Planning brouhaha likely to dominate Macon commission election

Land planning, that perennial lightening-rod topic in Macon County, will likely shape if not outright dominate the upcoming campaign for three of the five county commissioner seats.

Up for election in Macon this year are Republicans Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate and Democrat Bobby Kuppers.

The current five-member board has been mired in debates about land regulation, with opponents vigorously attempting to block any county efforts toward regulations, and proponents equally intent on seeing something — anything — put on Macon County’s books.

Chairman Kevin Corbin, a Republican who will seek re-election, said the land planning debate certainly dominates discussion. But he said there’s more to conducting the county business than any single issue.

“I think it’s part of it, and it gets a lot of attention. But the truth is, the county commissioner’s role is so broad,” Corbin said. “It’s only a part of what we are doing.”

That might be true, but there’s also no doubt that Macon County’s ongoing battle to determine what role, if any, the county will play in shaping development is going to be at play in this election.

“I think it will, and it’s a discussion that needs to be had,” said Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who filed for re-election on Monday seeking a second four-year term in office. “I want us to have a good-spirited discussion.”

Kuppers is facing competition from a Democratic challenger, Rick Snyder, and said that he expects Republicans will vie for the seat, too.

“But I don’t know who that would be, but I’m sure that they will,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if there is not a Republican running.”

Snyder said that he was running because he thought there was “need for a new direction,” with an emphasis on job creation. Snyder manages properties in Macon County. He said land-planning issues, however, were not triggering or influencing his decision to run.

One of the current commissioners up for election, Republican Jimmy Tate, was previously a member of the planning board. He only recently was appointed to fill an empty seat on the board of commissioners. Tate, like most of the other candidates, said he does expect planning issues to heavily influence the upcoming election.

“I wish that weren’t true, but I think it will be,” the Highlands resident said.

Tate said he does believe in land planning, and that he believes there are ways for the county to move forward on the issue.

 

Musical chairs makes Macon election complicated

Macon County’s commission race is complicated to say the least.

Two of the three commissioners whose seats are up for election landed on the board of commissioners after being appointed — not elected — to fill vacancies left by outgoing commissioners in the middle of their terms.

Commissioner Jimmy Tate, who is from Highlands, has only been on the board for a couple of months. He was appointed to fill the seat of former Commissioner Brian McClellan, who resigned in November following his second DWI charge. Tate, if he indeed runs as expected, will be running to fill McClellan’s unexpired term: the seat will open again in 2014.

Kevin Corbin, in turn, was appointed to fill out the remainder of state Sen. Jim Davis’ term after the commissioner-turned-state-politician beat state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, during the last election. Corbin, who filed for election Monday, is not like Tate filling an unexpired term; his would last for the standard four years.

GOP absent in Jackson commission race

News that Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan won’t run for re-election this year has set the stage for a high-profile Democratic primary showdown between two well-known Democrats, Vicki Greene and former board Chairman Stacy Buchanan.

Greene had let her intentions be clearly known months ago that she would pursue the seat. Buchanan was something of a surprise, however, when he showed up at the county election office Monday — at the same time as Greene no less — to file for the race on the opening day of candidate registration.

Complicating the race is a bid by local builder Cliff Gregg, who Monday started the petition process necessary for unaffiliated candidates in North Carolina.

To run in November, Gregg must get the signatures of 4 percent of Jackson County voters, or roughly 1,400 names.

A second Jackson commissioner’s seat is up for election this year as well, the seat held by Democrat Mark Jones, who is expected to seek re-election.

So far, no Republicans have stepped up to run for either of the two commission seats.

GOP Chair Ralph Slaughter said Monday that he is hunting for members of his party to challenge for both seats. Candidate registration began this week and runs through the end of the month.

“I’ve talked to two or three people, but I’ve not had anyone agree to file. Talking and filing are two separate things,” Slaughter said, adding that he believes there might — emphasis on might — be a GOP candidate to vie for Cowan’s seat.

He was even less optimistic about finding anyone in the GOP to challenge Jones.

“Everyone has encouraged me to run, but I’m too old,” the 72-year-old Cashiers resident said.

The absence of Republicans is somewhat surprising given their success in the 2010 election. Following 16 years of Democratic domination, Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders successfully won election. Chairman Jack Debnam, an unaffiliated candidate who received GOP backing and advertising support, also won against a Democrat incumbent.

Jones first ran and won election in 2006. Jones, a Democrat, defeated challenger Nathan Moss in the Democratic primary. He then beat Republican challenger Geoff Higginbotham to win his seat.

Greene, though new to active political campaigning, has been a visible figure in Jackson County and the region for years through her work as assistant director of the Southwestern Commission overseeing government initiatives in the six western counties, a position she recently retired from. Greene cited her nearly four decades of work with various local, state and federal agencies, saying she believed that her extensive experience would serve the county well.

Buchanan would like to pick back up where he left off six years ago.

“I wanted to be able to finish a lot of things that we started,” Buchanan said in explanation, such as helping work on infrastructure that would attract new businesses to Jackson County.

Buchanan resigned in the middle of a term in March 2005 after six years on the board of commissioners. Buchanan, at the time, cited his acceptance of a position as assistant head football coach and co-offensive coordinator at Smoky Mountain High School, and an inability to split time between his school and public service career. Buchanan now works for America’s Home Place, a turnkey homebuilding company.

Buchanan said he believes the county, through local and higher educational efforts, has prepared a great workforce but now more jobs must be created. He pointed to small startup companies that would support the work of larger companies based in nearby cities such as Greenville, S.C., and Spartanburg, S.C.

He emphasized on Monday that he believes Democrats on the board can work with Republicans. When Buchanan was a commissioner, Democrats ruled. That all changed in the last election when an Independent, Jack Debnam, won the chairman’s position and two Republicans took seats.

“I don’t see that there would be any problem working together,” Buchanan said of the conservative board members now in office. “I think we all have the best interests of Jackson County at heart.”

Like her rival, Greene pinpointed economic development as the primary issue in the race for commissioner, indicating water needs in the Cashiers area would be one area she’d want to work on improving. Other job creation efforts are also needed, she said.

Greene said that she does support current commissioners’ recent decision to hire outside consultants to help develop an economic plan.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Jackson County to reconvene an economic development board.

Interestingly, Buchanan was board chairman when a brouhaha erupted that ultimately resulted the county’s economic development commission being dissolved, partly due to lack of results. Just weeks before resigning, Buchanan called for a “restructuring” of that board, which had run afoul of commissioners amid questions about $1.2 million in unpaid loans and generally questionable lending practices.

Macon planning board member from Highlands gets GOP nod for commission seat

Macon County GOP leaders on Monday selected a Highlands landscaping company owner as their pick to fill a vacant slot on the county’s board of commissioners.

James “Jimmy” Tate will replace Commissioner Brian McClellan who resigned after receiving his second driving while impaired charge in two-and-a-half years.

Tate is likely to receive the obligatory — but required — thumbs’ up next week from the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Since McClellan is a Republican, the local party gets to recommend his replacement.

Commissioners Kevin Corbin and Ron Haven, also Republicans, expressed their support for Tate’s nomination immediately following the closed-door GOP meeting. The two commissioners joined 20 other Macon County Republican Party executive committee members in casting unanimous votes for Tate, who is the vice chairman of the Macon County Republican Party.

“I think he’ll do an outstanding job,” Corbin told news reporters after the GOP meeting.

Tate, 38, last year mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge against incumbent McClellan, who went on to win his second term in office representing the Highlands area of Macon County.

McClellan had served as chairman of the board, a leadership role the commissioners decide amongst themselves. Corbin is likely to be the new chairman.

Tate, who has served for the past year on the Macon County Planning Board and for 14 years as a part-time, county-employed emergency medical services worker, said he knew there was a steep learning curve ahead for him. Tate expressed confidence in his ability to work across the aisle with the board’s two Democrat commissioners, Ronnie Beale and Bobby Kuppers.

“I’m humbled by the opportunity,” Tate said.

Corbin said he did not believe Tate’s newness to the commission board would slow county business. The most critical upcoming item, Corbin said, is preparation for the county’s 2011-2012 fiscal-year budget.

GOP set to pick McClellan substitute

The 36-member executive committee of the Macon County Republican Party will meet next week to nominate a replacement for county Commissioner Brian McClellan.

McClellan announced that he would resign as a commissioner following his second driving-while-impaired charge in two-and-a-half years. The four remaining members of the Macon County Board of Commissioners will hold an 8 a.m. meeting to accept McClellan’s resignation on Dec. 1. That clears the way for the local GOP to pick a replacement, a job that falls to the party because McClellan is a Republican. Commissioners, in an expected rubberstamp, plan to vote on the nomination in their regular Dec. 13 meeting.

The Republican Party meets Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. in Courtroom A of the Macon County courthouse.

“I want somebody who can work well with the other board members,” Republican Party Chair Chris Murray said Monday. “I’d want to have somebody who is not divisive … and who is a loyal Republican.”

That nominee must be a resident of the Highlands area, which McClellan represents.

McClellan served as chairman of the county commission, another position that now must be decided. In Macon, the board votes on the chairman. Commissioner Kevin Corbin is likely to become the next commission chairman. Corbin, a Republican and a longtime school board member, was appointed commissioner to fill the remaining term of Jim Davis after Davis won a state senate seat last November. The Republicans hold a 3-2 majority on the commission board, making it likely they will pick a Republican as chairman.

“I’d love to see Kevin considered for that position,” Murray said. “But that’s really not the business of the Republican Party — that’s up to the commissioners.”

Corbin on Monday confirmed that he would certainly consider becoming chairman if that’s how the cookie crumbles, as it almost surely will.

Although Corbin was appointed and not elected to the board, he’s no novice when it comes to chairing meetings. He served as chairman for 14 years of his five terms (20 years) on the Macon County Board of Education, plus filled in as vice chairman for a few years.

Corbin, during that time, attained a solid reputation for being able to cross party lines (admittedly not as difficult a task on the ostensibly nonpartisan board of education), and served as chief conductor of what were generally viewed as efficiently run, well-managed meetings.

McClellan received his second DWI charge Nov. 18 in Jackson County. He called fellow commissioners a few days later to tell them he planned to resign.

“I do support his decision — I think it’s the right one,” Corbin said, adding that in his view, McClellan had been an outstanding commissioner for the citizens of Macon County.

Commissioner complains he’s been relegated to benchwarmer status

A work session this week on Jackson County’s room tax appears to mark the beginning of open warfare and the explosive end of a fragile truce that has existed on the board of commissioners since three newcomers were elected last year.

Commissioner Joe Cowan, in a simile that would have done Homer justice, compared himself and fellow Democrat Mark Jones to “mushrooms left to grow in the dark” when it comes to having rightful access to county information.

Cowan accused board Chairman Jack Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten of sneaky, underhanded dealings, and of deliberately not providing the two Democrats with adequate and advanced background on issues that would enable them to make informed decisions.

Cowan has undoubtedly been in a minority on the board following a power shift in last year’s election. As for why he’s now suddenly irked by having no voice? One might possibly attribute Cowan’s anger to self-induced chagrin.

Cowan voted “yes” in October to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. In doing so, Cowan abandoned the only other Democratic Commissioner on the board, leaving Mark Jones high, dry and visibly alone — Jones was the sole “no” vote against the hike. Cowan this week, without being explicit about the exact trigger for his public outburst, seemed to blame a lack of information for his previous, and apparently now regretted, support.

“In nine years on this board I’ve never experienced this before,” a bucked-up Cowan told his fellow board members, his face reddening. “And I resent the hell out it.”

“The chairman doesn’t communicate with me, this gentleman doesn’t communicate with me,” Cowan said gesturing toward Wooten, who was hired in place of longtime Manager Ken Westmoreland when the new board took over.

“If you’d come to the office more than 15 minutes before the meeting, you might know what was happening,” Debnam said in reply.

Cowan said that in his previous years on the board, information flowed to commissioners via copious emails and written communications.

“I’m just saying it’s not right,” Cowan said.

Wooten, after the meeting, maintained that he regularly emails four of the commissioners, including Cowan. Commissioner Charles Elders does not use email; he receives written documentation of county business, the county manager said.

Debnam again asserted that if Cowan doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s his own fault for not putting much effort into staying informed.

“You need to call me every once in a while,” Debnam shot back at Cowan during the lengthy exchange.

“I don’t know what to call you about, because I don’t know what you are doing,” Cowan said.

Commissioner Doug Cody wryly suggested that Cowan consider checking the upcoming agendas for board meetings as the other commissioners do.

Cowan told news reporters after the meeting that he believes he and Jones are being shutout of the information flow because they are in the minority.

“Hell, I’m the minority party,” Debnam said when asked if he was, as accused, persecuting Democrats by withholding information they need and are rightfully entitled to have.

Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent who won election, at least in part, through the use of GOP advertising dollars. The other two members of the five-man board, Doug Cody and Charles Elders, are bona fide registered Republicans.

Elders and Jones were silent during the verbal brawl.

The proposed tax increase has been rescinded because of a failure to hold a required public meeting. This time lapse, in turn, has allowed outraged Jackson County lodging owners an opening to express strong opposition. They have said an additional tax burden imposed in such a sour economic climate could put some of them out of business and severely damage the bottom lines of everyone in the lodging industry reliant on tourist dollars (see accompanying article).

Former commissioner now former college trustee, too

William Shelton is off the local community college’s board of trustees after the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, instead appointed Dewayne Elders, Commissioner Charles Elders’ son.

Shelton, a Democrat, was a former Jackson County commissioner who lost his bid last November for re-election — to Elders, a Republican.

Shelton had served as a board of trustee member for Southwestern Community College since 2007.

“It was a pleasure to serve as a trustee, and now it is time for someone else to step in,” Shelton said the morning after the vote, adding he wished the SCC board the “best of luck.”

Elders, before voting, asked stand-in county Attorney David Moore (the usual attorney, Jay Coward wasn’t there) for a legal opinion.

“I don’t think this is a conflict, because I’m not going back to school, but I want to make sure before I vote,” Elders said.

Moore responded that he was not particularly prepared to answer such a question, but that in his best off-the-cuff response it was really up to Elders and the board to make that decision.

Without Elders, the board would have had a split vote, 2-2.

Asked by Chairman Jack Debnam if he wanted to abstain, Elders responded that no, he did not. And he didn’t, instead choosing to vote with Debnam (who nominated Dewayne Elders) and fellow Republican Doug Cody. Debnam is an Independent, but his votes are in line with the Republicans.

Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association, said the law prohibits elected officials from gaining a direct personnel benefit, meaning Elders didn’t violate the state statute.

Democrat Joe Cowan spoke in favor of Shelton, alluding to the former commissioner’s leadership qualities and service. He and Democrat Mark Jones voted against Dewayne Elders.

“I’ve had a number of requests from constituents of mine that the board reappoint (Shelton),” Cowan said.

Jackson commissioner keeps on DOT warpath

Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, called on Sylva leaders to join him in his bid for increased scrutiny of local N.C. Department of Transportation projects.

“I’m not here as a representative of the county commission,” Debnam said. “This is something I feel as a citizen needs to be addressed.”

The county commission chairman has already spoken against the DOT projects to the towns of Dillsboro and the Village of Forest Hills, as well as stumping at one of his own county commissioner meetings. He’s scheduled to visit Webster, too, to discuss his self-described “pet project.”

At issue in particular are two roads, both of which are destined to benefit Southwestern Community College campuses, that are being built to the tune of about $30 million.

Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, is also the DOT board member for the state’s 10 westernmost counties. Burrell has defended his role in the roads, and defended why he believes they are needed. He’s cited safety concerns among other reasons.

Burrell has noted, correctly, that he has not violated state ethics rules in regard to these projects, and he emphasized that he does not stand to benefit personally.

Debnam remains unconvinced about the need for the two roads, however, noting that “safety” didn’t become a stated goal until well into DOT’s planning process.

“Out of 39 projects, these two got moved up to be the most important projects we have in Division 14,” Debnam told the Sylva Board of Commissioners last week. One provides a new entrance to SCC in Sylva off N.C. 107. The other makes upgrades, including wider, straighter lanes and better shoulders, on Siler Road leading to SCC’s campus in Macon County.

The new SCC entrance road in Jackson County has grown in scope from a regular road “to a boulevard-type road” for an estimated cost of $12.3 million.

It would involve a bridge over N.C. 107, he said, and a round about on Evans Road. This, he said, for an estimated 400 cars a day, when nearby N.C. 107 carries 30,000 cars per day. And N.C. 107, county leaders have been told, can’t be fixed anytime soon — at least seven years, Debnam said, while the SCC entrance road will have taken just four years to bring to fruition if construction starts next year as planned.

“If we let this happen to us, we deserve it,” he said.

Town Commissioner Harold Hensley commented that the design for SCC’s entrance road was conceivably a “grander entry” than even the one built to serve Western Carolina University.

“It depends on whose wish list you’re on,” Debnam responded.

Hensley said he believes DOT’s ostensible desires to include local voices in the planning process is simply an empty gesture “to make you feel involved.”

“I think it is time we figure out what’s going on,” Debnam said. “About why some things can happen, and some can’t.”

Julia Merchant, spokesperson for DOT, this week declined to comment on behalf of the agency.

Webster commissioner resigns

Webster Commissioner Mark Jamison resigned from the town’s board last week, citing unexplained issues with his real job as the community’s postmaster.

In a short letter by Jamison read aloud by Mayor Larry Phillips, Jamison said: “My service on the town board has begun to have an impact on my position as postmaster. Unfortunately in a public position such as mine I’m an easy target.

“Regretfully I must tender my resignation from the Webster town board effective immediately. It has been a pleasure serving with you.”

The letter was dated June 9.

Jamison had more than two years left on his term. Jamison’s seat likely will be filled with an appointment by the remaining town board members, said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, who oversees the Jackson County Board of Elections.

The postmaster took a seat on the town board after prevailing in an unusual write-in election in 2009. There were five open seats on the town board, but only two candidates signed up to run that year. The lack of interest by official candidate meant write-ins were destined to fill the slots on the town board. When Election Day rolled around, however, more than 20 write-in candidates emerged in an election that drew 42 voters. Jamison and Alan Grant, an instructor at Southwestern Community College, garnered as many votes as sitting town board members Billie Bryson and Jean Davenport, whose names officially appeared on the ballot.

Jamison, at the time, told The Smoky Mountain News that the unusual election process indicated to him that the town board didn’t have a message from voters to create change.

“It’s kind of weird, but what it tells you is you don’t have much of a mandate. It tells you people don’t want you to do a whole lot. In my case, I think I’ll tread lightly,” Jamison said.

Jamison has occasionally been outspoken on community issues, and a regular columnist and letter writer to local newspapers.

Budget issues top Macon commission race

On this, the seven candidates for the Macon County Board of Commissioners agree: the problems of a dour economy, and the subsequent need to watch every dollar spent and encourage any economic growth possible, is the No. 1 responsibility facing the next set of commissioners.

The number two issue? That, most likely at least in the minds of voters, would be the steep-slope debate. The question on the table is whether Macon County — site of the 2004 Peeks Creek landslide tragedy, albeit this was a natural disaster and not a manmade one — should regulate building on steep mountainsides.

Three seats on the five-member board are open, with the top vote-getters in District I and District 2 winning the seats – one in District I, which represents Highlands, and two in District 2, the overall Franklin area. The other two board seats come open in two years.

Macon County is an increasingly conservative-voting county. The old “outsiders”-can’t-win-truism of most counties isn’t true anymore here, either. Current Commissioner Jim Davis, a Republican now vying for a state Senate position, broke that rule by being elected way back in 1996 to the commission board.

In District I, Democrat Daniel Allen “Ricky” Bryson, a former commissioner, is trying to regain his previous seat on the commission from incumbent Republican Brian McClellan. During a recent candidates’ forum sponsored by The Macon County League of Women Voters, Bryson spoke of his experience (unfortunately for him, that doesn’t delineate him from McClellan) and the fact that when he was commissioner, funds had been routinely set back to offset bad times such as these. He also cited strong support for economic development, schools, and spoke against unfunded mandates passed down by the state.

Bryson did not mention one point in his favor that conservative Macon County might hold against McClellan: a driving while under the influence charge the incumbent commissioner picked up last year. McClellan didn’t mention it, either.

Instead, McClellan talked of the need to offer incentives to companies willing to settle in Macon County. The more jobs, the more breaks from the county, that’s the general idea.

“We need to do that in order to be competitive,” McClellan said.

He also advocated zero-based budgeting, or making each county department start from ground zero when building and justifying an annual budget.

There also wasn’t much fierce talk in the battle for District 2. Ronnie Beale, a Democrat presently serving as chairman, like McClellan, spoke of the new economic development guidelines passed 18 months ago to allow for incentives. He said Macon County is finally getting the tools needed to help attract new jobs.

He spoke of stopping a “brain drain” in Macon County, in which the brightest young minds leave for jobs elsewhere. And he touted the new Iotla Valley Elementary School building. A construction contract was recently awarded to an Asheville company.

Democrat and incumbent Commissioner Bob Simpson spoke similarly, but added that during his tenure, the board of commissioners had helped oversee a new space for Southwestern Community College to operate in Macon County.

Simpson staked out a safe political agenda by expressing his support for children, the elderly, and fire, police and emergency services when it comes to budgeting priorities.

Charlie Leatherman, a Republican former commissioner trying to regain a seat on the board, used several of his four minutes available to emphasize his support for education. Leatherman, it should be pointed out, is an educator — he works for Macon County Schools and serves on the SCC Board of Trustees.

“We don’t have jobs for these kids who are graduating,” Leatherman said. “We don’t have jobs for those people who have lost their jobs.”

Ron Haven, a Republican, said he wants to apply what he’s learned as a business owner to Macon County government. He pointed to the need for a department-by-department budget analysis to find areas to cut waste. Haven also flatly came out against study of a steep-slope ordinance, saying this simply isn’t the time to worry about such things, given the dire economic issues.

Vic Drummond, an unaffiliated candidate, is unapologetically right leaning. He, like Haven, wants to see work stop on a steep-slope ordinance. (He made the small gaffe of saying that no houses in Macon County had been lost to landslides, leading several onlookers to whisper audibly to one another, ‘Hasn’t he heard of Peeks Creek?’)

Other candidates cited a desire to see what the planning board offers up in the way of steep-slope controls before condemning study of the ordinance out of hand.

Drummond criticized taxes being raised during a recession, and made a bid for revaluation of property in the county to take place next year instead of 2013 (it has been postponed from 2011).

Jackson commission race stands out in complexity

Ambivalence toward development, and who should pace and manage growth in a manner that preserves the natural beauty of the mountains, has surfaced as the central debate in the race for Jackson County’s Board of Commissioners.

Three seats are open on the board. This includes the top the chairman’s position. Commissioners must live within their voting district to seek election, but are elected by countywide voting, or at-large.

In most Western North Carolina counties, the races for commission seats are fairly easy to categorize and subsequently, to analyze: newcomers — generally supportive of land regulations — versus long-timers — generally oppose land regulations.

Jackson County, however, is more complicated than generalizations allow. Two of the most ardent supporters of the strict development regulations now in place are scions of old mountain families: Tom Massie and William Shelton, both incumbents.

Additionally none — not one — of the commission candidates is in favor of a total absence of development regulations. Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated (all are represented in this year’s race), each in some manner, and at some level, acknowledged the necessity and responsibility of overseeing growth.

Other issues are also on the table this year: the deal struck with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro dam; pay raises that seemed to mainly benefit the already-highest paid of the county’s employees; and budget issues.

See also: Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of

 

Regulating development

Background: Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners enacted sweeping steep-slope and subdivision ordinances. Many in the development and real estate industry were angered by the regulations, which were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. Others protested that too many subdivisions — 238 — were exempted. The “vested rights” were to protect developers caught mid-stream by the new regulations, but were ultimately granted to developers in the planning stages. This, in turn, angered those wanting stricter growth controls.

When it comes to growth, the most hands-off candidate is Charles Elders, Shelton’s Republican opponent and a former commissioner. Even Elders, however, gives a nod to “some regulations” being necessary to protect the mountains. He is calling for a study of the current set to see if they need revision.

Shelton, a Democrat, voted for the regulations now in place. He said they weren’t developed willy-nilly, but followed a great deal of public comment from a cross-section of the county’s residents.

“I supported the temporary moratorium on new subdivisions because I felt the county needed time to develop the minimum standards without the planning department becoming overwhelmed with new applications that were simply trying to get into the system before any regulations were passed,” Shelton said.

Additionally, blaming a local governing board for a national recession doesn’t make sense, Shelton said.

But Republican Doug Cody, who is battling Massie, a Democrat, thinks the regulations should be examined “in considerable detail.”

“I also think that there should be input from a larger cross section of the community,” Cody said. “For example, I feel that there are creative ways to construct very low-density housing on steeper slopes without harming the environment.”

Massie pointed out the regulations were actually developed by members of the county’s planning board, which included a representative of the Home Builders Association. And were tweaked by commissioners. He characterized the advisory board as “reasonable, concerned citizens.”

What wasn’t reasonable — in his mind, at least — was what happened after the moratorium was placed on new developments conceived after February 2007.

“The regulations did not cause the slowdown in construction or real estate sales,” Massie said. “However, the hysteria generated by elements within the real estate and construction industries may have done more to damage that sector of the economy than the actual moratorium.”

If there is a man in the middle on these development issues, that is Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. He, among the candidates, cast the sole ‘no’ vote on current development regulations. He also opposed the moratorium on subdivisions.

“Did we really accomplish anything with a moratorium but alienate and frustrate many in the public?” McMahan queried rhetorically when asked about his vote.

But McMahan’s position is more complicated than simply dismissing the regulations that were passed, because he supports — and has been consistently on record as doing so — most of what is in place.

“I found it to be true that everyone was in favor of having stable slopes,” he said. “Everyone wanted some assurances that their neighbor’s property would not slide down the mountain and destroy or damage their property.”

Everyone also wanted safe and good access and roads, McMahan said, and “appropriate” buffers.

“I stopped in my support … when the ordinances went a step beyond those health, safety and protections aspects and started trying to regulate aesthetics, which is what ‘looks good.’’

McMahan also disagreed with lot-size requirements, which he said effectively limited some development possibilities.

His opponent, Jack Debnam, who is unaffiliated with any political party, is having a difficult time delineating himself from McMahan on this issue because, frankly, their views on the subject are so similar.

Debnam supports the development regulations, but argues that he doesn’t think “we needed to cover everyone with the same blanket set” of rules. He, too, believes the moratorium was a terrible mistake.

“The implementation of the moratorium, in my opinion, gave us a five-month jumpstart on the rest of the nation in our economic downturn because of the question of what could happen next,” Debnam said.

 

Dillsboro Dam

Background: Jackson County tried to exercise eminent domain and take the dam in Dillsboro away from Duke Energy to make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the Tuckasegee. The county lost the battle in court, and was forced to cough up a half-million dollars in legal fees. Per Duke’s wishes, the dam now has been torn down.

Elders said he believes a little more skill at the negotiating table would have served Jackson County residents better than the bare-knuckled battle that took place with Duke.

Well, Shelton responded, of course it’s always nice to sit back and scrutinize someone else’s decisions: “Hindsight makes it easy to say that we should not have fought the fight, now that history shows we lost,” he said. “However, at the time I thought it was worth the gamble. If you look at the amount gained through the settlement against the amount spent, then you have pretty much a zero-sum game.”

Cody, like Elders, doesn’t approve of the “adversarial approach” taken by the county. His problem on this issue? Neither does his opponent. In fact, Massie voted against continuing “the legal wrangling” once the county’s appeal was denied.

“I felt it was a desperate, costly, gamble with little hope for success,” Massie said.

McMahan disagrees with that assessment, saying the fight made Duke pay more attention to the demolition than it might have otherwise. Such as sediment removal, and riverbank restoration. He agreed with Shelton that, ultimately, the situation was about break-even.

Not so fast, Debnam said.

“‘A wash?’ he said, “$500,000 out-of-pocket to area attorneys, who knows how many hours of county employee time, and we get what the stakeholders had agreed to. I think that should be considered ‘a bath.’”

 

Pay raises

Background: The county instituted a pay plan for employees. Some have since protested that the only employees who truly benefited were already those who were the highest paid.

Why in the world pay someone to conduct a study when the Institute for Local Government could have been consulted, and for free, Elders wanted to know. Additionally, Shelton’s challenger said it was disappointing to watch as the lowest paid tier of employees didn’t seem to reap rewards — only those at the top.

This issue is a tough one for the incumbents. Well-intentioned the study might have been, but the effort to bring a level of fairness to the pay scale that is based on experience, education and length of service didn’t exactly work out as thought. This truth Shelton acknowledged.

“In hindsight, I feel that our board made a mistake by voting on this policy without taking into account … the ‘career ladder’ portion,” he said. “That said, I still believe that we have a fair system in place that, in the long run, will serve the county well.”

Cody, like Elders, believes paying for a study was unnecessary, and that it unfairly rewarded those at the top tier.

Massie, like Shelton, seemed uncomfortable with what took place.

“I still support those raises,” Massie said, “but I should have better understood the impact the ‘career ladder’ … would have on pay levels of the employees with the most seniority. Had I fully understood that, it might have impacted my decision.”

McMahan, alone of the incumbent commissioners running for office, is unapologetic on the issue. The old pay plan didn’t adequately compensate some employees, and the county had too much turnover of critical personnel, he said.

“In a two-year period, the board met at seven different occasions in which the plan was discussed publicly in some way. No member of the public ever voiced the first complaint until after the plan had been presented, funded and implemented,” McMahan said.

 

Managing the dollars

Background: Being an incumbent is tough. You actually have a record to defend. But here’s one issue on which Shelton, Massie and McMahan are difficult to fault. Neighboring counties had huge budget shortfalls, layoffs and other fiscal nightmares. Jackson sailed through, with very little belt-tightening.

All in all, Elders acknowledged, the county is in pretty good shape. Wouldn’t hurt to build the tax base up, he said, and get an economic development commission re-established to focus on job growth.

Shelton said the current board “trimmed down the budget incrementally” during two budget cycles.

“This past year, we cut our budget by close to 10 percent across the board, with the exception of the fire departments,” he said. “Jackson County has a healthy debt-to-asset ratio in comparison to surrounding counties, and has a strong fund balance.”

Cody isn’t prepared to credit the incumbents even for a strong budget performance — he believes the only reason this county functioned better during the extended recession is because property values were so high.

“In my opinion, the county officials overspent while the national and local economies were slowing down,” he said.

But Massie said Jackson County certainly has done a very good job of managing its budget, thank you very much. Line items were reduced, overall expenditure reduced, money was placed in a rainy day fund to help offset future problems.

“I think that the fact that Jackson County has not had to do layoffs, furloughs and severely cut services is a testament to the sound leadership of the county manager, finance director, department heads and employees,” McMahan said.

(Note: For those not-so-good at picking up on subtleties, this is an oblique defense of the county pay raises — the highest paid who got more pay under the study did a good job on the budget, ie., county manager, finance director, and so on.)

Debnam simply refused to acknowledge that even Jackson County’s budget might be sound, and that commissioners did a good job on this part of their job. Or anything else particularly.

“Until I can get in office and have a cost accounting done, I will not know what kind of job has been done,” he said.

 

More information

Some candidates weren’t there, but if you want to know where the ones who did attend a forum put on by regional environmental groups stand on certain issues, here’s a video clip courtesy of the Canary Coalition: www.youtube.com/watch?v=raasOuOc7_0
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