Government approval ratings are low all over the country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re also low in Jackson County.
“The state of the economy is the strongest predictor of trust in government that I know of,” said Chris Cooper, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute.
According to a recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of Jackson County registered voters, 46 percent of the respondents had an unfavorable opinion of county government and a whopping 62 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.
The flip side of those numbers shows that county government’s approval rating was only a bit higher than the federal government’s. Thirty-three percent of the voters polled had a favorable opinion of county government as opposed to 29 percent for the feds.
The poll questioned nearly 600 voters and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.
At the same time, Gallup polls showed the national approval rating for Congress is 20 percent — as low as it’s ever been.
Cooper said without tracking the approval rating of county government over a period of years, it’s difficult to make any generalizations about what the numbers mean. But he still believes there is some cause for alarm at the county’s approval rating.
“I want to be cautious, because we don’t have a baseline, but the number strikes me as low,” Cooper said. “The one thing I’m comfortable saying is it’s lower than I thought it would be, and it’s lower than I’d feel comfortable with if I were an elected official in Jackson County.”
Negativity or fair criticism?
Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie is one of the five men who have to take county’s low approval rating on the chin. Massie said the numbers concern him, but without more detailed questions, it was hard to know how to read the causes.
“I’m disappointed. I’d like to see some follow up questions as to why. Is it something specific or is it a general feeling about government?” Massie said.
County Chairman Brian McMahan had a similar reaction to the results. He questioned how significant the data could be with the poll asking such generic questions. According to McMahan, the approval rating could be a measurement of the quality of services delivered, or of the popularity of the commissioners, or of the county’s stance on a particular issue.
“I’m not just going to stab in the dark to try to come up with why they responded the way they did,” McMahan said. “Those are the questions that should have been asked.”
Jackson County government at least fared better than the federal government in the poll — which is typical and to be expected.
“We’re the closest level of government to the people, and they know us,” Massie said. “They see us in the restaurants and in the streets and so they feel a little bit better about us.”
Rep. Phil Haire, who represents Sylva in the 119th District of the North Carolina Assembly, doesn’t put much stock in polls and, like McMahan, said more narrowly defined questions would be more useful.
“I’m not a big fan of polls,” Haire said. “A lot of the questions that were asked are what you could call knee-jerk questions.”
Haire said for poll data to be useful, it has to target a specific population and asked detailed questions about issues that are on the table for decision-makers.
Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe sees the poll results against the broader backdrop of national opinion.
“I think it’s a nationwide trend where society has become frustrated over the economic situation, and they’ve become anti-government and anti-authority,” Ashe said.
For Ashe, the confusing thing is that while government approval is at its lowest, voter turnout in this year’s mid-term primaries was abysmal.
“When we have a 14 percent voter turnout, we have a problem,” Ashe said. “It’s up to the people to take back the government.
For Cooper, whether or not the polls create a clear angle on issues, they are a starting place for improving the quality of communication between the public and elected officials.
“I would hope elected officials would take this and think about what they could do to communicate better with the public,” Cooper said.
Jackson County issues
County politics and federal politics are different. One of the things they have in common, though, is the economy.
“At the local level, we’re not as interested in partisan issues as pocketbook issues, but when the economy’s bad, we still need to raise money to provide the services that people ask for,” Massie said.
When the economy is bad, county voters look to government to explain their taxing and spending habits in greater detail. In Jackson County, a number of high-priced decisions by the county board have created a starting point for criticism.
The county’s drawn-out court battles with Duke Energy over the fate of the Dillsboro Dam, which ended last year, resulted in half a million dollars in legal fees and failed to produce their desired results.
Last year, commissioners awarded steep raises for the county’s highest-paid employees, a highly controversial move in a recession. The raises were recommended by a firm contracted to analyze the county’s pay structure, but that didn’t sit any easier with some members of the public.
This year, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe came under fire for his alleged misuse of a narcotics seizure fund while he was fighting a high-profile legal battle with Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn.
The county has also been embroiled in protracted struggles to reform its economic development commission and restructure its airport authority after controversial upheavals left both in disarray.
Mark Jamison, a member of the Webster town board who has also been active in county politics, said the cumulative result of those events has created bad feeling in the voting public.
“Whether or not there are legitimate concerns related to each and every one of these issues may not be as meaningful as the totality of their weight,” Jamison said. “Combine that with a county government that doesn’t have a very pleasant or helpful face and that generally doesn’t seem to communicate well and you have a prescription for disenchantment.”
Massie said all of the same issues may be playing a role, and he put some of their impact at the feet of the way they’ve been handled in the media.
“I think it’s a combination of all of those things,” Massie said. “The pay raises, the dam, the lawsuit against the sheriff’s office –– that’s all about the news media grabbing attention, and negative attention grabs more attention than what you’re doing well.”
Jamison acknowledged that the county might be getting the blame for a more general ill ease in the voting public. He also agreed that the local media coverage focuses on outspoken critics of certain county decisions. But he still believes the county hasn’t done a good enough job of communicating with voters around its decisions on key issues.
“One has to at least acknowledge that the presence of our local gadflies has somewhat poisoned the political dialogue,” Jamison said. “Still, communication and advocacy for local interests seems lacking.”
Cullowhee business owner Jack Debnam, who is running against McMahan for county chairman in November, focused his criticism of county government on its spending. Debnam said this board has been slow to recognize the recession and plan for it.
“The majority of the reason people are unhappy is the spending that’s been done and how it’s been handled,” said Debnam. “I’ve been angry and other people are angry and I believe they’re ready to do something different.”
McMahan takes issue with the idea that the county doesn’t communicate well with voters and at the same time wonders if people really know what the nuts and bolts of county government are all about.
“Most people don’t come to our meetings,” McMahan said. “How do they know what kind of decisions are being made?”
Massie, who is also running for reelection in November, said the county lacks a forum for issue-based dialogue. Without a League of Women’s Voters or the chance to debate at the Rotary Club, Massie said county politicians take the path of least resistance.
“All the candidates say is ‘I’m honest. I’m a good person. I’ll do a great job,’” Massie said. “You really don’t have the opportunity to discuss issues. We don’t have enough chances to go head to head with the public.”
For Massie, the lack of a forum for discussion combined with low voter turnout make it hard to figure out how to take the criticism of the public constructively. He wants to begin televising county meetings on cable so interested voters can see how the commissioners work.
“We’re human beings not mind readers,” Massie said. “If we don’t hear from the public, what are we supposed to do?”
The Cashiers question
Perhaps the most glaring statistic generated by the poll is that only 15 percent of Cashiers voters have a favorable opinion of county government — lower than even the federal government.
“The big question we’re trying to get at is why?” said Gibbs Knotts, one of the poll’s creators. “That could be for many reasons. If there’s a way to engage people in the southern part of the county, then that could be one take-away.”
Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents Cashiers, said he believes the dissatisfaction in his part of the county has a concrete cause.
The county began the construction of a new $4.3 million recreation center in 2006 but construction delays, mainly the result of unforeseen environmental engineering costs, have seen the completion date pushed back over and over again.
“I’m frustrated, too,” Jones said. “People up there feel like their tax dollars aren’t being utilized for them and that recreation center is an example.”
Jones said Cashiers voters often think of themselves as a sort of cash cow for the county, since the area contains many high-priced homes that add to the property tax base.
Jones thinks if the economy has turned around and the recreation center is finished when he comes up for election in 2013, he’ll stand a good chance of surviving the current approval rating.
“I think the people of Cashiers want to see visually what the county is doing for them,” Jones said.
Jones also acknowledged that the high-profile coverage of the legal suit between Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe and Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn took its toll on the voting public.
Finn and a group of supporters ran a negative ad campaign through a political action committee called Taxpayers Against Ashe for Sheriff during the May primary.
“People read the stuff and if they don’t know what’s going on, they believe it,” Jones said. “Negative campaigns can be very successful.”
Ashe was cleared of allegations that he used his position to hinder Finn’s private security business, which has strong ties to many of the developments in and around Cashiers, but the lasting effects of the animosity between the two men could continue to affect public opinion there.
And then there’s the archetypal divide between the mountains and valley, a gap Jones feels is narrowing slowly.
“The distance from Sylva to Cashiers is a barrier that even the press has a problem with,” Jones said.