Green Energy Park recommendations now on the table

The Green Energy Park would stand on its own financially within five years if Jackson County adopts recommendations made last week by interim County Manager Chuck Wooten.

The park, which uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio, touched off a storm of criticism and a corresponding groundswell of support recently after county commissioners questioned expenses.

In particular, new Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, has wanted to know when — as promised by the previous commissioners — the Green Energy Park would be financially self-sustaining.

Wooten laid out a solution during a county work session last week. He suggested the county wean the Green Energy Park gradually, reducing support to the park by 20 percent starting the next fiscal year for each of the next five years.

Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since 2006. The county anticipated spending $1 million anyway to deal with methane gas issues related to closing the landfill. Under Wooten’s plan, the county would cover expenses related to the maintenance of the closed landfill that would exist regardless of the Green Energy Park.

Wooten, in prepared comments, noted: “In addition to the gas reclamation, the jobs created at the park, and the educational value provided to the community, the county has also benefited indirectly from the park.”

The grounds department, Wooten said, estimated it saves about $39,000 each year by using the greenhouses at the park for growing annuals and propagating shrubs and trees. Additionally, the park has assumed some of the expenses for dealing with the volatile pollutant that otherwise would fall to the county.

Wooten added that he believes building a volunteer force to help cover costs and needs associated with the innovative project won’t be difficult.

“There’s a lot of support out there for the Green Energy Park,” Wooten told commissioners.

Board Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, told park Director Timm Muth: “The supporters of your park are passionate, and I appreciate that … my question to these people is, ‘What can you do to help us keep the park?’”

Debnam went on to extol the Friends of the Library organization, which has raised the money necessary to build and furnish a new library for Sylva. He suggested that group of volunteers could serve as a model for something similar for the Green Energy Park.

Muth seemed receptive to Debnam’s and Wooten’s suggestions. He went on to apologize to commissioners in the event they believed he behaved less than professionally when questioned by them in a previous meeting.

The director went on to note he believes Jackson has “transformed” the former Dillsboro landfill from “an eyesore to something the county can be proud of.”

Muth, who had earlier noted to commissioners: “I know I just kind of talk and talk,” then proceeded to express his apparent ongoing discontent with news coverage over the five-year history of the venture. He said special events at the park haven’t received the front-page placement in local publications that he believes they merit. Muth concluded his soliloquy with bemusement about how to “engage the media.”

There is one surefire, never-fail method of engaging reporters and getting that coveted front-page coverage: continue having commissioners raise questions about management of the Green Energy Park, and about whether taxpayers’ dollars are best spent underwriting the park and Muth’s $64,626.12 annual salary.

 

The road to solvency

Weaning the Jackson County Green Energy Park from county subsidies in the next five years could be possible under a plan outlined by interim County Manager Jack Wooten.

• Continue a freeze on the vacant administrative support position at the park. Volunteers instead will be found to help Director Timm Muth staff the office and serve as administrative helpers.

• Actively pursue grants in support of the general operations or program expansion at the park.

• Reactivate an advisory committee to guide the director concerning park operations.

• Review and update all operating procedures and policies for the park.

• Develop a comprehensive marketing plan, and put up signs to guide visitors to the park and give them information once inside.

• Seek additional tenants.

• Identify partners within the community and identify new business opportunities for the park.

• Continue providing grounds maintenance and routine building maintenance.

• Have the park’s director provide written quarterly updates to commissioners and appear annually before the commissioners with representatives from the advisory committee.

State budget timing critical to local governments

Local boards are finding themselves on the wrong end of the dog when it comes to putting together budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

In Jackson and Macon counties, at work sessions held by commissioners in their respective counties last week, much of the discussion at these relatively informal get-togethers involved speculation on when — and what — might be expected from the state General Assembly.

The state, as it were, would be the front end of the dog.

North Carolina is facing a projected $3.7 billion shortfall. Thousands of state jobs are threatened, with massive cuts expected to come for health and human services, schools and other critical services offered on the state and local level.

So, what does that mean for counties?

“There are certain things we have to provide,” said Evelyn Southard, finance officer for Macon County.

And not knowing how much money will come down the pike from the state complicates matters, she said. When counties will know the full extent of the financial devastation is unknown, but that knowledge is critical to local boards starting preparations on budgets for the next fiscal year.

Macon County Manager Jack Horton warned his board that even though members of the General Assembly are making happy noises about having their budget passed by the end of June, August is more typical, and the state has actually lagged before into October.

“We have to have the (ability) to take care of the county business whether the state gets their house in order or not,” said Horton, a veteran administrator who has also worked over the years in Swain and Haywood counties.

 

Jackson faces immediate shortfall

In Jackson County, officials were concerned about staying within this year’s budget in addition to preparing next year’s.

Jackson County must either slow its spending, interim Manager Chuck Wooten said, or the county must dip into the fund balance — those are the two choices facing Jackson’s commissioners. An across-the-board cut for county departments seems the most palatable option of the two, Wooten said.

The problem is not enough people are paying their taxes in Jackson County. A gap between the budgeted tax-collection rate for the current fiscal year, and the actual collection rate occurring so far is 0.62 percent off what was originally projected. Sounds tiny, but that adds up to big bucks: there is a projected revenue shortfall for the current year of $336,004, including failures to pay vehicle taxes.

The recession has taken its toll on all counties when it comes to people paying their taxes. Jackson’s budget for this year assumes a property tax collection rate of 95.4 percent. Last year, the tax collection rate was only 94.8 percent, but county leaders apparently banked on it coming back up.

Wooten said as a result this year’s budget is “too optimistic,” though he stopped short of assigning blame. Wooten replaced longtime County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland in January.

In response, Jackson County commissioners indicated they would probably become more aggressive in tackling tax scofflaws.

“Why have we not gone after this?” Jackson Chairman Jack Debnam asked, presumably of the only two (Democrats) commissioners who remain from the previous board.

Debnam then answered his own question: “I know, we’re a small county — they could be friends and relatives.”

New Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, warned his fellow members that favoritism must play no role.

“If we go down this road, it is important to treat everyone equally,” he said.

Macon County leaders, by comparison, were merry about having a mere $34,283 projected discrepancy.

“And I think there’s some room in here for our expenditures and revenues to be even better than is shown here,” Southard said.

In other state-local government news, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners last week passed a list of legislative goals the group wants state leaders to adopt. Beale, who attended the meeting, summarized the top five priority goals of the group:

• Oppose shifting road maintenance from the state to the counties.

• Reinstate Average Daily Membership, a formula that uses school enrollment to determine funding levels, and lottery funds for school construction.

• Ensure adequate mental-health funding by seeking legislation for adequate capacity of state-funded acute psychiatric beds; oppose closing state-funded beds until there is adequate capacity statewide, and seek legislation to maintain the existing levels of state funding for community mental-health services.

• Preserve the existing local-revenue base (don’t take money streams away from already-hurting local governments).

• Authorize local revenue options by allowing counties to enact by resolutions, or at the option of boards of commissioners, by voter referendum any or all revenue options from among those that have been authorized for any other county.

Supporters want to keep county funding for Green Energy Park

Supporters of Jackson County’s methane-powered Green Energy Park urged county leaders last week not to slash funding to the innovative project.

“What is the Green Energy Park?” Aaron Shufelt, a glass artisan and intern at the park, asked rhetorically during the public session of the county commission meeting, one of seven people who spoke about the issue.

“(It is) a place where creative and passionate people come together to experience the arts. The Green Energy Park is unique because they are dedicated to preserving the arts through education and the utilization of green energy. The result is economic growth for Western North Carolina.”

Jackson County’s new three-man-slate of conservative commissioners have sharply questioned the viability and future of the Green Energy Park. The project was launched about five years ago (under a board totally dominated by Democrats, now just two remain) as a means of capturing methane from a closed landfill in Dillsboro and turning that waste byproduct into energy. Today, methane helps power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing facilities and a large greenhouse, with the artisans paying rent and fees to the county.

Republican Commissioner Doug Cody, a successful businessman in private life, has been crystal clear about his beliefs that the park needs to pay its own way. This isn’t out-of-the-blue posturing on Cody’s part — the previous board of commissioners, too, said they intended for the park to become economically self-sustaining. The sticking point is when, exactly, this should take place.

Green Energy Park Director Timm Muth notes previous commissioners never set a timetable. This year alone, the Green Energy Park is set to receive $218,422 in taxpayer dollars. Total, the park has received $1.2 million from the county’s general fund since 2006.

John Burtner, a blacksmith who has used the park as an incubator to grow his business, credited the venture with keeping him gainfully employed. Burtner said he believes he would currently be out of work without use of park’s shop and tools. The blacksmith has used his two-and-a-half-years there to start equipping his own shop elsewhere, he said.

“This whole time, I’ve been busy, profitable,” Burtner told county leaders.

Commissioners, while deciding the fate of the Green Energy Park, might want to factor in the following. According to the January 2006 minutes of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland noted: “The county had anticipated spending approximately $1 million to satisfy requirements imposed by the EPA and DEHNR concerning the unfavorable release of methane (from the landfill) into the atmosphere. The dollar amount will be expended (in building the park), but for a beneficial use and is a ‘win-win’ situation … because it is so unique, the project will more than likely receive national attention and visits to the area.”

Selling landfill space gains traction in Haywood

Haywood County is seriously considering turning over operations of the county landfill to a private company in hopes of saving money.

The proposal also includes selling space in the landfill, allowing other locales to ship their trash here for a fee. Commissioners have been exploring the idea for nearly a year, and are now closing in on a final plan.

In a work session on the issue last week, commissioners reviewed proposals from private companies interested in taking over the landfill. Of the three companies that showed interest, only one presented a plan that would save the county money, according to Tax Administration Director David Francis.

The clear front-runner among the proposals was from Cleveland, Tenn.-based Santek Environmental Services, a big player in the trash business with 14 disposal sites in eight states.

Santek pitched a full takeover of the county’s White Oak landfill, including the environmental monitoring that has caused the county woes — and fines — in recent months. The company would also install new scales and a scale house for weighing, which are needed to continue operations, Francis said.

The landfill’s roads are notoriously bad and difficult to navigate for residents coming to dump trash. Santek would build a public drop-off station to close the working face of the landfill to traffic. They would also install a truck wash to prevent larger trucks from tracking dirt and other contaminants into the environment when they leave.

 

Selling off landfill space

The real money spinner of Santek’s proposal, however, is letting out-of-county garbage be dumped into the landfill for a fee.

But selling landfill space is a contentious issue. Detractors are concerned that such a move would be the first step towards making the site a kind of megadump, a stream of unsightly truckloads of trash rolling through the county.

The companion concern, of course, is longevity. At current capacity, Solid Waste Manager Stephen King has said that the site could last the county another 30 years. Santek has promised to maintain that number, even with the increased volume.

Bringing in more trash from outside not only provides a revenue stream, but it also allows the landfill to realize an economy of scale. To some extent, overhead to operate the landfill is the same regardless of how much trash is coming in. More volume means each ton of trash costs less to handle.

The county generates 150 tons a day of its own trash. Santek said once the landfill hits a critical mass of 325 tons per day, the cost to the county might start going down.

Once the 325-ton mark is reached, Santek will foot the bill for landfill expansion and closing costs associated with the end of the landfill’s life — two of the largest trash-related expenses.

The county would need to save $454,500 every year for the next 30 to cover the landfill’s projected closing costs. Since the county can’t borrow against the landfill, it must all be saved in advance.

So commissioners were suitably impressed by Santek’s promise of such large savings without losing landfill life.

“So we’re looking at a situation that we can potentially save Haywood County taxpayers a tremendous amount of money and still guarantee the same life?” asked Commissioner Michael Sorrells, to which the answer was yes, according to Santek’s proposal.

The county’s staff analysis of the proposal put savings at $480,000 for a 20-year contract and $462,000 under a 10-year agreement.

Initially, commissioners seemed wary of the promise to maintain a 30-year life. If they can, the question was posed, why can’t we?

And the answer boiled down to expertise.

“They have more available resources than we actually have,” said King, noting that the cost of improving county resources to that level of efficiency would be exorbitant.

The other major asset the Santek plan will pay for is landfill expansion, which Francis said could cost $15.5 million over the next 30 years.

All told, the Santek proposal would save residents $24 yearly on their annual fees compared to maintaining the status quo of county operations.  

Francis cautioned commissioners that, while the Santek option appears to offer significant savings, it won’t fix every problem at White Oak.

“This is not a silver bullet that will solve everything,” said Francis. “There will be some time there that they need to get up to that 325 [tons].”

 

Santek’s track record

As the 39th largest waste company in the nation, Santek already runs several other landfills.

Bradley County, Tenn., contracted with the company over a decade ago, after the City of Cleveland, their biggest landfill customer, started trucking their waste elsewhere, leaving the county hemorrhaging money on the site.

County Mayor Gary Davis said that he was initially reluctant to open the dump to out-of-county waste, but saw few alternative options to keep the budget from dipping into the red.

“I was torn. I want the landfill to last forever, but at the same time there has to be enough going into it to produce the revenue to offset those costs,” said Davis, though he said he’s happy with the way Santek’s been operating, and even happier with the no-cost situation it puts his county in. “Bradley County has no cost, period.”

Crawford County, Ohio, went into business with the company because of repeated run-ins with the Environmental Protection Agency and the small matter of an $8 million debt on their landfill.

Crawford County Commissioner Mo Ressallat said his board felt uncomfortable with competing against the private sector, so when the choice came down to going into the trash business to stay afloat or turning over operations to Santek, they chose the latter.

“It was the cost factor,” said Ressallat. “Because we thought the government really shouldn’t be doing business, competing against the private.”

He said that since then they’ve been pretty happy with the arrangement.  “It’s been a good marriage, really.”

In Rhea County, Tenn., the county waste disposal department was running at a $370,000 loss in 2010. But waste officials maintained that it wasn’t the fault of the Santek-run landfill, which they say is profitable. The county’s nine convenience centers were, apparently, to blame, and all are run in-house.

Back in Haywood County, that’s a concern for commissioners, too. Santek’s proposal, unlike some others, didn’t touch the transfer station, so the county will have to make a separate decision about whether or not to close it.

At the work session, Francis clarified that the station would always stay open to individual residents, but “large haulers,” like commercial dumpers and municipalities might no longer get to use the facility, which is another controversial element to the plan.

The Solid Waste Committee is expected to bring recommendations to the board in early February.

Future of Green Energy Park might lie in the numbers

Jackson County has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Green Energy Park since launching the innovative project about five years ago.

Rent and usage fees offset a portion of the costs. Taxpayers, however, largely underwrite the venture, an examination of county finance records show. The county has kicked in a total of $1.2 million since 2006 (see infobox).

The park is built next to a closed county landfill near Dillsboro. Methane, a byproduct of the decomposing trash, is captured and used to heat a greenhouse and help power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing studios and a metal-art foundry. Plans call for building pottery studios. Some of that structure is already up.

A $204,730 Rural Center Grant is being counted on to help complete the pottery studios, but word on whether the county will actually get that money hasn’t yet come.

At question is whether the county’s new conservative majority of commissioners will continue subsidizing the project, with or without grant assistance — particularly since the Green Energy Park epitomizes the environmentally friendly, look-toward-the-future thinking of the three Democrats ousted in November.

 

By the numbers

An examination of the current year’s budget for the Green Energy Park shows rent is projected to bring in $25,000, and “donations” an additional $10,000. The overall budget for the Green Energy Park is $458,152, but that number is misleading because it includes the Rural Center grant for $204,730, intended to offset the exact same amount in expenditures for building the pottery studio.

No grant, no building, Muth explained in a recent interview.

Utilities get a $17,000 budget line item this fiscal year. Salaries and wages, $99,756 — Muth is paid $64,626.12. His helper, Carrie Blaskowski, who left the county post to join a family business, was budgeted to receive $35,129.38.

Muth, in a commission meeting , asked permission to advertise Blaskowski’s open position. Instead, commissioners ordered — or rather, Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, and Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, ordered — a top-to-bottom cost analysis of the Green Energy Park. (New Commissioner Charles Elders, also a Republican who ran on a platform of change with Debnam and Cody, hasn’t proven much of a talker during the meetings, leaving onlookers little choice but to assume he is in agreement with his two conservative cohorts.)

Two Democrats, Joe Cowan and Mark Jones, remain on the board of commissioners, but to date have appeared reluctant to publicly defy the board’s newcomers. Perhaps because they want to work together the best they can for the good of the county. Or perhaps because they anticipate running for reelection themselves in two years, and learned from their fallen fellow Democrats that a financially strapped voting electorate doesn’t have much patience.

Cowan, in fact, joined conservative commissioners earlier this month when they peppered Muth with questions about the park. For his part, Jones didn’t exactly defend the project. But Jones did point out that carbon credits from the Green Energy Park could be sold in the future, helping offset some of the project’s cost.

 

What’s it all about?

“This is about trying to create jobs,” Muth said.

If completed as originally envisioned, the Green Energy Park will create 15 to 20 new jobs for Jackson County. The project was intended to be economically self-sustaining — though Muth said no timetable was ever mandated.

“They never gave me a date,” the park’s director said.

Although the Green Energy Park is clearly Exhibit A for a majority of commissioners anxious to publicly flex their conservative muscles, Muth might have picked up a somewhat unlikely ally: Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, the darling of the conservative trio of commissioners.

Wooten was picked to temporarily replace County Manager Ken Westmoreland after the three newcomers showed him the door. (Or, that’s what Westmoreland said happened. Debnam claimed the veteran government administrator volunteered to leave on his own.)

Wooten, in addition to having a majority of the board’s blessing, brings 30 years of experience in managing Western Carolina University’s budget and the nimbleness required to survive in that position. In other words, Wooten has virtually unassailable financial credentials, vast political know-how, and an ability to leave the job of county manager at any point if his relations with the board prove untenable.

“Tim and I have met a couple of times, and I have had the opportunity to visit the Green Energy Park and take a tour, so I have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Wooten emailed The Smoky Mountain News in response to questions about the park.

“We’re going to hold on the request for filling the position until we can complete the cost analysis,” he wrote. “I’m going to propose to the commissioners that they have a work session on possibly the afternoon of Jan. 28, and the Green Energy Park would be one of the items for discussion. I think we can complete our fact-finding by then and provide some better information to the commissioners for their consideration. …It’s obvious to me that the Green Energy Park can probably not be self-sustaining in the short term but when we consider some of the indirect benefits of the park then the numbers become more manageable.”

Wooten this week said he does not feel Jackson County is the point of actually abandoning the project, but rather re-examining and rescaling the venture. The interim county manager said he needs, with Muth’s help, to understand commitments made on previous grants — particularly, would the county have to repay money in the event of changes to the Green Energy Park?

 

County contributions to Green Energy Park

• 2006-2007 – $100,000.

• 2007-2008 – $210,000.

• 2008-2009 – $447,383.

• 2009-2010 – $264,530.

• 2010-2011 – $218,422.

Commissioners tap assistant manager to take the helm permanently

Haywood County selected a new manager at their Wednesday meeting, promoting current interim manager Marty Stamey.

The board decided to make it official with Stamey, long-time assistant county manager, voting unanimously to give him the position permanently.

Stamey took over as interim after former County Manager David Cotton resigned in November. It was the second time Stamey had been tested in the position. He filled in last year when Cotton was out on medical leave in the midst of annual budgeting, where Stamey first proved his acumen for leadership.

Commissioners praised Stamey’s performance over the two terms as interim and lauded his skills, which they said rendered a search for someone more qualified unnecessary.

“We have all worked with Marty Stamey extensively during the past several months. We have all been very pleased with his performance and consider him to be very, very qualified for the position of county manager, so much so that we do not believe a search would produce a more qualified person for county manager,” said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger.

Other commissioners echoed Swanger’s sentiments, pointing to Stamey’s years of service and rapport with employees and the community as qualities to recommend him for the post.

Former chairman and current Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he felt “no need for the county to expend additional monies or time and efforts if we have someone here on our staff that is fully competent to handle the job.”

Commissioner Kevin Ensley also sang Stamey’s praises, adding his pleasure that a Haywood County native was taking the position for the first time.

Commissioner Bill Upton also made a cheeky nod to the new manager’s local roots, noting that he’d had nary a run-in when Stamey was a student during Upton’s tenure as Pisgah High School principal.

With two masters’ degrees and a wealth of experience in health care and emergency management services in the county, Stamey brings education, experience and a local eye to the position. He was named assistant county manager in 2007, following a stint as the head of emergency services for the county.

Stamey himself thanked the commissioners and praised his staff, saying they’re who he was really confident in and expressing hope that he could meet the high standards set by commissioners.

According to Stamey, the position is an honor and a vote of confidence in his leadership, but won’t amend his or the county’s day-to-day operations very much. Stamey’s salary will be just over $124,000, the same as his predecessor. It was upped to that figure when he stepped in as interim last autumn.

He said that one of the big challenges coming up will be tackling the budget as state and national funding dry up and more responsibilities are pushed onto counties.

He said he’s pleased with the promotion, but cautioned commissioners when he was named interim to take time before deciding whether to give him the post permanently in case his style was different than what they were looking for.

“I told them to wait, and let’s see how I do,” said Stamey. “Then they could decide whether they were going to do a search.”

But when asked whether this changes his work load or the way he views his position, Stamey said the title doesn’t really matter.

“It doesn’t change anything at all,” he said.

Stamey’s former position, assistant county manager, will remain unfilled and frozen indefinitely.

Haywood releases closed session minutes on its own accord

At their last meeting of 2010, the Haywood County Commissioners made what might seem like a rather mundane decision. They chose to release a slew of minutes from their closed sessions over the preceding few months.

While the information the minutes revealed was relatively unremarkable — details of negotiations around the price of Clyde’s old Wal-Mart site, discussions about litigation at the fairground over some allegedly unpaid bills, easement purchases and other fairly ordinary transactions — the simple fact that they were released without request is a small victory for the cause of more open government.

To Marty Stamey, interim county manager, it’s not a remarkable step at all.

“It’s been that way as long as I can remember,” said Stamey. The board, he said, reviews closed session minutes regularly and, if there are no legal barriers, releases them to whoever would like to see them.

That’s not surprising, given the background of Chairman Mark Swanger, who won the North Carolina Press Association’s First Amendment Award in 2006 and spent much of his professional life combating corruption in a 32-year career with the FBI.

But while it may be a matter of course in Haywood County, the practice isn’t necessarily standard protocol elsewhere. In Macon County, County Manager Jack Horton — who held the same post in Haywood County — said they usually only give out closed session minutes when a request is made.

Swain County’s manager Kevin King confirmed that the modus operandi is much the same there. If the county manager’s office gets a request, they’ll filter it through the county attorney, but proactive steps aren’t the norm.

Amanda Martin, attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, said that the story isn’t much different across the state, although it should be.

“It’s not that normal, but it’s what should happen,” said Martin. “They [local governments] should have some procedure in place to routinely review and release information that can be released. I would say it’s unusual, but that that is the proper procedure rather than waiting for someone to ask for them.”

Martin posits that the motives behind keeping closed session minutes closed aren’t necessarily sinister, but often stem from laziness or fear of stirring trouble.

“That’s the path of least resistance,” said Martin. “It would be an extra step to have to undertake. They also probably know that there aren’t going to be any problems until someone asks.”

Under North Carolina law, public bodies can go into closed session for nine reasons that are spelled out by statute. No action may be taken in closed session, and minutes must be kept. Closed session minutes can be released whenever the issue at hand has been dealt with.

There are some things that will never come before the public eye, like personnel records and issues, but nearly everything else that’s done in closed session can, legally, go public at some point. When and whether that’s done is up to the governing body, in this case, the board of commissioners.

In Haywood County, Stamey said the board is almost always in favor of making things public, and he can’t remember any incarnation of the board thinking differently.

“You have to do things with transparency,” said Stamey. “You can’t just go in there and do things and never tell people what you did.”

And according to Martin, that view is laudable and is an important step towards more open, transparent governance.

Swain finance manager loses job, cites political activity

To Vida Cody, Dec. 6 didn’t seem unlike any other average Monday. She was the finance manager for Swain County, and with the new board of commissioners due for a swearing in, she expected an hour-long pause in her otherwise-busy day.

So when the usually routine appointment for finance manager was called and no nominations came, Cody was a little surprised. As the silence lengthened, a call for alternate nominations was made. A motion to appoint County Manager Kevin King interim finance manager was given, seconded and quickly ushered through unanimously.

Cody, a 14-year county employee who has spent the last three as finance manager, said she didn’t see it coming — especially since the county was coming off one of its best audit years in a while.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Cody said. “I just kind of had to get up and walk off because I thought, ‘did I just lose my job?’”

As it transpired, she had. The finance manager is one of several positions that serve at the pleasure of the board, and a new board can choose to reappoint those holding those jobs or, as in Cody’s case, not do so. No explanation or reason is required.

Cody, however, said that she was sacked for a very specific reason: campaigning during this November’s election.

After her initial departure, Cody said County Manager King gave her a letter from the law firm Melrose, Seago and Lay that gave a detailed review of the county’s personnel policy for campaign-related issues. Kim Lay is the county’s attorney.

Lay, the attorney who drafted and signed the letter, stated that “while current policy does not expressly prohibit employees from campaigning for candidates on their own time, it does require the employees to act appropriately and professionally in such campaigning, even on their own time,” and that county staff should not “openly campaign for anyone in a way that would negatively impact the relationship between the current Commissioners and the public in general. “

The campaigning in question was, apparently, a magnetic bumper sticker supporting Hester Sitton for clerk of court and Johnny Ensley against incumbent sheriff Curtis Cochran, and a trip taken to the Almond polling precinct on Election Day, which Cody took off. She set up shop with her pick-up truck and signs promoting Ensley, but said she didn’t approach anyone.

When King handed her the letter, Cody said, he told her it was the reason behind her dismissal.

“He said, ‘if you want a reason, this is the reason you weren’t reappointed,’” Cody said.

She, however, doesn’t agree with the assessment and intends to file a lawsuit claiming that her constitutional rights were violated.

“I was just insulted,” Cody said. “How can you tell me that I am not allowed to campaign for somebody off work time?”

Government workers are, however, often subject to more restrictions and scrutiny in election season. Swain County has no explicit policy against off-work campaigning like many states, and it has nothing similar to the Hatch Act that forbids a lot of partisan activity among federal employees. A memo was circulated, however, encouraging employees to use caution with their election-time activities.

Officially, the separation letter given to Cody cites only the statute that outlines the at-will nature of the finance manager’s position; the officer serves – or doesn’t – at the board’s discretion.

County officials acknowledged giving Cody both that letter and the letter from Kimberly Lay, but stopped short of saying that politics was the impetus for her ousting.

County commissioner David Monteith said that the decision not to reappoint Cody wasn’t discussed by incoming commissioners beforehand and wasn’t a retributory attack.

“I just chose not to make a motion or a second,” said Monteith. “Evidently everybody else chose to do the same thing. It was nothing personal.”

Monteith said they haven’t yet discussed appointing a new finance manager and are relying on King to fill the gap until the can make a decision going forward. King once held the finance manager’s position in Swain County.

Cody, meanwhile, has found a lawyer and is looking for a new job. When asked for her take on the ideal outcome of the pending suit, she confesses uncertainty about even wanting her job back.

“Are they going to do it again?” Cody wondered. “If you put me in a position and the next election comes up, are you going to fire me again? I don’t want to be scared all the time that I’m going to lose my job because I want to support someone.”

Haywood chooses contractor for Wal-Mart project

Clyde’s old Wal-Mart is now on track to get a new life after Haywood County commissioners voted Monday to sign a contract with Murray Construction of Monroe for the renovations. The project had stalled earlier this fall after the first round of bids came in millions of dollars over the $4.7 million budget.

After scaling back the project and putting it back out to bid, the county got back nine estimates that are almost all within $1 million of the budgeted cost. The final winning bid was just over $5.2 million and was only $14,000 below the next closest competitor.

Scott Donald of Padgett and Freeman Architects, who are leading the project, said that he thought the bids were all competitive and fair.

“We were able to bring down the project almost $2.1 million,” Donald told commissioners, who then voted unanimously to begin negotiating immediately.

The space will be home to the county’s Department of Social Services and health department, who will soon vacate their home at the county’s old hospital.

Jackson’s new leaders have room for improvement

A bit of a stumble out of the gate can be forgiven among newcomers in any endeavor, but that stumble also means more intense scrutiny is likely to follow.

That’s exactly what happened with the new Jackson County commissioners, and voters are surely hoping there are better times to come.

A perfect storm of factors — bad economy, controversial county manager, and the pre-election Tea Party surge, among them — led voters to sweep every incumbent up for election out the door in the Jackson County commissioners race.

Citing those factors and others as a reason for the victory is not meant as a criticism of the new commissioners. The three  — Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody — obviously impressed a lot of voters they came into contact with. Americans have a near religious fervor regarding the will of the people, and that will expresses itself every time we hold an election. It’s winners take all, and that’s just the way it is.

No, critics of any newly elected leaders would be advised to wait until those leaders take office — or at least begin making decisions — to start finding fault. In Jackson County, that didn’t take very long.

First was the way the retirement of Ken Westmoreland was handled. There was little doubt Westmoreland and the new board would not see eye to eye, and that his tenure as county manager was, for all intents and purposes, over. And as Westmoreland himself told this newspaper, a new board “has every right, prerogative and the authority to put in their own management team …. I don’t understand why (Jack Debnam) felt the need to deny it, but it just didn’t come out that way, I guess.”

Westmoreland is referring to Debnam’s leak to the local media that Westmoreland had decided to retire, and Debnam saying the county manager had done so of his own volition. Westmoreland denies that it was his decision. He said Debnam put it to him like this: “He said, ‘the three of us have talked it over and we would like a change.’”

So one of the two men is dead wrong, which means someone is lying. Let’s just repeat the earlier assertion, that this wasn’t handled very cleanly.

There are also a couple of other issues with the early work of the new board. It changed the starting time of one of its monthly meetings to 2 p.m. That means any working folks are excluded. That doesn’t send a very good message.

The board also moved the public comment session of its meeting to the very end of the agenda. I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended hundreds of public meetings over the years, and they are, well, somewhat less than riveting. To make citizens who want to talk hang around until commissioners have finished their business is, well, a bit rude. Let the public have their say and then leave. They aren’t paid to be there, but commissioners are.

As I said early on, even elected officials deserve a bit of a pass on early mistakes. What citizens want is sound, thoughtful leadership. Only time will tell if this is what they got.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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