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Denton waits for green light on EDC job

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

After working two years as Sylva’s town manager, Jay Denton will be leaving his post Jan. 31 with the hopes of becoming the new executive director for Jackson County’s Economic Development Commission.

A misunderstanding between Jackson County Commissioners and the EDC has Denton in a state of limbo now, however, as commissioners failed to hire him for the job at their Jan. 7 meeting. Commissioners say that the EDC violated its bylaws by offering Denton the position, even though that offer prompted him to resign as town manager.

“I jumped the gun, but it was based on the information I got from the EDC, who based their decision on information they got from [County Manager Ken Westmoreland],” Denton, 51, said. “What I get of it now is it’s a miscommunication.”

Both parties — the EDC and county commissioners — say they believe all will be worked out at the Jan. 22 meting of the county board.

“I think we will resolve this at the next meeting,” Commissioner William Shelton said.

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EDC Chairman Rick Fulton said the same.

“No decision has been agreed upon and we are working with the board of commissioners to reach an agreement,” Fulton said.

According to EDC bylaws, the commission did not have the authority to appoint Denton to the post. The bylaws state the commission was to submit its recommendation to the county manager; however, the EDC thought that it was given the full responsibility of hiring a new director.

Under the assumption that it was merely a formality for the county board to approve his appointment to the position and that he was to start work on Feb.1, Denton submitted his resignation as town manager on Jan. 3. He wanted to provide Sylva’s town board with a month’s notice.

“This is a good board to work with,” Denton said. “You don’t want to leave them high and dry, and you shouldn’t.”


The salary dispute

Jackson County EDC got itself in hot water with county commissioners when it set a salary and benefit package for Denton. The EDC was given a salary range of $38,000 to $70,000 for the executive director’s position. County officials say the EDC did not have the authority to set the salary, though it could provide commissioners with a recommendation. Ultimately it is up to county officials to set the salary.

A communication breakdown between the commissioners and the EDC left the commission believing it had the authority to hire a director along with setting a salary. The last Jackson County EDC director had a salary of $38,000, but based on Denton’s experience with Jackson County government the commission awarded him a starting salary of $60,000. That would have been a substantial increase from his town manager salary of $52,380.


The man and the job

Applying for the EDC position was a last-minute decision for Denton. The commission started looking for applicants in October and extended the interview process two times because the commission was having difficultly finding an applicant that was qualified for the job and had some previous knowledge of Jackson County government.

If Denton takes the EDC post, it will be another in a long history of public service jobs in Jackson County. Since the late 1990s Denton has been involved in Jackson County government in some form or another. He taught school in the Jackson County School System for 13 years prior to being elected county manger from 1998 to 2001. During that time he served a dual role as chairman of the board of commissioners and county manager.

Jackson County citizens decided during a 2000 referendum to switch to an appointed county manager form of government, and current County Manager Ken Westmoreland was hired. Denton finished out his term as commissioner and did not seek re-election.

Instead he went to work at Western Carolina University’s Center for Regional Development and it was during this time he earned a masters degree in public administration. That degree helped land him the job as Sylva’s town manger.

When reviewing the requirements for the EDC job, Denton’s previous work experience made him a strong candidate for the EDC job.

“That’s what an EDC director would know how to do,” he said.

Denton says the county is full of economic opportunities even though it is operating under a sewer moratorium, which has been restricting commercial and residential development. The county is full of other assets to attract growth, says Denton. He noted the county’s extensive fiber optic network, its high-speed Internet access and its well-educated work force — all three positive elements for growth.

“I’m all about creating new economic opportunities with those assets,” Denton said.


Jackson County pride

Denton’s roots run deep in Jackson County. He received a degree in psychology from Western Carolina University in 1978 and then joined the army from 1981 to 1983. He returned to Jackson County from serving in the military and went back to WCU where he received his teaching certification. He then became a science teacher at Blue Ridge School and later he became the biology teacher at Smoky Mountain High for six years. He was also cross country and track coach while at Smoky Mountain High.

Denton said his love for Jackson County is what has kept him here.

“I have family here. I grew up here. Jackson County is who I am,” Denton said. “Everybody’s got to be from somewhere, and I am damn proud of it.”

Denton says leaving Sylva for the EDC job is a career advancement, but he plans to make sure the interim town manager is up to speed on a number of current town projects — Bridge Park and the expansion of the town’s fire department, to name two.

Denton says his resignation was not a matter of being unhappy.

“The job is an opportunity to enhance my career,” he said.

Denton will remain in this state of limbo until the next county commissioners meeting on Jan. 22.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen then,” said Denton.

Denton’s resume:

U.S. Army 1981-1983

Blue Ridge High School Teacher 1985-1992

Smoky Mountain High School

Biology Teacher 1992-1998

Chairman of the Jackson County

Democratic Party 1997-1998

Jackson County Manager 1998-2001

Jackson County Commissioners

Chairman 1998-2001

Western Carolina University Center

for Regional Development 2002-2005

Sylva Town Manager 2005-now

EDC pay scale:

Economic Development Commission Executive Director Salaries for surrounding counties

Haywood County $78,392

Swain County $33,000

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