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2018: A look back

2018: A look back

Before we ring in the New Year, The Smoky Mountain News likes to look back and reflect on the last year of news.

The headlines that have graced our pages in 2018 have had an important impact on the people of Western North Carolina, and our staff has taken its job of reporting and analyzing those issues seriously.

However, just before those news stories become part of this region’s history and before we head into 2019, we like to look back at the year and highlight a little of the humor in the issues we’ve reported on all year.

Our annual “Spoof Awards” pay tribute to the people, places and events that have rounded out 2018. Congratulations to those who made this year’s award list. And if you didn’t make it in 2018, there’s plenty of time in the coming year to leave your mark.

 

A Rose by any Other Name Award

During the course of any news reporter’s year, they’ll likely come across hundreds of interesting people — some of them with names remarkably suited to their profession. In that spirit, we’re proud to present the “Rose by any Other Name Award” to Jackson County Economic Developer Rich Price, needle exchange proponent Jeremy Sharp, Jackson County physician Dr. Cliff Faull and North Carolina House of Representatives fundraising leader Rep. Nelson Dollar. Barring some sort of abrupt and tawdry career change, Jackson County TDA Director Nick Breedlove remains ineligible for this award. 

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The Margaret Mead Award

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” 

— Margaret Mead, anthropologist 

It can be difficult to find the bright side when your community seems to be in the midst of an unbeatable war against drugs. With more opioids, heroin and meth on the streets than ever before, our rural communities are feeling the impact. Our jails are over capacity, homeless shelters are full, mental health and rehabilitation facilities have long waiting lists, law enforcement budgets are climbing and the criminal justice system is backlogged. 

The problem is overwhelming. How do you even know where to begin? 

The Margaret Mead Award goes to the small group of thoughtful, committed citizens in Haywood County working toward improving the situation one step at a time. To Sheriff Greg Christopher and Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed for their leadership in educating the community about the opioid crisis and their willingness to look for solutions outside the realm of incarceration. To the many people who helped establish the Haywood Pathways Center to give people a second chance at life and who placed peer support specialists inside the jail to work with inmates. To the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition LEAD program and its law enforcement partners for diverting people with mental health issues and/or drug addiction from jail to rehab. To Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts for implementing a pretrial release program to address the issues within the criminal justice system. 

With all these pieces coming together in 2018, Haywood County is well on its way to a healthier 2019. 

 

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Defense attorney Mark Melrose speaks at a rally to honor the life of his client Scott Knibbs, who was shot and killed by a Macon County Sheriff’s deputy. Donated photo

 

The Frank Sinatra Award

This award is set aside for someone who has insisted on doing things “My Way” and has said to hell with the critics and the consequences. In 2018, that person was Waynesville defense attorney Mark Melrose. Love him or hate him, he’s a man of great principle. Time and time again, Melrose has shown he’s not afraid to stand up to the powerful and defend the undefendable — even when it’s not the popular decision. 

Melrose has caught a lot of flack in the past for the clients he’s chosen to represent, but has never backed down from providing them their constitutional right to a strong defense. After all, that is his job. This year he made headlines when he represented the Knibbs family after a Macon County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed 40-year-old Scott Knibbs inside his own home.

Melrose wasted no time defending Knibbs and going after the sheriff’s deputy, claiming the man’s second and fourth amendment rights were violated when the rookie deputy shot at Scott through the window six times. 

Melrose also wasn’t afraid to take shots at District Attorney Ashley Welch and Macon Sheriff Robert Holland for the way they handled the incident — not a way to make friends in Western North Carolina, especially when you’re running for Superior Court Judge. That’s right — while all this was going on Melrose was also running for office against Democrat incumbent Judge Bradley Letts. Who does that? Mark Melrose, that’s who! Though he lost the election and the SBI cleared the deputy in the Knibbs case, at least Melrose can say “I did what I had to do and saw it through.”

 

The Fourth Time’s a Charm Award

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And then again. And, again. That strategy worked for Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, two years ago when his third contest against Democratic representative and Waynesville architect Joe Sam Queen finally resulted in a victory. But that strategy of persistence also worked for Queen — the winner of our “Fourth Time’s a Charm Award” this year after narrowly defeatng Clampitt. 

In the fourth installment of what has become Western North Carolina’s longest-running political feud, Queen eked his way back into the North Carolina General Assembly for a third term, largely on the heels of a major vote swing in Jackson County. Queen’s victory was particularly integral to state Dem aspirations of breaking the Republican legislative supermajority that rendered Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto power little more than an adorable, futile gesture and again gives the largest county in the district a native voice in the legislature. As of press time, there was no word on whether or not voters can look forward to a re-re-re-re-match in 2020. 

 

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More than 5,000 WCU students typically gather in Central Plaza on the Cullowhee campus for Valley Ballyhoo, the annual start-of-fall-semester festival that includes information booths, food and entertainment. WCU photo

 

The Herding Cats Award 

Anyone who’s ever tried to make a cat do anything that’s not its own idea knows why the phrase “herding cats” refers to a logistical task so difficult as to be nearly impossible — but somehow, Western Carolina University managed to do the undoable when it corralled 11,639 Catamounts for this fall’s record-breaking enrollment. 

Fall 2018 represented a 5.48 percent enrollment increase over fall 2017, about twice the growth Western had been aiming for. Of those 11,639 students, 2,189 were first-time, full-time freshmen, making 2018 the first time that freshmen enrollment topped 2,000. The average GPA and SAT score saw a boost as well, with an average 3.92 weighted high school GPA and 1149 SAT score in fall 2018 compared to a 3.83 GPA and 1115 SAT score in 2017. The number of transfer students skyrocketed by 40 percent, rising from 786 to 1,105. 

University officials gave the N.C. Promise Tuition Reduction Program much of the credit for these startling figures. The program, which caps WCU tuition at $500 per semester for in-state undergraduates and $2,500 for out-of-state undergraduates, launched this year and caused a surge of interest in the mountain university. According to a freshman class survey conducted this fall, 83 percent of respondents saw affordability as the single most important factor or a large factor in deciding where to go to college, with 30 percent of respondents who were eligible for income-base Pell Grants saying they would not have attended any university at all if it weren’t for N.C. Promise. 

Interest is only likely to continue as word spreads about N.C. Promise and the undergraduate experience at Western. To meet the future demand, WCU will have to adjust its offerings in many ways — including, perhaps, adding a degree program in cat herding. 

 

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Mike Matthews.

 

The ‘Bye, Felicia’ Award 

North Carolina’s only elected tax collector, Haywood Republican Mike Matthews, had been dogged since before he was even sworn in to office in late 2014 — the Democrat he defeated at the polls was rehired by the county; his swearing-in was delayed by bonding troubles; commissioners blasted his work ethic and knowledge of on-the-job duties; an unfounded internal complaint about Matthews investigated by an outside attorney was leaked to The Mountaineer newspaper; commissioners unanimously passed a resolution asking Haywood’s Republican state legislators to make the position an appointed one; he voluntarily repaid property tax penalties improperly waived by him and his clerks; and a fellow Republican tried to knock him off in the 2018 primary. 

Matthews persevered through all of it, claiming current and former commissioners had nursed a vendetta against him because of his slim 2014 electoral victory over popular incumbent David Francis. After his Nov. 6 loss at the polls to Democrat Greg West, Matthews seemed just as happy to go as commissioners were to see him go, which is why this year’s “Bye, Felicia” award goes to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners, from Mike Matthews. 

 

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Lamar Berry.

 

The Bargain Basement Award

Few Haywood County traditions provoke more nostalgia, more optimism and more heated discussion than a certain amusement park located on a certain mountain in a certain … OK, it’s Maggie Valley’s long-languishing Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park atop Buck Mountain, and the other thing it seems to provoke is hare-brained revitalization attempts surrounded by charlatans and shenanigans. 

The latest attempt was that of a group headed by Louisiana businessman Lamar Berry; the announcement of a possible re-opening this past spring brought great optimism to the valley, but after a string of broken promises, missed deadlines and a dearth of visible progress — topped off with a general lack of and disdain for open communication with the community — things began to fall apart. 

First it was a series of anonymous letters delivered to the offices of The Smoky Mountain News; then it was an investigation revealing Berry’s pattern of dubious business dealings that have included failure, fraud and deception; then it was a $52,000 lien by a local construction firm alleging they hadn’t been paid for their work. 

But perhaps the last straw was Berry’s alleged failure to pay his $3,300 hotel bill, which prompted him to take up residence in the basement of the park’s elderly owner Alaska Presley — before she finally gave him the boot after he unsurprisingly couldn’t convince investors to trust him with their money. 

 

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The Off with Their Pens Award

Just as white roses proved an affront to the Queen of Hearts, so did the Cherokee Tribal Council find accurate reporting so offensive that it enacted an “off with their pens” policy this April, voting to ban all media outside The Cherokee One Feather from sitting in its chambers. 

The vote came at the request of Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, who in an April Budget Council meeting told Tribal Council that “The Smoky Mountain News is not quoting us right” and that she would be asking Council to prevent SMN reporter Holly Kays from entering the chambers. Two days later, at the body’s monthly legislative meeting, council members voted 11-1 to ban all press besides the Cherokee One Feather. 

While Saunooke told Tribal Council that the policy was needed because SMN had quoted her incorrectly in a March 14 story about a delay in funding a crisis stabilization unit, a review of the tribe’s meeting videos — which are freely available online — showed that the quote in the story matched what was stated in the meeting. Additionally, emails between Saunooke and Kays showed that Saunooke was given an opportunity to clarify or otherwise correct her statement and declined to do so. 

The Cherokee One Feather came out immediately in opposition to the policy, publishing a number of editorials on the topic and sponsoring a resolution to repeal the ban. However, the resolution was withdrawn to allow for a meeting between media outlets and council members. A meeting date was set and then cancelled, and the ban is still in place today. Tribal Council sessions are livestreamed and archived online, so these days Kays finds a seat in the lobby outside the council chambers, opens her laptop and puts in earbuds to watch the meeting happening on the other side of the wall. 

As far as 2019 is concerned, SMN simply intends to continue painting the pages red, painting the pages red. We will not stop or a word drop until it’s all correct. 

 

The Seeing Red Award

Western North Carolina’s an out-of-the-way little place — rural, rugged and remote — and as such, major trends in art, literature, music and politics hit Haywood County a little later than the rest of the state and country. For years, Haywood has been well in line with the national trend of Democrat-heavy urban areas; all four incorporated municipalities have Democrat-majority town boards, and Democrat mayors. Where Haywood’s bucked the trend — until this year — was in having a Democrat-majority county commission. Usually, rural and unincorporated areas like much of Haywood are dominated by conservative voters. 

In 2016, the commission took a step to the right with the election of Canton Republican Brandon Rogers; he currently occupies the seat of former Democratic Chairman Mark Swanger, who declined to stand for re-election that year. Rogers’ victory tilted the commission from a 4 to 1 Dem majority to a tighter 3 to 2 tally. This past November, however, the retirement of Democrat Bill Upton and the availability of two Dem-held seats gave Republicans an opportunity to gain a majority, and they seized it, winning not one but two seats to give them a 4 to 1 majority and control of the commission for the very first time. 

 

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U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, (from left) Swain County Commission Chairman Phil Carson, State Rep. Mike Clampitt, Sen. Jim Davis, Rep. Kevin Corbin and Sen. Thom Tillis present the North Shore settlement check to Swain County. Jessi Stone photo

 

The ‘About Damn Time’ Award

None of the Swain County elected officials said it out loud, but we know they were thinking it when the county finally received a $35.2 million check from the federal government this summer. 

The check represents the end of a 70-year battle to get the federal government to meet its obligation to Swain County residents after forcing thousands of people off their land to flood the northern part of the county and create Fontana Dam. The government first promised to rebuild the road to allow families access to their old homesteads and cemeteries but that never happened. In 2010, county commissioners finally agreed to a $52 million cash settlement instead of the road, but the feds haven’t wanted to meet that obligation either — until now. 

Some good teamwork between North Carolina’s senator and representatives and U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke finally resulted in the settlement money being paid out just a year before the agreement was set to expire in 2020. 

 

The Close the Gate Award

For their vocal and persistent opposition to a proposed multi-unit apartment complex just outside the western boundary of Waynesville, the residents of Plott Creek have more than earned this award by packing several Town of Waynesville public meetings as well as a six-hour quasi-judicial proceeding to decry the project as an unwanted eyesore that would only attract child molesters, criminals, litterbugs, lazy ne’er-do-wells and people who change their car’s oil in apartment parking lots because that’s what people who can’t afford mortgages apparently are. 

In a county hungry for development but plagued by an affordable housing crisis and home to hundreds of homeless children, residents of Plott Creek — ironically, settled by a German immigrant — were ruled against at every turn but displayed such a NIMBYesque attitude along the way that the usually mild-mannered Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown was heard to remark during one meeting that “Some of the logic here tonight is typical, it’s like, ‘I’m here, now let’s close the gate.’” At present, residents of Plott Creek — which is not within the town limits of Waynesville — are an early favorite to win next year’s “Forcing Taxpayers From a Town We Don’t Live In to Engage in Expensive and Protracted Litigation We Will End Up Losing Anyway” award. 

 

The Brewhaha Award 

Given the uproar caused when a new brewery announced that its inaugural beer would be called the Mothertown Blonde Ale, a permanent spelling change for the French-origin word “brouhaha” just might be warranted. 

Launched in March, Seven Clans Brewing was founded by two female enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who saw the business — and the names it used — as a way to honor their heritage through craft and storytelling. 

But the names hit a nerve with a community that has a history of both staunch opposition to alcohol and a sense of sacredness when it comes to cultural stories. The term “seven clans” refers to the way that Cherokee people trace their genealogy and their place in the tribal community, while “Mothertown” refers to Kituwah, the Cherokee civilization’s place of origin located outside of present-day Bryson City. It was the central point of the tribe’s governmental, spiritual and cultural functions, and Cherokee people still use it as a place to pray and worship. 

A petition to see the names changed began circulating almost immediately, gathering 653 signatures in the month between the brewery’s launch and an April 5 Tribal Council meeting where the issue was discussed. The discussion grew heated and personal at times, lasting for three hours. Ultimately, Seven Clans co-owner Collette Coggins said that she would stop using the name “Mothertown” after all the beers currently in inventory were sold but that the business would continue to call itself Seven Clans. 

Tribal Council then resolved to craft an ordinance that would limit the use of culturally sensitive terms in businesses on the Qualla Boundary. The ordinance was discussed briefly during a Tribal Council meeting Aug. 1, but a draft has yet to be presented and placed on the agenda. 

 

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Democrat Gayle Woody is sworn in to a first term on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Holly Kays photo

 

The Seesaw Award

As anyone who has ever swung on a tire swing knows, the first rule of the playground is thou shalt take turns. And in the past few election cycles nobody has exemplified this rule better than the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. 

The 2018 elections resulted in a win for Democrats, who flipped the board from a 3-2 Republican majority to a 3-2 Democratic majority when political newcomer Gayle Woody beat out three-term incumbent Charles Elders for the District 1 seat, while Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner Boyce Deitz kept their seats against Republican challengers. 

But, perhaps the shift shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, because Jackson County has a history of political flippage. In 2008, all five board members were Democrats, but in 2010 the board became Republican with a 3-2 majority. That remained the case through 2014, when two Democrats won and left Elders the lone Republican on the board. That situation didn’t last long — Republicans Mickey Luker and Ron Mau won election in 2016 and Republicans held a 3-2 majority once more. 

Now that 3-2 majority falls to the Democrats — for now. The book is closed on 2018, but 2020 will come soon enough. Round and around and around it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows. 

 

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Belcher receives a hug from a pair of WCU students during an impromptu rally held in April 2016, the day after he announced that he’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Mark Haskett photo

 

The Dumbledore Award

Like the beloved Hogwarts headmaster, former Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher was a beloved and integral member of the educational community he was charged with leading. And, just as Dumbledore’s death tore a void in the fictional world of Hogwarts, so Belcher’s passing left a hole in the Catamount Nation. 

After more than six years at the helm, Belcher stepped down from his post on Dec. 31, 2017, following an ongoing battle with brain cancer. He was originally diagnosed in April 2016, undergoing surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy. But the cancer returned, and he embarked on a new treatment regimen in August 2017, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Belcher went on medical leave beginning Jan. 1 and passed away on Sunday, June 17 — Father’s Day. 

The university community has made its support of and love for Belcher and his wife Susan known every step of the way, with more than 800 people filling the performance hall at the John W. Bardo Performing Arts Center for his memorial service June 23. University, community and political leaders alike released statements commemorating his commitment to the university, outgoing nature and famously jovial sense of humor. 

During Belcher’s tenure at WCU, endowed scholarships increased dramatically, freshman retention skyrocketed and important capital projects got underway, to name a few accomplishments. Provost Allison Morrison-Shetlar has been serving as acting chancellor while the search continues for the university’s next leader.

“We’re not going to get another Dr. Belcher,” WCU alum Ted Yoder said during a Feb. 5 community forum to gather input on the search. “We’ve got to watch the danger of expecting too much. We can’t find somebody just like him — there’s nobody like him.”

 

The Hot Mess Award

It might sound simplistic, but there’s not really another term that better suits the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors right now — especially as it relates to the still-ongoing search for Western Carolina University’s new chancellor. 

After months spent holding community meetings, reviewing applications, interviewing candidates and discussing and deliberating the possibilities, WCU thought it had completed the task it never wanted to have — replacing Chancellor David O. Belcher, who died of brain cancer in June. The board of trustees had appointed a search committee, which followed the search process outlined by UNC System President Margaret Spellings and arrived at three names to send to trustees for approval, from which Spellings chose one name to put forward to the Board of Governors. 

But after a two-hour closed session meeting July 12 the Board of Governors never voted on the nomination, and the candidate eventually withdrew his name from consideration. In a July 16 statement, Chairman Harry Smith said that the board would be completing “an expedited review of the chancellor search process in an effort to refine and improve it,” ostensibly resuming the WCU search under the revised guidelines. 

The new guidelines were expected in September, but the September meeting was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence. In a Sept. 7 WCU Board of Trustees meeting, Chair Pat Kaemmerling told the board that she’d been advised WCU could resume its search process and that the new search guidelines would apply only to future searches — the quest for the next chancellor would continue using the same process as before. 

The search committee is currently accepting applications for the job through Jan. 4, with a review and interview process planned to extend through February. The goal is to have a new chancellor in place for the fall 2019 semester. 

But there are still plenty of variables in that equation, one being the occupant of the president’s office. In October, Spellings — who has often found herself at odds with a board whose membership has nearly turned over since her 2015 hire — announced that she would be leaving the UNC system. Former UNC Health Care CEO and UNC School of Medicine dean Dr. Bill Roper has been named as the interim president while a nationwide search unfolds. It remains to be seen whether a new president will be in place before WCU submits its nominations or if Roper will still occupy that office — and, too, whether or not the board of governors will give the new candidate a vote. 

It’s well known that Raleigh is hot and that politics are messy, but the Catamount Nation is remaining hopeful that a new chancellor will soon be chosen, life will go on and the hot mess of Raleigh will stay far away from the peaceful cool of Cullowhee. 

 

The Drano Award

An obtusely worded state law passed in 2017 earns this award for busting — at least partially — a clog in Jackson County’s economic development caused by high hookup fees from the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. 

TWSA had long drawn criticism for the fees it charged customers to begin or expand water and sewer service. Especially for high-use customers like restaurants, the up-front charges could figure in the tens of thousands of dollars, with one business owner complaining to TWSA in February that he would need to fork over $50,000 to expand his restaurant in a new location in Sylva. 

House Bill 436 required water and sewer utilities like TWSA to follow a uniform process to decide how much, if anything, they should charge in upfront fees, with that process resulting in a maximum amount that could be legally charged. TWSA was found to be charging mostly below the calculated ceiling for residential customers but mostly above it for commercial customers. 

The board ultimately chose to set its fees at about 75 percent of the legal ceiling. The change will make it significantly easier for businesses to establish and expand, but still not cheap — the restaurant owner who in February was looking at $50,000 to move to a new location, for example, would be charged about $17,000 under the new fee structure. 

TWSA members are divided on the current situation, with some saying that the fees should be cut further or completely eliminated and others lamenting that they had to be changed at all. Either way, it never hurts to keep a little Drano on hand. 

 

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Carol Skaziak, founder of Throw Away Dogs Project, donated K-9 trained Kanon to the Bryson City Police Department. Donated photo

 

The Give a Dog a Bad Name Award

The Bryson City Police Department’s reputation is undoubtedly soiled after a K-9 officer died while in the possession of one of its officers — who wasn’t actually a certified officer yet, much less a K-9 handler.

Kanon was donated to Bryson City by Throw Away Dogs Project, a nonprofit organization in Pennsylvania that rescues dogs and trains them for law enforcement. In desperate need of a drug dog, the police department gladly accepted the donation, but the happy news soon became a tragic tale as the police department made one bad call after another that ultimately led to Kanon’s death. 

In accepting the donation, the department agreed to certain contract terms, but broke a number of them as their plans for Kanon quickly went south. The original handler backed out of the commitment — which meant Kanon should have been returned to Throw Away Dogs — but Police Chief Greg Jones was determined to keep him. Kanon was placed with a new hire Jeff Fowler even though he hadn’t received his state certification yet and had never been a K-9 handler before. 

Months later Jones said he got the call one morning in March that Kanon was found dead in his kennel outside at Fowler’s house. Cause of death was assumed to be asphyxiation from choking on a piece of plastic he tore off from his doghouse, but no one will ever know for sure since Jones had the dog cremated before an autopsy could be done. 

Throw Away Dogs founder Carol Skaziak is still looking for answers and justice for her beloved K-9 but the SBI passed on a full investigation stating that it was unlikely a criminal offense could be proven. After the debacle, Bryson City Mayor Tom Sutton said it was extremely unlikely the department would ever get another K-9.

 

The Sugar Daddy Award

Mission Health had a good run as a nonprofit health care system serving Western North Carolina, but as the industry continues to change and medical costs continue to rise, Mission leaders said the writing was on the wall. No longer able to pay all the bills on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements alone, Mission did what any other parent company would do to take care of its family. To survive and thrive, Mission would need to find someone with deeper pockets who wouldn’t mind taking on its low-income Western North Carolina patients and all the baggage that comes along with them. 

In walks HCA Healthcare, a huge for-profit system based in Tennessee. They promise Mission the world, saying everything will be OK and that they’ll love WNC just like their own. Sure, HCA doesn’t have the best reputation and has broken many hearts along the way, but surely it’s matured since the days of CFO Rick Scott. And look, Rick Scott went on to be governor of Florida so HCA can’t be all bad right? At least the lights will stay on and no one will go hungry — we hope. 

 

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The Homestead hospice house in Clyde will be renovated into a wound care and sleep center next year while hospice patients will be cared for at the main Haywood Regional Medical Center building. File photo

 

The Adding Insult to Injury Award

Some things are sacred and deserve the greatest of care, including the sick and the elderly. Everyone deserves some peace and dignity when it’s their time to go, but Haywood Regional Medical Center earned this award when leaders decided the bottomline was more important. 

HRMC recently announced a decision to turn The Homestead, a six-bed cozy hospice center, into wound care and sleep study center and move the hospice patients back into the cold, sterile hospital building for their final days.

Adding insult to injury, the Homestead was constructed using private donations from people in the community who wanted their loved ones to be in a home-like environment before they passed instead of at the main hospital. The facility, which sits on land donated by the hospital, was then donated to the hospital. 

While HRMC CEO Rod Harkleroad said an in-hospital hospice model will be more efficient for staff and patients, community members insist it’s not the same and hospice patients shouldn’t be in the hospital with the general population. 

 

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Eric Giles, a candidate for Macon County Sheriff, received a Giglio Order from District Attorney Ashley Welch’s office claiming he was no longer a credible witness for prosecutors. Jessi Stone photo

 

 

The ‘You Got Giglioed’ Award

Urban Dictionary defines Giglio as “A good looking Italian-American from New Jersey, New York, Las Vegas or Italy,” but that’s far from the definition of the Giglio Order issued to Eric Giles in late August. 

When Giles — a Cherokee County sheriff’s deputy who was also in the midst of running for Macon County Sheriff — received a Giglio Order from District Attorney Ashley Welch’s office in late August, it meant he wouldn’t be able to testify in court against defendants he arrested. It meant something Giles said or did had made him an unreliable witness for the DA’s Office. Such an order can ruin a law enforcement officer’s career — if you can’t testify in court for your own cases, then how can you continue to make arrests? 

DA Ashley Welch said she has issued a handful of Giglio Orders during her four years in office and it typically leads to the officer losing his or her job or at least being placed behind a desk. So Giles must have done something horrible right? Well, it’s still unclear exactly what he did to be Giglioed. The order mentioned him misrepresenting his duties as an officer at a public candidate forum, but Giles claimed he had simply misspoken and tried to correct it as soon as he realized what he had said. Then information was released that Giles had been fired from Graham County Sheriff’s Office a few years ago when he was telling news outlets he had left on his own accord. He was fired for conduct unbecoming of an officer after school security cameras caught him and a female student entering and exiting a high school gym together at 3 a.m. The female student came forward and told The Smoky Mountain News that nothing inappropriate had happened with Giles, but the damage was already done.

Still for some, the allegations didn’t rise to the level of a Giglio Order. Giles’ supporters saw it as a political move on the DA’s part to discredit him before the election since Welch has been an avid supporter of incumbent Sheriff Robert Holland. In the end, Giles lost the election but got to keep his job after Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer claimed Welch wouldn’t show him any evidence against Giles. 

 

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Swain County resident Jerry Lowery (right) and Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran appear before the local board of elections to discuss the candidate challenge Lowery filed against Cochran. Jessi Stone photo

 

The ‘I Ain’t Never’ Award

Petty politics are fairly common in these parts when it comes election time, but the Swain County Sheriff race reached a new level of drama this year.

The theatrics started early with Swain County resident Jerry Lowery filing a candidate challenge against incumbent Sheriff Curtis Cochran right after he signed up to run for another term. Lowery claimed Cochran wasn’t eligible to run for office because he was dishonorably discharged from the military — an offense he equated with a felony. Since the burden of proof is on the candidate during a challenge, Lowery thought he’d force Cochran to present his DD-214 military form to explain his dismissal from the U.S. Marines but it turned out Cochran didn’t have one. While the National Personnel Records Center confirmed Cochran only served in the military for a couple of months before being discharged, a spokesperson said the unusual circumstances of him not having a DD-214 were confidential. 

The challenge was dismissed by the Swain County Board of Elections and then by the state board of elections. Lowery said Cochran retaliated against him by having Jackson County deputies arrest him on a 10-year-old warrant right outside the board of elections office where the first challenge hearing was held in Bryson City. It was quite the scene leaving the packed room of people thinking, “Well, I ain’t never.”

As the election season trudged on, Cochran and his opponent, Rocky Sampson, kept the drama going with jabs at one another. Sampson, who was working for the Bryson City Police Department when he announced his plans to run against Cochran, said Cochran tried to get Police Chief Greg Jones to fire him by claiming Sampson had been fired for misconduct in Clay County. A quick call to Clay County Sheriff cleared Sampson’s name and Jones kept him on the payroll, but it wasn’t good enough for Cochran, who retaliated by suspending mutual aid to the town of Bryson City. Despite the petty political moves, Cochran was elected to another term.

 

The Toilet Humor Award

As the Franklin Town Council members seriously debated — with straight faces even — the best bathroom options for the town’s Pickin’ in the Square event during the summer, members of the Fourth Estate sat there trying to maintain the poker faces we’ve been trained to have during such events. 

The discussion of pros and cons of portable toilets versus a portable toilet trailer went on for about half an hour while reporters came up with at least a dozen different possible headlines to encapsulate the ridiculous hilarity of the conversation. If not for the low-hanging potty humor, it might not have even been a story, but this Smoky Mountain News reporter couldn’t resist the “Pickin’ Potties” headline that accompanied the story. This award goes to the town council in appreciation for the comic relief. 

 

The Bill Lumbergh Award

While the word is that Jackson County’s health and social services departments were handling their TPS reports just fine, county commissioners thought it would be just grreeaaat if the departments would go ahead and combine anyway, mmmkay? 

A 2012 state law gave counties the ability to combine departments offering various human services, and when the Jackson County Commission flipped to a Republican majority in 2016, its members began exploring the possibility of a consolidation in Jackson County. Democratic members were against the idea, saying that the departments were functioning admirably as-is and that efforts to fix what isn’t broken would be a waste of time and money, while Republican members insisted that consolidating the departments would improve services and save money. 

The public disagreed. During a Jan. 29 public hearing, all 11 people offering comment — they were, by and large, people with extensive professional experience in the health and social services fields — opposed consolidation. 

Nevertheless, commissioners said they were gonna need the departments to consolidate, appointing a new consolidated board that made its disdain for the decision quite clear, ultimately voting to delay hire of a director for the consolidated department — the new position would draw a salary between $74,000 and $145,000 — until after the November elections. That move angered Republican commissioners, who voted to disband the board completely, unconsolidate the departments and place themselves as the boards of health and social services. 

In other news, a remodel of the aging health department building is underway, and Jackson County could well find itself in need of replacements for some mysteriously smashed-up copy machines. No word yet on whether fish-cleaning will be permitted on desks in the new digs. 

 

The Power to the People Award

This award goes to the people of Western North Carolina for sending a clear message to the North Carolina Utilities Commission that the rate increase request from Duke Energy Progress was nothing short of preposterous. 

It’s a rare and glorious sight when people of different ages and political, socio-economic and educational backgrounds can all come together to share their disgust and hatred for the same cause — in this case the fury was aimed at the largest utility company in the state. Everyone balked at Duke’s request for an 18 percent rate hike, especially looking at Duke’s profit margins and their business practices. 

Duke actually thought it would be acceptable to ask its customers to help pay for the costs associated with closing its 14 coal ash basins across the state, even though the company had been warned repeatedly about the environmental concerns associated with the practice yet continued to use them. 

Residents across the state still haven’t forgotten the coal ash spill that occurred Feb. 2, 2014, when about 39,000 tons of coal ash were released into the Dan River from Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station storage pond north of Eden. Duke customers made it clear through public comment that the utility company needed to clean up its own mess and foot the bill. 

Not only did the commission deny Duke Energy’s initial request to generate an additional $611 million a year with a rate increase for its 2 million customers, it also ordered the corporation to refund $60 million in deferred taxes to customers and to pay $70 million in fines for the coal ash disaster — showing that the power still lies with the people.

 

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An improperly located business was nudged out of its Dellwood City Road digs earlier this year. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

 

The Rolling the Dice Award

Last summer, Town of Waynesville employees were caught somewhat by surprise when a Las Vegas-style sign advertising “nudge” gambling popped up outside a Dellwood City Road building that was once home to an auto dealership. They were surprised because the owner of Nudge City, Tami Nicholson, shouldn’t have been allowed to open up as she hadn’t applied for a zoning permit — probably because the retail business wouldn’t have qualified for one anyway. The building is near to and just below one of the town’s oldest, most historic neighborhoods, the Love Lane Residential District, and retail isn’t allowed in that particular district, so it was only a matter of time until the whole thing crapped out. But the machines are big business, which must have made it worth the risk to operate at the location despite the noncompliance. As the town worked through procedures designed to delineate where, exactly, such businesses could be located, Nicholson was subsequently indicted on felony gambling charges, just as her Dellwood City Road business was nudged out of its digs in March. No word yet on whether or not she’ll double down.

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