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..)

Swanger takes Haywood chairman’s seat

Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger has found himself in a comfortable old seat after taking over the chairmanship at the board’s Monday meeting.

It was the first meeting of the newly-elected board, though it bears only one new face — Michael Sorrells, who snapped up the seat vacated by the departing Skeeter Curtis.

Ahead of the vote for chairman, Kirk Kirpatrick, who spent the last term as chair, asked not to be nominated again. He cited a busy family and work schedule that would leave little room for the extra work of chairman.

“I do enjoy it but it is difficult,” Kirkpatrick told the crowd before pulling his name from consideration. He was, however, voted vice chairman, a position he accepted.

After a quick, unanimous vote, second-term commissioner Swanger was appointed to the post, which he held during his first term from 2002-2006. He also has a tenure as school board chairman under his belt, garnered during his six-year service there.

Swanger expressed thanks and support for Kirkpatrick before taking the helm of the meeting.

“Over the last two years, he has done an exceptional job and had he chosen to continue, I would have enthusiastically supported him,” Swanger said.

When asked where he intends to lead the board over the next two years, Swanger cited the economy as continuing to be the most pressing issue facing Haywood County.

“I think that probably the biggest challenges we’ll have, of course, are the budget issues and finding ways to provide services to the citizens of the county,” said Swanger in an interview. “The recession is allegedly over, but revenues certainly don’t support that notion.”

Swanger said that the board will have to navigate the uncertain waters of the state budget, which is likely to change — and possibly change the game for counties and how they operate.

“It will be a challenge, and much of that challenge will depend on the state budget, how it affects counties,” said Swanger. “Will there be a transfer of responsibility from the state back to the county, will there be cost sharing that was not previously a part of the challenge?”

One of the other big projects on the new board’s plate will be getting the Department of Social Services and the health department into their new home in Clyde’s former Wal-Mart while pushing through the revamp of their old digs into housing for low-income seniors. Swanger said he hoped the new board would make this a priority.

As he takes on this new role, Swanger, who just turned 60, said he’s not sure if there’s an end in sight to his public service career.

“I’ve been in public service my entire adult life, with the military and FBI and school board and two terms as county commissioner,” said Swanger. “I don’t know when I’ll say enough’s enough. I’ll just have to see.”

There’s new management in town

Jackson County’s new board of commissioners took their seats for the first time Monday night, but only after the old board bid farewell to a standing ovation from a packed house.

The formerly all-Democrat board went through a shake-up in the November election, with two Republicans and a Republican-backed Independent sweeping in to take three of the five seats, including the chairmanship.

Brian McMahan, the departing chairman who was defeated by incoming chair Jack Debnam, expressed gratitude to county staff and his fellow commissioners before adjourning the meeting with the famous words of another Democrat, Ted Kennedy, on his 1980 defeat in a presidential nomination bid.

“The only thing I feel tonight really is a sense of gratitude and thankfulness that I’ve been in the position to serve the county for the last four years,” said McMahan, ending with “for all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Before the meeting’s close, several citizens took the podium to let the outgoing board know that they didn’t lay the blame for economic problems and county job loss on their shoulders, and the nearly full commissioners’ room rose to its feet on their departure.

Soon after, however, the new board stepped in to take their oaths of office and start their reign, of which Ken Westmoreland, long-time county manager, will not be a part. Westmoreland officially announced his retirement at the meeting, though he acknowledged the news had been public for nearly a week. Westmoreland maintains that his departure is not entirely of his own volition, though new chairman Debnam has not confirmed that he and other members asked the manager to step aside.

Although no substantive votes were taken at their first meeting, the new board pledged in campaigning to re-examine the county’s steep-slope regulations and county officials’ pay rates.

Westmoreland: Debnam said he wanted ‘change’

To hear Kenneth Westmoreland tell it, the decision to leave his job as Jackson County manager wasn’t exactly “his decision” as portrayed after the fact by new commission Chairman Jack Debnam.

Did Debnam tell a lie, on this his first action as commissioner? Call it a contradiction, Westmoreland said, adding that he would have liked to continue as manager for a couple more years.

A phone message left for Debnam seeking clarification about his comments went unreturned before presstime Tuesday.

“He put it this way,” Westmoreland said of Debnam’s announcement last week that the manager would retire effective Jan 1. “He said, ‘the three of us have talked it over and we would like a change.’”

Westmoreland, who has been Jackson County manager for almost a decade, said Debnam also asked him to stay on a few months and help orient and guide an interim manager. Westmoreland said he understands that Chuck Wooten will fill the post. Wooten, a 30-year veteran of Western Carolina University, retires as vice chancellor for administration and finance on Jan. 1.

After checking on his retirement status, Westmoreland said he frankly saw no advantage to sticking around for a few more months and elected to head out the door. He plans to continue living in Jackson County.

“This is home,” Westmoreland said.

With accumulated leave, his last official day was Tuesday.

In addition to Debnam (replacing Democrat Brian McMahan), who is a registered independent, Republicans Charles Elder, (replacing Democrat William Shelton) and Doug Cody (replacing Democrat Tom Massie) join current commissioners Joe Cowan (a Democrat) and Mark Jones (a Democrat) on the commission board.

Debnam, though registered independent, received support during the election from the GOP.

Westmorland’s actions as county manager became a campaign issue during the election, particularly his role in implementing a new pay-scale system that was criticized as too generous to long-time employees like himself. The Democrat-controlled board approved the pay system.

His leadership during the relicensing battle with Duke Energy, which cost the county hundreds of thousands in legal fees, also had been criticized.

Debnam, asked pointblank just after the Nov. 2 election whether Westmoreland’s job was in jeopardy, deferred at that time to his fellow commissioners.

“It’s not going to be up to me,” he said “There are five commissioners … we are going to scrutinize several positions.”

The new commissioners also are promising to revisit Jackson County’s land-use regulations, which some blame for curtailing building activity.

Westmoreland said commissioners “have every right, prerogative and the authority to put in their own management team … with that authority, I don’t understand why he felt the need to deny it, but it just didn’t come out that way, I guess.”

The long-time manager said he feels the incoming board is being left in “good shape, with $23 million in undesignated fund balance.” Westmoreland said commissioners are facing steep challenges, primarily dealing with whatever comes down from a state government facing a $3.5 billion shortfall.

Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho it’s off to home we go

Farewells and hellos from Commissioner Tom Massie highlighted this week’s lame-duck county board meeting in Jackson County.

The ousted elected official, taking advantage of the final meaningful business meeting of this particular set of commissioners, wished his successors luck and good fortune.

Republicans Doug Cody (replacing Massie), Charles Elders (replacing William Shelton) and conservative-but-officially Independent Jack Debnam (replacing Chairman Brian McMahan) were in the audience, seated demurely toward the back of the room.

“This is an interesting job,” Massie said. “While I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the past four years, it has been a privilege I’ll always cherish.”

There will be a meeting to take care of housekeeping details at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 6. At 6:30 p.m., an organizational meeting by the new board of commissioners will convene. Cody, Elders and Debnam will join current commissioners (both Democrats) Mark Jones and Jay Cowan. The two men have two years remaining before they are up for re-election.

Voters in Jackson County on Nov. 2 upended the 16-year stranglehold Democrats enjoyed on the commission board. Now the new commissioners’ promises of fiscal conservancy and putting builders in the county back to work are about to be tested.

Massie told his replacement(s) being a commissioner, in the best of times, is challenging.

“And these are not good times,” he said.

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