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Will Sylva vote expose usual fault line?

The race for the Sylva town board this fall could once again gauge the extent of shifting demographics of the town.

Two seats on the board are up for election. Town Commissioner Stacey Knotts confirmed she will run again while Commissioner Harold Hensley said that he probably will.

Meanwhile, a third candidate had thrown his hat in the ring as a challenger: David Kelley, son of the longtime downtown business owner Livingston Kelley. The two-week sign-up period for candidates does not open until next week, when additional candidates may emerge. The deadline is July 17.

Mayor Brenda Oliver is up for election as well, but would not confirm whether she is running again.

“I am not ready to make any announcement yet. I am still pondering,” said Oliver, who has been mayor for 17 years.

A split has emerged on the town board in the past two years with a progressive camp outnumbering the more conservative camp. The most prominent disagreement to erupt was over the firing of former town manager Jay Denton. The conservative camp has consistently opposed town funding for the Downtown Sylva Association and has been less enthusiastic about spending money on amenities like sidewalks and town parks.

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Hensley, 72, a retired maintenance director for the school system, has led the conservative camp. Knotts, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom whose husband is a Western Carolina University professor, has largely sided with the progressive camp.

Hensley agreed that he and Knotts are different types of candidates.

“She’s a young woman and I’m an old man,” he joked.

Hensley said he speaks up for a demographic of the town that could be left underrepresented if he was no longer on the board.

“I am not a lone wolf with an agenda of my own. I try hard to be a good steward of taxpayers’ money. That is my number one platform,” said Hensley, who prides himself on being a stickler when it comes to town spending.

Knotts cited several accomplishments of the past four years; in particular, curbside recycling, the Pinnacle Park grant, the renovation of Bryson Park, and the Bridge Park project.

“I would love the chance to complete a number of additional projects such as the Dillsboro to Sylva sidewalk, the Fire Department building renovation, additional trails in Pinnacle Park, economic development, and most importantly preserving the rich history and culture in the town of Sylva,” Knotts said.

Knotts got more votes than Hensley when the two appeared on the same ballot four years ago. Like this time, there were two seats up for election on the board. Both seats happened to be vacant, however. One board member had decided not to seek re-election. The other dropped out of the race after being charged with embezzlement from her church.

It created a shoo-in for both Knotts and Hensley, although Knotts got more votes: 205 to Hensley’s 164.

Knotts worked hard during the campaign by going door to door to introduce herself to voters. Hensley said he would not actively campaign if he runs.

“If I’m on there another six months or four more years, I’m not going to be out there doing a big campaign of knocking on doors. If they want me they want me, if they don’t they don’t,” Hensley said.

Kelley could create an entirely new dynamic. Kelley has observed the split nature of the board, but says he hasn’t consistently agreed with one side or the other.

“I have been where I could see both sides and going either way on different issues,” Kelley said.

Voters who perceive Knotts and Hensley to be in opposing camps could allocate one of their votes to Kelley.

In the vote over Denton, Kelley said he would have sided with Hensley to keep Denton.

“I think it could have been handled better,” Kelley said. “He had good intentions for the town and just screwed up.”

Denton’s misstep was investing money in funds not allowed by the state, which stipulates only the least risky funds be used to park town investments. Denton said he had merely been trying to get the best interest rate. Town leaders had little patience, however, as the mistake came on the heels of a miscalculation by Denton when ordering a foot bridge for a town park that cost $100,000 more than expected.

Kelley is also not a fan of the current level of financial support the town provides the Downtown Sylva Association, to the tune of $12,000. He thinks that may be too much.

When it comes to long-range planning, however, Kelley is more in tune with progressives on the board who would like to plan for growth.

“It doesn’t hurt to have some educated people thinking about the future,” Kelley said. “You got to look long-term, what is going to happen with the cause and effect of everything.”

Kelley, 32, works at his dad’s store, Livingston Photos.

Danny Allen, an alderman on the board for several years until two years ago, said he did not foresee a run again this year.

“I am not planning on it at this time,” said Allen, who is still battling health issues. Allen said many people have been pestering him to run, however.

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