Political or not, Haywood tax collector issue won’t go away
More than a year after a contentious public comment session during which the Haywood County Board of Commissioners weighed the pros and cons of having the state’s only elected tax collector, there’s no sign any change is coming despite the dispute still smoldering.
That hearing, on Feb. 20, 2017, ultimately saw commissioners unanimously pass a resolution asking Haywood County’s legislative delegation to make a change in the legislature.
At the time, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said that after a conversation with Haywood’s two elected representatives, Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, and Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, they agreed that if commissioners asked for a change, Davis would sponsor legislation in the Senate that would put the issue to voters on a ballot referendum.
No such referendum materialized in 2017, nor will it be on ballots this coming November, but Davis hasn’t changed his mind in the wake of improper waiver activity in the tax collector’s office.
“My position remains the same,” he said via email last week. “I would be willing to introduce legislation to have the Haywood County tax collector position be appointed rather than elected so long as the other local delegation is in favor. I do not recall that being the case.”
Clampitt, reached last week, remembers it differently.
“I was never asked to pursue having it on the ballot,” he said. “I support letting the voters decide, and would support an official request to have it on the ballot in 2020.”
Assuming the resolution commissioners passed 19 months ago still carries weight, it would seem that only Presnell’s assent would be needed.
When asked for comment last weekend, Presnell said she did not have enough information on the tax collector situation to give an answer.
However, a Feb. 10, 2017 email sent by The Smoky Mountain News in advance of the commission’s then-proposed resolution asked Presnell if she had a position on the elected vs. appointed nature of the position.
On Feb. 11, 2017, she replied, “Haywood County is receiving more property tax money from the elected [actually, elected] Tax Collector, Mike Matthews — about 17 percent more than when the appointed tax collector was in that chair. I would think the County Commissioners would be very pleased.”
They’re not. Recent revelations of improper practices in the tax collector’s office led commissioners last week to issue their strongest rebukes of the Republican Matthews since his term began in early 2015.
But that was before the board’s Sept. 17 meeting, during which the matter took center stage, even though it wasn’t on the agenda. At the start of the meeting’s customary public comment session, Haywood County Republican Party Chair Ken Henson teed off on commissioners.
“I’m not here to defend Mike Matthews,” he said. “It’s not about Mike Matthews. Mike Matthews was elected in 2014 by the people. That election was not about Mike Matthews. It was a referendum on the past tax collector because Mike was virtually unknown across the county.”
Henson went on to cite harassment on the part of the Democrat-led commission — former and current — against Matthews, including hiring his defeated Democratic opponent to serve above him.
“Y’all got to know,” he said, “that since the day he was elected y’all have crucified him.”
Henson went well over the customary three-minute time limit for public comment, but commissioners let him continue.
“In the Bible, the tax collector was the most hated person. The commissioners of that time, the Caesars or the kings of that time, appointed the tax collector. He showed no mercy or empathy for the people,” said Henson.
Haywood GOP Secretary Lynda Bennett followed Henson to the podium and accused commissioners of “using the newspapers” against Matthews, and said she felt particularly disturbed by media coverage of the situation; a series of recent Smoky Mountain News stories that first documented improper waiver activity in the tax office was quickly joined by coverage in The Mountaineer newspaper and then by Asheville’s WLOS-TV.
“You’re going to newspapers, you’re making statements that cannot be proven one way or the other. You do not have to swear on the Bible that you’re telling the truth. The newspaper certainly has no obligation to tell the truth. I feel like commissioners have been inserted into the public dialogue during our election season and you are being quoted as though you’re an authority on the issue, and you know things that other people may not know,” said Bennett. “But you’re not being sworn in, to tell the truth, you’re just reporting to a newspaper.”
Commissioners could be lying, or not, she said, but Bennett — apparently ignorant of long-established laws against defamation, libel and slander — said “the newspaper” could say whatever it wanted and was trying the case of Matthews in the media.
“I’d like commissioners to refrain from getting involved in the newspapers, making statements which we believe people in the public, the voters, believe might be true, but there’s no way to substantiate what’s being said,” she said. “So please, during the election season, if you would refrain from making comments about other people that are up for election during the election season that cannot be documented — they’re not even trying to document it — I would appreciate your withdrawal from that action, those activities. We’ve heard enough about it in the newspaper. Thank you.”
Matthews is up for re-election this year, and is opposed by Democrat Greg West, currently the county’s assistant tax assessor.
Republican Commissioner Brandon Rogers was the first to respond to the comments of Henson and Bennett.
“I don’t care if they have got a ‘D,’ an ‘L’ or an ‘R’ or whatever they got after their name,” he said. “If we don’t have somebody that’s doing the job, then that puts all of us in a bad position.”
Commission Chairman and Democrat Kirk Kirkpatrick directly rebutted Bennett’s explicit claims of manipulating the media, as well as her implicit claims that commissioners are playing politics.
“When we’re asked questions, we try to answer the questions. For me, I try to avoid responding to some of those questions, because personally, I like Mike fine,” Kirkpatrick said. “The fact that the statements have been made here, in public, by different commissioners of different parties should tell you this has nothing to do with politics, absolutely nothing to do with politics.”
Republican Commissioner Kevin Ensley, probably Matthews’ harshest critic, took particular umbrage with Bennett’s Biblical reference.
“If there’s a Bible here, I’ll swear on it. I always tell the truth. If you think I’ve told a lie, let me know what it is,” said Ensley. “The tax collector position needs to be appointed.”
In addition to the Matthews/West contest in the tax collector’s office, Sen. Davis, Rep. Clampitt and Rep. Presnell are all opposed by Democrats in November as well.
Democratic Haywood Commissioner Bill Upton is retiring and will thus leave an open seat, while Republicans Mark Pless, Tommy Long and Phillip Wight are all seeking that seat or one of the seats defended by incumbent Democrats Kirkpatrick and Mike Sorrells.
Given the right circumstances, Republicans could gain control of the five-member county commission, as Republican commissioners Ensley and Rogers are not up for re-election this year.