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Sewage plant claims heat up Waynesville election

Members of Waynesville’s Town Council discuss issues during a recent retreat. Members of Waynesville’s Town Council discuss issues during a recent retreat. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Despite largely refusing to show up for forums or interviews, a slate of far-right candidates has tried multiple times to spread misinformation in the lead-up to Waynesville’s November election — both on the internet and in printed campaign materials — but their most recent attempt to do so, concerning waste water treatment plant funding, doesn’t appear to hold water either. 

“State of NC Rep. Mark Pless just disclosed the current Town of Waynesville City Council never even tried to get funding for the new sewer system from the state and they could have easily asked for the entire 25 million! Instead they decided to borrow the 25 million and force the citizens of the town to pay it back by raising sewer bills!” wrote candidate Stephanie Sutton in an Oct. 22 Facebook post.

Sutton, who said she was present at the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C. and still owes back taxes to Haywood County, claims that the town “either dropped the ball or intentionally failed” to request funding for the town’s new wastewater treatment plant.

Admittedly, Waynesville’s Town Council does have a strained relationship with Pless (R-Haywood), largely over Pless’ repeated and unsuccessful attempts to make the town’s elections partisan.

But the idea that the town wouldn’t even bother to ask for $25 million from the General Assembly — which wouldn’t have to be paid back, ever — is false, according to Town Council member Anthony Sutton [no relation to Stephanie].

“I believe that’s nonsense,” said Anthony Sutton, who is running for reelection. “Regardless of political affiliation or personal feelings, I will ask anyone for help for our constituents.”

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Anthony Sutton says that on Feb. 22, 2023, he drove to Raleigh to have dinner with Pless, where he asked Pless for sewer plant funding and also for a new fire station and ATVs for the fire department.

“He said that he would work on it, and it should be easy to get things for the fire department because of the assistance Waynesville provided to the county and the Town of Canton during the flood in 2021,” Sutton said.

Council Member Julia Freeman said she called Pless’ office about two issues sometime late in 2022.

“I left a message at Pless’ office about assistance with the fire station and the sewer plant,” Freeman said, adding that Pless never called her back.

Mayor Gary Caldwell told The Smoky Mountain News that he first spoke with Pless about wastewater treatment plant funding at a newly elected officials event in the Terrace Hotel at Lake Junaluska on Dec. 12, 2020.

Caldwell said he recalls the conversation specifically because he also asked for $500,000 to strengthen the bridge that leads to the treatment plant site so that construction vehicles could utilize it. The town did not end up getting the funding and will use an old farm road to access the site.

At the event with Caldwell was Town Manager Rob Hites. An email sent by Hites to Feichter and Freeman on Oct. 23, 2023, contains Hites’ recollection.

“During the breakfast we spoke directly with Rep. Pless and requested help with funding the wastewater treatment plant,” Hites wrote. “While our conversation was oral, we sat with other Town officials that would corroborate our conversation. Mr. Pless would recognize this conversation since I have spoken of it several times in direct conversations with him.”

Due to the personal nature of the conversations, they weren’t documented. Stephanie Sutton’s assumption that the town was malicious or incompetent in seeking wastewater treatment funding, just like Team Waynesville’s assumptions on crime, development and governmental transparency, holds little credibility.

On March 15, 2022, Pless sent an email from Raleigh to Hites and Nick Scheuer, Canton’s town manager. The topic line of the email reads, “waste water funding sources.”

“I have found a few sources for funding,” Pless wrote. “I have no idea yet what was appropriated and what is left yet. I will try to find out.”

The email goes on to cite a section from the Current Operations Appropriations Act of 2021 that lists State Fiscal Recovery Fund allocations to the Department of Environmental Quality for  water and sewer infrastructure projects.

But that was in March 2022. Two months later, Pless introduced his first attempt to force Waynesville, along with other Haywood County municipalities and the school board, to conduct partisan elections.

Every member of the Town Council was vehemently opposed to the move and told Pless so.

“I think that’s where the relationship first went sour,” Anthony Sutton said.

Two members of Town Council, Chuck Dickson and Jon Feichter, say they had no contact with Pless about the issue, mostly because their colleagues had.

“I’m just really disheartened that Pless has spread this information in an attempt to influence the election,” Dickson said.

Feichter offered more pointed commentary on Stephanie Sutton’s allegation.

“If this weren’t so serious, the claim that the Town Council elected to forego grants in favor of taking out a loan to fund the wastewater treatment plant rehab would be laughable, because nothing could be farther from the truth,” Feichter said. “The fact is, the Council — both collectively and individually — and our staff have worked tirelessly to find grants since we formally began this process 6+ years ago, and those efforts most certainly included requests to our legislators, including Rep. Pless beginning in December 2020.”


Pless told The Smoky Mountain News on Oct. 31 that the claims made by Caldwell, Hites, Feichter, Freeman and Anthony Sutton — claims they’d verbally spoken to him about wastewater treatment plant funding — weren’t true at all.

Regarding the email he sent to Scheuer and Hites about funding sources, Pless said he was merely alerting the town to the presence of the funds, and that the town never actually asked him to pursue those funds.

But Hites wrote Pless back an hour after receiving Pless’ email, thanking Pless and raising the issue that of the more than $1.4 billion mentioned in Pless’ email, most of it would go to communities declared to be “at risk,” by the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. At the time, Waynesville was not deemed an at-risk community.

Getting Waynesville added to the “at-risk” list would open up opportunities for wastewater treatment plant funding that the town didn’t have access to.

Two hours later, Hites again emailed Pless, saying that the town’s engineer had heard that DENR was adding communities to the at-risk list.

“If we can get on that list we would be eligible for up to $15 million in grants,” Hites wrote, in what sounds an awful lot like an ask.

Around 40 minutes later, Pless responded only with, “Anything I can do to encourage them to add Waynesville?”

The email exchange adds credence to the recollections of town officials and strongly suggests that even if Pless wasn’t asked for wastewater treatment plant funding multiple times over multiple years, he was actively seeking and had indeed found a few potential funding sources.

Pless says that’s not true, and that he was using all his legislative mojo to take care of other requests anyway.

“If you go back to the budget for Tropical Storm Fred, I got almost $10 million for Canton for some projects. I had Hot Springs ask for money. And I had the chairman and the towns in Madison County asked for money, so I turned in what I was asked to provide,” he said. “And then this time, I did the exact same thing. Madison County called me and said, ‘Hey, we didn't have enough.’ And then Zeb [Smathers, mayor of Canton], of course I had been talking to Zeb on the $38 million [in sewer funding the town received this year]. That was a huge lift.”

Pless has made no secret of his willingness to punish municipalities that disagree with his initiatives, but said that even if all incumbent members of the Waynesville Town Council were reelected on Nov. 7, he’d still entertain funding requests.

“Oh absolutely,” he said. “I don’t turn down any requests.”

Anthony Sutton said he’d worked on getting Waynesville added to the list of at-risk communities for more than a year, undercutting Stephanie Sutton’s false claim that the town had intentionally or inadvertently dropped the ball on wastewater treatment plant funding. The town was added to the list earlier this year, opening up grant funding opportunities.

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