2018 Midterm Elections

Jackson commissioner challenges chairman

Ron Mau (left) and Brian McMahan (right). Ron Mau (left) and Brian McMahan (right).

Ron Mau is still in the midst of his first term on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, started in 2016, but this November he’s challenging incumbent Chairman Brian McMahan in McMahan’s bid for re-election. 

Mau, a Republican, said that his goals if elected would include completing a new animal shelter, creating an official county policy for land conservation projects, finding sustainable funding for school resource officers currently funded through a $133,000 grant to Jackson Schools and developing a digital asset management system for capital needs in the school system. 

McMahan, a Democrat, said his priorities would include finishing in-progress capital projects such as the health department remodel, Southwestern Community College health sciences building and animal shelter; recruiting and maintaining employers in the county, addressing homelessness and food insecurity issues and completing capital improvements in the school system. 

McMahan and Mau are running for the chairman’s seat, which unlike other seats on the board can be filled by someone from anywhere within the county. If Mau wins, he’ll replace McMahan on the board. If McMahan wins, Mau will retain his current seat on the board until that term expires in 2020. 

Two other seats on the five-member board are up for election as well. Commissioner Boyce Deitz faces opposition from Republican challenger Doug Cody, who held the seat from 2010 to 2014, and Commissioner Charles Elders is running against Democratic challenger Gayle Woody, a political newcomer. 

As the person responsible for putting together the agenda, facilitating board meetings and generally being the face of the board at various community events, the chairman’s position carries with it ample responsibility. The next person to fill that seat will have plenty of issues to navigate over the next four years. 

Related Items


How would you describe your leadership style? 

The issue: In addition to being a voting member of the board, the chairman is responsible for guiding board discussions, signing board decisions into action and generally being a liaison between the board, county government and community. Leadership skills are key to doing the job well. 

Mau: Mau said he believes in “servant leadership,” a model that’s all about “flipping the org chart.” 

“What you’re trying to do is empower those who are working most directly with your clients, or in this case the citizens of Jackson County,” he said. “You want the employees to know that they’re able to provide feedback to us because we work for them partially. They can let us know what we can do to help them improve their jobs.”

Mau said that he would “increase the transparency of some of the decision-making,” taking issue with one-on-one meetings between the chairman and the county manager to discuss county business and put together meeting agendas. When the county manager needs to have a follow-up conversation, Mau said, he would invite a commissioner from the other party to participate in those conversations with him. 

McMahan: McMahan characterizes his leadership philosophy as “democratic visionary.” The chairman’s position is an important one, he said, and it’s not something he takes lightly. 

“I believe in motivating people to work together toward a common goal or vision,” he said. “I’ve always tried to build consensus and help pull people together to work toward a common goal.”

As to Mau’s insinuation regarding transparency, the board chairman has always been the point person for communication with the county manager, going back decades, McMahan said, with the county manager’s contract stating that he reports to the chairman when the board is not in session. The fruits of agenda-setting discussions are always brought to the floor in either a public meeting or a closed session that falls under the state guidelines laid out for such sessions. McMahan also pointed out that he’s not the only commissioner to have had a one-on-one meeting with the county manager — virtually every commissioner, including Mau, has done so at one time or another.


How should the county’s health and social services functions be organized? 

The issue: Following the November 2016 elections, Republican commissioners became interested in combining the county’s health and social services departments. A public hearing Jan. 29 drew 11 speakers — all vehemently opposed — but commissioners voted 3-2 to proceed with consolidation. Once seated, members of the consolidated board made it clear they didn’t agree with the reorganization and in August voted to delay hiring a director of the consolidated department until after the November elections.

Commissioners responded by voting 3-2 along party lines to abolish the consolidation and instate themselves as the board overseeing the two departments. They upheld this vote Oct. 1 following a public hearing in which 16 of the 19 speakers opposed the decision. 

McMahan: McMahan called the departments’ consolidation and subsequent deconsolidation a “misguided effort” in which the Republican board members “ignored the facts and used their own opinion to make this decision, and also ignored the people of Jackson County who have overwhelmingly voiced their opinion that this was the wrong move.”

McMahan said he would rather have a group of “dedicated professionals” govern the departments rather than politicians, including himself. If re-elected, he’d support a move to restore the departments to their original configuration: separate from each other, and governed by appointed boards composed of professionals and community members. 

Mau: In Mau’s view, the initial consolidation was simply an attempt to streamline services, save taxpayers money and increase accountability by creating a direct line of communication to the county manager. He still believes it’s the right move. 

“I believe in streamlining services, continuous improvement and always looking for ways to provide services more efficiently,” he said. “If we can be more efficient on the back office side of things, I think that’s a good thing.”

In Mau’s view, the Consolidated Human Services Board’s opposition to consolidation left commissioners with no other choice but to change the structure. While the departments are now separate again, both directors report directly to commissioners and to the county manager. Mau believes the current set-up is a good one. 


What should be the county’s role in addressing homelessness?

The issue: When the economy crashed in 2008, Jackson Neighbors in Need formed to offer emergency assistance for those hit hardest, including overnight shelter in local motel rooms during the cold months from November to April. Over the years, need has grown enough to outstrip the volunteer-run organization’s ability to keep up, and while shelters is still available only in the winter, case management services are available year-round. The Southwestern Child Development Center is now running the shelter as a stopgap measure, but commissioners are debating a permanent solution — whether the county should open a dedicated shelter building, and if so who would fund and administrate it. 

Mau: The need for services seems to be there, Mau said, but even after creating a task force, reading through the resulting report and holding countless board discussions, it’s still unclear who would run a shelter and who would pay for it. 

“That’s a tough question,” he said. 

Mau pointed out that the report turned up zero counties of similar size to Jackson that operate a shelter as a governmental service. 

“The big question is do we as a county need to be in the homeless shelter business or not, or do we help organize the nonprofits and continue to fund them the way we are?” he said. 

McMahan: McMahan believes that, in a county where many people live paycheck-to-paycheck, the community has a responsibility to “reach out and provide them some assistance” when folks fall upon hard times. 

McMahan would like to Jackson to end up with some kind of hybrid model, in which some people continue to be housed in motel rooms and others in a dormitory-style shelter building, with the ultimate goal of getting them into a self-sustaining life. But the county can’t act alone, he said. 

“I don’t think this will be a problem that will be solved by just Jackson County alone,” he said. “I think it’s going to take collaboration of effort on the part of the county government, municipal government. It’s going to take the faith community. It’s going to take nonprofits. It’s going to take a combination of a whole lot of people coming together to finance it and work to provide the solution.”


What does WCU’s growth mean for Jackson County? 

The issue: Western Carolina University, which this year enrolled a record 11,639 students, sits at the geographic center of Jackson County and is projected to continue growing. As more students come to WCU and more alumni consider building a life in the community where they earned their degree, Jackson County’s government will have to navigate the opportunities and challenges that situation creates. 

McMahan: McMahan sees the opportunities as being “pretty enormous,” citing the upcoming collaboration with WCU to remake the Green Energy Park into a campus featuring a product design studio, animal shelter, artisan studios and classroom space. That project could birth new start-up companies that would locate in Jackson County, and it would also use WCU students as volunteers in the animal shelter.

However, WCU’s growth will present obstacles too.

“With any kind of growth you have growing pains,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Cullowhee with housing units and infrastructure, demand on our roads, but those are things we just have to face and address and hopefully with good planning we can eliminate some of those problems.”

Mau: Mau concurs as to the benefit of having a thriving university within county borders, also pointing to the Green Energy Park concept as a partnership poised to go right. 

However, he said, the university’s growth means that smart planning is needed, particularly as it relates to traffic. Mau would like to see more retail shopping available close to Western’s campus in order to decrease students’ desire to drive down crowded N.C. 107. He’d like to see new student housing developed as close to campus as possible to decrease the expense of building sidewalks and reduce driving, and as enrollment grows he would ask the state to increase the amount it contributes to the Cullowhee Fire Department, which covers Western. 


What would be your approach to expanding internet access in Jackson County?

The issue: Internet access can be difficult to obtain in Western North Carolina, including Jackson County. There are many places in the rural, mountainous county where fast, reliable internet is impossible to get at any price, and that lack of access inhibits the county’s ability to attract employers and residents, and students’ ability to use online study resources at home. 

Mau: State law prohibits the county from actually providing internet access or incentivizing private companies to provide it, Mau said. So that limits commissioners’ ability to address the issue. 

The county can’t get into the business,” he said. “So what can the county do to inspire or help with internet growth and access?”

The county can help by working with local companies such as Skyfi, Mau said, which transmits internet signal through the air using towers, some of which are located on county property. 

McMahan: McMahan agrees that the county has “very little control over cell service and broadband,” as it’s prohibited from actually providing or financing those services. However, he would encourage local entrepreneurs to support endeavors from local businesses to fill that gap and would also seek to get the legislature to change its mind in regulating county involvement. 

“I have worked on behalf of Jackson County to lobby our legislators to work with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners to find ways to get the legislature to work with counties so we can offer an opportunity to gain access to broadband and partner with companies,” McMahan said. “Right now it’s not permitted under North Carolina law, and that needs to change.”



Meet the candidates

Brian McMahan (D)

McMahan, 43, is a Jackson County native who has spent the past 17 years working for Balsam Mountain Preserve, currently as chief of security, and also serves as assistant fire chief at the Balsam-Willets-Ochre Hill Volunteer Fire Department, of which he is a longtime member. 

McMahan attended Jackson County Public Schools and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, with a focus on state and local government, from Western Carolina University. He is married with two young children and lives in Balsam. 

He is seeking his fourth term on the board, having won election to the District 2 seat in 2002 — he was appointed as chairman in 2005 when the elected chairman stepped down — and the chairman’s seat in 2006 and 2014. McMahan lost his re-election bid to Jack Debnam in 2010. 

Ron Mau (R)

Mau, 54, is chairman of the Department of Business Administration for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and lives in Forest Hills. Originally from Nebraska, he has lived in Jackson County for 13 years. 

Mau holds multiple advanced degrees, working as a geotechnical engineer for 13 years after earning his master’s in civil engineering and then going back to school part-time for a master’s of business administration. He then returned full-time to earn a Ph.D. in finance. Mau is married with two adult sons. 

Mau won his first term on the board of commissioners in 2016 and previously served on the town council for the Village of Forest Hills, serving one year of his second term before winning election to the county board.

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