make a difference and be a voice for them,” Rogers said.
Kevin Ensley, 54, land surveyor
Ensley has been a county commissioner for 12 years, and is the only current commissioner running for re-election. Ensley has been on the board during something of a golden era — not because times were easy. The recession wreaked havoc on local governments and forced major adjustments in how business is done.
Despite that, the long-serving team of commissioners has enjoyed unrivaled cooperation, cohesiveness and unity, which in turn has allowed the county to move forward without the distraction of personality wars or power struggles.
“We have had a stable, calm, common sense government throughout this financial turmoil,” Ensley said. “It’s like a basketball team. If you have someone throwing the ball out of bounds all the time, you aren’t going to win.”
The record of accomplishments is too long to list here, but Ensley named a few.
• The county budget has been lower than 2008 levels until it inched ahead this year, but adjusting for inflation, it’s still lower than seven years ago, a hallmark of his belief in a “low-cost, efficient government.”
• Debt is lower than it was in 2008.
• Capital needs of the county have been met so that the next generation won’t be burdened by today’s leaders kicking the can down the road. They include a new sheriff’s office, historic courthouse renovations, new election office, new senior center, new health and human services department, new emergency services headquarters and new 911 center.
• The county has forged partnerships to address community issues, such as the creation of the Haywood Pathways homeless shelter and rehab center.
• The county has adeptly navigated would-be challenges to the best possible outcome, from the sale of Haywood Regional Medical Center to addressing long-standing environmental violations at the county’s old landfill.
Ensley said he did a lot of soul searching when deciding whether to run again. People came out of the woodwork asking him to run again, but it was his wife and his prayers to God that finally convinced him it was the right thing to do.
Ensley deflected criticisms from challengers that the board isn’t open enough.
“What do we do that is not transparent or not open? I don’t know what we could do to be more transparent. It’s as transparent as it can be,” Ensley said. “I feel like the board is more professional, too.”
Greg Burrell, 44, contractor
Burrell is moving out West and won’t be around to take office if elected — something he didn’t realize when signing up to run last December — but still wanted to participate in the campaign coverage in order to put his issues on the table.
Burrell is highly conservative, with a limited government philosophy that borders on Libertarianism.
“Our taxes are way too high. There is going to have to be some penny pinching done to get this county back on track,” said Burrell. He thinks property valuations are flawed, that the landfill deals have been shady, that the emergency management ordinance is totalitarian — just to name a few issues he has with county government.
Burrell has never been a fan of big government, but his views about bureaucracy hardened after an epic battle with social workers 10 years ago, which ultimately led to his children being taken away and put up for adoption.
Burrell, who had severely whipped his 10-year-old with a belt, said the social workers cracked down on him mostly because he stood up to their accusations and didn’t kowtow.
“I didn’t intend to whip him like that. That was a lesson learned for me,” Burrell said. “I felt like it was a family matter. Don’t think my wife didn’t climb my frame about it. I told my son ‘I didn’t intend on hurting you son. I intended to get your attention and make you do what was right. No means no — no ifs ands or buts.’ The next time I told him to do something he would do it.”
He and his wife fought the case in the social work system and in court for almost three years.
“The judge even told her ‘If you don’t leave him you won’t ever see your kids again.’ But we made a choice to fight this together and stand up for what we believe in,” Burrell said.
He said God was the only thing that kept him from going insane with grief and anger. Burrell was initially charged with assault with a deadly weapon, the weapon being the whip, but a jury found him guilty of a lesser abuse charge.
He did five months in prison for the conviction, and all three children were put up for adoption. That was 10 years ago.
“I never voted before all this. After that, it was an eye opener as to how much crookedness is in this county and how entrenched it was,” Burrell said.
See it yourself
A forum featuring Haywood County commissioner candidates and candidates for N.C. General Assembly will be shown on the Haywood County government channel between now and the primary election on March 15.
The forum will air on Charter channel 193 and Carolina Mountain Cable channel 2 at the following times: 7 a.m., noon and 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. The forum was sponsored by The Mountaineer newspaper.