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Commissioners select Haywood’s top leader

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick took the helm as the new chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners this week.

Every two years following a commissioner election, the five members appoint a chairman from among their ranks. The chairman conducts meetings, guides discussion and generally influences policy by steering the board’s agenda.

Kirkpatrick received unanimous support for the post from the other commissioners at their meeting Monday (Dec. 1), despite rumblings that incoming Commissioner Mark Swanger would have liked to claim the role.

The position is a first for Kirkpatrick, 40, a real estate lawyer and father of three children ranging in age from 11 to 16. He’s currently the longest serving member on the board and will take the helm from outgoing Chairman Larry Ammons, who lost re-election during the May primary.

During his six years as commissioner, Kirkpatrick has become known as a proponent of recreation and more recently for his leadership during the Haywood Regional Medical Center crisis.

Commissioner Bill Upton, who nominated Kirkpatrick for the post, described him as someone who “truly cares about his fellow man,” and a good leader.

“I based it on my observing Kirk for the last two years, especially when he jumped in with the (hospital’s) future directions committee,” Upton said. “At this point, I think he is the right person for the job. He has the personality to pull our board together.”

Some thought Swanger would claim the post of chairman, however. Swanger, who made a come back as the top vote-getter in both the primary and general election, was serving as chairman when he was voted off the board two years ago. He’d also served two terms as chairman of the county school board.

“I believe I am the most qualified to serve as chairman,” Swanger told The Smoky Mountain News after he was elected last month.

In the run-up to selection of a chairman, behind-the-scenes jockeying generally goes on, with some commissioners throwing their name in the ring and the others trading insight on who they might support. This year was no exception.

Swanger said he learned prior to Monday’s vote for chairman that Kirkpatrick had the support of the two incumbent board members — Upton and Skeeter Curtis — and therefore the necessary votes to win the position.

“I knew that a decision had been made and there was no point in challenging an inevitable decision,” Swanger said.

Incoming commissioner Kevin Ensley said he had intended to nominate Swanger for chairman until he learned Kirkpatrick already lined up the necessary votes, with Curtis and Upton in his corner. Kirkpatrick relayed this to Ensley, and Ensley dropped the idea of nominating Swanger.

Ensley said he hadn’t realized that Kirkpatrick would be interested.

“Kirk was my second choice, not my first,” Ensley said. “I haven’t thought about Kirk, because in the past I didn’t think he’d have the time to be chairman. If he puts forth the time it’s going to take, I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”

Kirkpatrick has often been viewed as the commissioner with the most outside responsibility — such as three young children and a demanding job.

Kirkpatrick, who works mainly in real estate law, said the decline in real estate caused by the economic downturn has actually freed up his time.

“I just feel I’m ready to do this, whether it’s a calling or a sense of responsibility,” Kirkpatrick said.

Ensley doesn’t agree with Haywood County’s method of selecting a commissioner chairman, which means only the five board members have a say. In other counties, including Swain, Jackson and Macon, candidates specifically run for the seat of chairman and are elected to the post by voters. Haywood’s process pits board members against one another if more than one person wants the chairman post.

“It seems already off the bat, there’s a division there,” Ensley said.

Upton said in his view, any of the board members could have been chairman.

“I really believe there should be five people on the board that could be chairman, and I think all five could be, but at this point in time I think Kirk’s the right person for the job,” Upton said.

Kirkpatrick and Swanger frequently found themselves on opposite sides of controversial issues when serving on the board together from 2002 until 2006, including their stance on the justice center, restructuring the EDC, and the firing of former County Manager Jack Horton.

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