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Pless continues push for partisan elections in Haywood, Madison

Pless continues push for partisan elections in Haywood, Madison

What does a Senate bill giving the Apex Town Council the power to hire the town’s clerk have to do with partisan elections in Haywood and Madison counties? Everything, if you’re Rep. Mark Pless.

In May 2022, Pless, a Haywood Republican, introduced a bill  that would have made all elections in Haywood County partisan. Pless’ bill came after an unsuccessful 2017 attempt  by then-Rep. Michele Presnell (R-Burnsville).

About the only thing Pless’ 2022 bill did was generate an uproar from elected officials, who adamantly and overwhelmingly opposed it.

Undeterred, Pless introduced a similar bill in the House  on March 2, 2023. That bill spared Haywood’s school board from having to hold partisan elections, after the school board flipped from Democrat to Republican control when several members changed party affiliations after being elected.

As a local bill, it wouldn’t make a stop on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

“In order for us to do things [in Raleigh], we have to have an agreement between the members who represent the area,” Pless told The Smoky Mountain News on June 29. “I had an agreement with Sen. [Kevin] Corbin. I had an agreement with Rep. Clampitt when we were out here the last time. He’s portrayed it a little differently, Sen. Corbin did.”

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Clampitt wasn’t involved this time, because his district was changed to exclude the portion of Haywood County he represented at the time.

“The negotiation was, let’s remove the school board and I will support the municipalities,” Pless said. “I removed the school board, and [Corbin] still held it up.”

Pless’ latest bill went nowhere fast — HB 264  passed its third reading in the House on May 3, and has been sitting in a Senate committee since May 25.

Corbin, reached on July 3, said he had nothing to do with the bill’s failure to advance and that hundreds of bills each year don’t make the cut — including some of his own, in the House.

The bill also affects the district of Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), who represents Madison County and part of Haywood County.

But that wouldn’t be the end of Pless’ efforts to get the bill to the floor. Pless has continued to push for partisan elections in the two counties he represents because he says voters don’t know who candidates are without a letter next to their name.

Local leaders in Haywood and Madison municipalities say that shouldn’t matter, and that divisive national party platforms have little to do with small-town governance issues, like filling potholes.

Waynesville Town Council Member Chuck Dickson has repeatedly expressed the opinion that partisanship has no place in local government.

“Rep. Pless says that he thinks that having an ’R’ or ‘D’ next to our names helps to define us, and it does — but not to the benefit of small towns,” Dickson said. “In fact, it does the opposite. It divides us. It brings partisan national politics into local elections and we’re dealing with problems that transcend partisanship. We just want Mark Pless to work with us, and not divide us.”

Nevertheless, on June 28, Pless managed to get his partisan elections verbiage into SB 9  — a bill introduced on Jan. 25 by Wake County Democratic senators Gail Adcock and Sydney Batch. Originally, the bill was intended to strip the Wake County manager of the power to hire the Town of Apex’s clerk and instead vest that power with the Town Council.

With Pless’ partisan elections language now in the bill, Haywood and Madison municipalities of Canton, Clyde, Hot Springs, Maggie Valley, Marshall, Mars Hill and Waynesville would be required to conduct partisan elections, effective immediately .

Pless hasn’t picked up any additional support from elected officials since his previous attempt. In fact, his persistence and his procedural move have only steeled the resolve of those who were and remain vehemently opposed to it.

Mayor Gary Caldwell said on July 1 that he remains strongly opposed to the bill and had reached out to Corbin for help.

Waynesville Town Council Member Jon Feichter said that after Pless’ push into SB 9, he’s even more opposed, as is fellow Town Council Member Anthony Sutton.

“I thought it was undemocratic, that it was trickery,” said Sutton. “I believe it has nothing to do with policy. He appears to have a personal vendetta and grudge against Maggie Valley, and we are all just collateral for that grudge. People in the area know exactly where we stand on the issues and what letter is after our name has nothing to do with conducting the business of town.”

Pless has been locked in a fight with some members of Maggie Valley’s governing board over development issues and has threatened to strip the municipality of its power over its extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Perhaps the strongest criticism of Pless’ partisan ploy came from Waynesville Town Council Member Julia Freeman — the board’s lone Republican.

“Honestly, he’s an individual that’s not actively listening to his constituents or listening to elected officials in the community. I have not been contacted, and whoever these constituents are, I’d like to speak to them because they have not reached out to me,” Freeman said. “I don’t know who he’s representing, except maybe his own self interests.”

The last action on the bill took place in the House on June 28. Now, it’s sitting in the Senate committee on rules and operations, chaired by Republican Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick). Pless thinks that Corbin can help get the bill moving again, if he wants to.

“So he has two choices now,” Pless said of Corbin. “He can pass [the bill out of committee] or he can draw it out from the Senate. And we’ll know whether he held it up or whether it just didn’t happen.”

The senate adjourned on Thursday, and Corbin thinks they’ll only come back for a few specific votes, including on the budget, however, the bill will remain eligible for passage so long as the legislature is in session.

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