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It’s party time – Pless again files bill to make Haywood, Madison municipal elections partisan

Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) speaks on the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly on Feb. 15. Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) speaks on the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly on Feb. 15. NCGA photo

Despite strong opposition last year, Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) has again filed a bill that if passed would bring partisanship into some of Western North Carolina’s municipal governments.

“The voters have a right to know the basic principles these folks stand behind,” said Pless, whose district includes all of Haywood and Madison counties. “I’d be doing a huge disservice to the voters that put me in here if I didn’t do this.”

The bill, filed late yesterday afternoon, says that the towns of Canton, Clyde, Maggie Valley and Waynesville must conduct partisan elections, effective immediately if it passes. That means it would have implications in this year’s elections in all four municipalities.

“I’m shocked that he would try to put this through again,” said Mike Eveland, mayor of Maggie Valley. “I think the majority of elected officials in Haywood County were opposed last year, and I believe they still would oppose it this year. My concern is and has always been the town of Maggie Valley and what it represents and what we need to be working on, and not on what pollical parties have to say.”

Waynesville’s mayor said his feelings haven’t changed since Pless’ last attempt at the bill.

“I definitely remain opposed to this,” said Waynesville Mayor Gary Caldwell. “I don’t think it’s good for local government. I don’t see where you would need politics. Paving streets, fixing potholes, recreation — I just don’t see where you need to have that.”

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Caldwell’s board passed a resolution last year unanimously opposing the measure. At the time, Alderman Chuck Dickson opined that “there is not a Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole.”

Zeb Smathers, mayor of Canton, was opposed to the previous attempt, as was his entire board.

“It’s the same as last year,” Smathers said. “Both myself and my board are against this. People want action, not politics. I have talked with Rep. Pless, and I feel confident Rep. Pless understands those concerns, and those conversations will continue.”

Smathers made a point of noting the consequences of partisan politics in Washington, D.C. and said he didn’t want to see that kind of bitter divisiveness occur in municipal governance, where national party platforms rarely have any impact on local issues that municipal boards routinely consider.

Jim Trantham, mayor of the tiny town of Clyde, expressed similar views.

“My feelings are the same. I feel like [Pless] has been good to Clyde. He’s tried to help us in most every way he can, and I feel like the mayor and board have a good working relationship with him. However, I do disagree with him on this deal, and to be honest with you, there’s five of us board members, and I couldn’t tell you if there’s an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ after their names or not.”

Trantham said he moved to Clyde in 1978 and can’t recall there ever being partisan elections or partisan strife.

“The issues at our level are not ‘D’ and ‘R’ issues, as far as I’m concerned. One of our major expenses is infrastructure, and of course you want to treat your employees right. Those are not ‘D’ or ‘R’ issues. I don’t know why you would change this now,” he said. “And it would cost more."

If the bill were passed, each municipal election would require a partisan Primary Election if more candidates show up than are seats available. Waynesville’s Town Manager, Rob Hites, said last year he estimated the cost to the town would be around $13,000 to put on such an election.

Unlike last year’s bill, this year’s bill also includes Madison County, which Pless also represents. Madison County has three municipalities — Hot Springs, Marshall and Mars Hill.

“I am totally, totally against this,” said John L. Chandler, mayor of Mars Hill. “I don’t know why they want to disrupt a good system that we have, so you don’t have to pick a party to be able to run. It’s been real good for us. [Passing this] would be more expensive, and there’s early voting, there’s several things that will happen. I think I speak for my whole board in that we’re totally against this. I pride myself on being for the people, and if it turns to partisan, I don’t know if I would participate.”

Chandler’s fellow Madison County mayor, Abby Norton of Hot Springs, feels the same way.

“I just don’t understand the reasoning behind this,” Norton said. “I sent Rep. Pless an email last night and asked him, and he said that in the last few elections voters have requested party designations. That may be true in Marshall or Mars Hill or Haywood County but I do not think it’s true in Hot Springs.”

Like her counterparts in Haywood County’s municipalities, Norton believes that on the local level, voters choose the person over the party.

“In municipal elections in small towns like ours, people vote for the person who they know is going to care the most and do the best job for the town,” she said. “I do what I think is right. I’ll pray about it. I’m a Christian. You’re not going to be able to tell how I believe just by how I’m registered and I believe that’s the case with anybody.”

Norton also raised an interesting and possibly unintended consequence of the bill.

“I work for the federal government,” she said. “Per the Hatch Act, I cannot run in a partisan election. Neither can any other federal employee.”

As an employee of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Norton said she hopes to retire at some point this year.

But municipal candidates must file their election paperwork in July, so if Pless’ bill passes before then, she’d either have to retire early or not run for reelection. If Norton files to run and the bill passes later, she’d have to drop out.

“If this goes through, in the future if someone much younger in their 40s works for the VA or the post office, they’re not going be able to run for office and I just don’t think that’s right,” she said.

Like almost every other mayor that the bill would affect, Norton is a Democrat, although Maggie Valley’s Eveland is a rarity in that he’s one of very few elected officials who’s not registered as a Democrat or Republican.

“I’ve been an independent ever since I’ve been on this board, and I would have to say that I’ve gotten to the point where I’m pretty proud of the fact, because I represent everybody,” he said.

Eveland’s board is also an outlier in that it actually has an unaffiliated majority, plus two Republicans, the husband-and-wife duo of Phillip and Tammy Wight. Last year, Phillip Wight was one of the bill’s few supporters, although it ultimately ended up going nowhere.

Canton, Clyde and Waynesville’s boards all have solid Democratic majorities.

Absent from this year’s bill is a provision included last year stipulating that the Haywood County Schools board would also have to conduct partisan elections. The Haywood County Schools board is solidly Republican, including its chairman.

Pless said that after he spoke to Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) about the bill, he agreed to leave Haywood’s schools out of this year’s edition. Corbin was formerly a longtime member of the Macon County school board.

Madison County’s school board isn’t included because it already conducts partisan elections.

Pless’ co-sponsors on the bill are former Haywood Republican Rep. Mike Clampitt, who was drawn out of Haywood last cycle but now represents Swain, Jackson and Transylvania counties, and Rep. Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort), who is the chair of the House Freedom Caucus. Clampitt and Pless are both members of the HFC.

Western Carolina University’s Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs Chris Cooper noted in an opinion piece last year that Pless’ bill is what’s called a local bill, and wouldn’t need the governor’s approval to become law.

To pass, local bills also require the support of the counties’ entire legislative delegations. In this case, that includes not only Corbin but also Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), who represents a portion of Haywood County. Pless said he got the OK from both Corbin and Hise before introducing the bill.

As of 3 p.m. on March 3, the bill hadn’t yet been assigned to a committee and still has a long way to go before possibly becoming law.

Pless, who has gained a reputation as a blunt, straight-talking conservative, responded to critics of the bill in characteristic fashion.

“I think that if folks are that upset about having to tell which party they align with, at heart there’s a problem with that,” he said. “If they are unhappy with the party they registered with, I can’t help them with that. I am a proud Republican. If you believe in your party as we all should, why would you shudder at that? If it’s all above board and you believe in your cause, stand with your cause.”

Nancy Allen, mayor of Marshall, didn’t immediately return a call for comment.

This is a developing story. Check back with The Smoky Mountain News for updates as they become available.

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