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Aldermen deny exploiting ‘Slategate’

Two Franklin aldermen said they didn’t whip up controversy regarding slate to get back at Mayor Joe Collins but because they sincerely thought it was a situation that needed to be looked into.

Aldermen Bob Scott and Verlin Curtis said there are no hard feelings between them and the mayor and that they think Collins has provided effective leadership, despite the controversy.

Curtis and Scott haven’t had the most cordial relationship with Collins over the years. The question is whether their personal conflicts motivated Scott and Curtis to create controversy surrounding the mayor and the slate or if they were genuinely concerned over the slate issue.

Scott and Curtis claim they were honestly concerned over the slate. The mayor refused to comment on the record about his feelings regarding the aldermen’s motivations.


A history of tension

Scott said he was a “little upset” and “disappointed” when the mayor came to his house about a year and a half ago to tell Scott he would not be vice mayor. Scott remembers it clearly, saying it was a Sunday afternoon and the mayor’s exact words were “ain’t gonna happen.”

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Scott said the vice mayor position generally rotates among board members every two years, but Collins said it wasn’t going to happen for Scott.

The mayor doesn’t have a vote when it comes to who is vice mayor. The aldermen select one of their fellow aldermen for the post.

“I mentioned I would like to serve as vice mayor,” said Scott. “Apparently the board didn’t want me as vice mayor.”

Collins would not comment on the record regarding the incident at Scott’s house.

“What I did or didn’t say would be a private conversation with Mr. Scott,” said Collins. “I don’t feel an obligation or need to talk about that. I’m not going to get into what I did or didn’t say on that occasion.”

Scott said the incident has nothing to do with him looking into the controversy surrounding the mayor and the slate.

“Absolutely not,” said Scott, adding his intentions were to protect town property.

“The statutes are clear, you can’t give away town property without a formal process,” Scott said.

Scott also seems to take umbrage with the mayor’s communication skills.

“I have not heard from the mayor in 14 months,” said Scott.

Ever since that day the mayor came to this house, the only time the mayor speaks to Scott is at a board meeting or some other official gathering, Scott said. The mayor doesn’t call him at home or come see him anymore, said Scott.

“I don’t think there is any relationship (between us),” said Scott.

Scott said he thinks the mayor has a responsibility to be a better communicator and not just talk to him in official settings.

“I would think the mayor has an obligation to keep the board informed, not just at meetings,” said Scott.


Mayor and Curtis Dispute

Curtis and Collins have disagreed the past few years over where to locate Town Hall.

Curtis wanted to build a new Town Hall on the 12.7-acre Whitmire property just outside downtown at 15 First St. The town purchased the tract for $1.6 million.

But town board members changed their minds and instead decided to renovate an existing downtown building for Town Hall. Mayor Collins thinks this is the best idea because it keeps civic functions downtown.

Curtis disagrees and thinks it is best to put Town Hall on the 12.7-acre site.

But Curtis said he did not make a big deal out of the slate controversy to fire back at Collins over the Town Hall issue. Curtis, like Scott, said he was just looking out for the town property.

Curtis ran for mayor against Collins in 2005 on the platform of relocating Town Hall.


The ‘Slategate’ controversy

The slate controversy centers on the 12.7 acre-site that was to be the location for Town Hall.

After the town bought the property, the former owner’s son, David Whitmire, approached Collins and asked if he could take some slate from the property as a memento from childhood, because he grew up at the home.

Collins, after going through Town Administrator Mike Decker, authorized Whitmire to take the slate.

Exactly how much slate Whitmire took, and whether Collins should have unilaterally given him the OK, has led to a bitter debate. Scott and Curtis claim the mayor overstepped his bounds by parting with town property.

In an attempt to set the record straight, Whitmire, now of Alaska, told his side of the story in a full-page ad in The Smoky Mountain News last week. Whitmire said the mayor never specified the amount of slate he could have.

“We didn’t talk about specific amounts of anything,” Whitmire wrote in his ad.

In a Smoky Mountain News interview, Collins disagreed: “We absolutely did discuss it would be a few pieces. His memory is different.”

Scott and Curtis got up in arms over what they considered a large amount of slate that was taken from the property — about 625 square feet, according to Curtis, and 500 square feet, according to Whitmire.


Value of property disputed

Curtis and Scott said Whitmire had no right to take that slate just as no one has a right to take a plaque off the wall in Town Hall. The slate belonged to the city and had a value of $19,600 if you include the cost of labor to reinstall it, the town said.

But Whitmire said 500 feet of slate only has a value of $500.

Lowe’s in Sylva has slate slabs for $1.88 a square foot or $940 for 500 square feet.

Whitmire said in his ad that it was wrong for the town to demand $19,000. He not only had permission to take the slate, but the tax value for all structures on the property was appraised at $17,800.

“So I’ve got $500 worth of salvaged stone and they want $19,000,” Whitmire stated in his ad. “That’s right; the board demanded I pay more for the mixed slate pieces than the value of the entire house, one the city had completely ignored.”

Curtis said the town’s $19,600 figure was not the value of the materials alone but was mainly the labor costs for reinstalling it.

Macon County Tax Administrator Richard Lightner confirmed that the entire property — the buildings and the land — is valued at $1.9 million, with the buildings only being worth $17,860.

The home has been destroyed by vandals who have busted windows and painted graffiti on the walls.


Case put to bed finally

The town threatened to sue for the $19,600, but the matter was eventually settled with Whitmire paying $5,000 for slate he said was worth less than $500.

Curtis and Scott said they have no evidence to suggest that the mayor actually gave Whitmire permission to take as much slate as he wanted.

“I have to take him for what he (mayor) said he did,” said Curtis.

At one time Scott called on an investigation to determine who said what, but it didn’t go forward.

On a tour of the property, which still has the old Whitmire home on it, Curtis pointed out that slate had been stripped from everything, including the fireplace, and that solid oak doors and a cherry desk were also taken. Curtis said the case should have been prosecuted by the DA as a felony.

In his ad Whitmire said his family members were generous supporters of Franklin and it isn’t right that the town is treating him like this.

Curtis agreed that “the Whitmires were very kind to me” when he did work for them such as appliance repair.

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