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.

Beale might not fit the bill following election; Macon board swings right

Ronnie Beale is an amiable chap, and for the past few years he’s injected a bit of humor into what is often the tediously dull process of overseeing county government.

“If you want to stay and see the rest of the sausage made, you are welcome,” Beale told two veterans Monday night after the two men completed a presentation before the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

Chuckling at Beale’s small witticism, the men took advantage of the opening and left, escaping the remainder of the meeting.

Beale, a Democrat, is currently chairman of the board. Macon County, along with most of the counties in Western North Carolina (though not Jackson County, where voters decide), allows commissioners to elect their own chairman. Following a dustup on Election Day, it’s debatable whether Beale will retain the top leadership post.

It took only one loss, and the makeup of the board swung right. From Democrat 3-2, to Republican 3-2: Bob Simpson is out, Ron Haven is in, and Beale — though he retained his position as commissioner — is likely gone, too, as chairman.

Thy will be done, Beale told fellow commissioners and the few folks on hand Monday night to watch a lame-duck commission meeting. The voters have spoken and we’ll abide by their wishes, he said.

To that end, new commissioners will be sworn in Dec. 6. There will be an 8 a.m. meeting held by current commissioners, which in addition to Simpson includes Jim Davis, who is headed to Raleigh after besting Sen. John Snow in N.C. Senate District 50. The county’s Republican party will select his replacement to the commission board. Two years remain to Davis’ commission term.

Current commissioners will take care of some housekeeping details in the morning. They will recess, and a second meeting will be held that evening, at 6 p.m.  That is when the newly constituted board will gather to select a chairman and vice chairman.

New Jackson commissioners, new county agenda

Jack Debnam says he’s simply trying to get his feet on the ground and figure out what needs to be done first before he and two other newly elected commissioners take control next month.

Debnam, running as an unaffiliated candidate, successfully unseated Jackson County Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. Unlike most of the county commission boards in the area, Jackson County voters — not fellow commissioners — elect their board chairman.

As the top leader of the board and its only full-time member, Debnam, a real estate agent who owns Western Carolina Properties, will make $16,190 a year. Part-time commissioners (the other four men on the board) in Jackson County make $11,519.

Jackson County voters on Nov. 2 sent incumbent Democrat commissioners a strong, definite message. Now, the new guys have to decipher exactly what that message meant. At least they do if they want to remain in voters’ good graces.

 

What’s next?

“There’s a scene at the end of the movie, “The Candidate,” when Robert Redford has been elected to the Senate and he says, ‘What do we do now?’ My guess is that a lot of candidates — both local and national — can relate to Redford’s character,” said Chris Cooper, a political science and public affairs professor for Western Carolina University.

In addition to Debnam, Republicans Charles Elder (replacing Democrat William Shelton) and Doug Cody (replacing Democrat Tom Massie) will join current commissioners Joe Cowan and Mark Jones. Democrats Cowan and Jones are up for reelection in 2012.

This marks the first time in 16 years Republicans have been able to seize seats on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Debnam, while unaffiliated, received support as a conservative candidate from the Jackson County GOP.

“The public sent a clear message that they want change — change in Jackson County, change in Raleigh and change in Washington,” Cooper said. “Watching President Obama try to capitalize on the ‘change’ platform, however, shows how difficult it can be. Add to that, that our local officials still have to contend with Democrats on the commission … it might be tough for the Republicans to execute the plans they campaigned on.”

What did they campaign on? Doing everything differently than their Democratic predecessors, essentially. There were promises to:

• Review Jackson County’s rigorous land regulations, and get the local builders building again.

• Examine the county budget for fiscal waste, department by department.

• Decide whether to add on to Smoky Mountain High School.

• Move forward with a promised recreation center in Cashiers.

• Consider allowing voters to decide whether future commissioners should not just reside in the district they run for, but also to let voters in those districts decide the winners. This has been a front-page issue, and received the editorial support of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving the southern end of Jackson County. No more voting at-large, in other words, but by district.

Also on the table? A decision about property revaluations — as in, when best to do them.

 

A chicken in every pot

“I feel sorry for those guys, I really do,” Shelton said. “I think it is going to be a pretty short honeymoon. If there isn’t a chicken in every pot in six months, people will be mad.”

Shelton argued the ousting of the board’s majority was not an indictment on the land regulations commissioners passed. Rather, he pointed to a county pay-raise study that resulted in the highest paid employees receiving raises: lower-paid employees — not so much.

Shelton also threw in the county’s unsuccessful battle with Duke Energy over saving the Dillsboro Dam, plus an overall national and state sweep by Republicans.

Whatever the reason, the conservatives have taken charge in Jackson County.

Debnam, asked if the board would fire County Manager Ken Westmoreland, showed a certain political agility in his response. In other words, he didn’t really answer the question.

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

 

Steep slope/land regulations?

“They’ll probably all be reviewed at the beginning of next year,” Debnam said. “… I’m not looking to repeal everything.”

Debnam made noises about holding a meeting with the two newly elected commissioners and the two remaining Democrats from the old guard, saying he could do so legally now without calling an open meeting. Whether that skirts the spirit of the law is certainly debatable.

The new board chairman said he’s met with McMahan (“he was gracious and helpful,” Debnam said) and he is meeting with various county officials.

The new commissioners will be sworn in at 6 p.m. on Dec. 6.

Democrats retain power on Swain board

Swain County will spend the next four years with an all-Democrat board of commissioners after all the incumbents running for office held onto their seats and Donnie Dixon and Robert White scooped up the two open spots.

Neither current chairman Glenn Jones nor commissioner Genevieve Lindsay sought re-election after both spent the last eight years on the board.

Steve Moon will serve his second term on the board, winning one district and 12 percent of the vote. He owns a tire shop and came to the board after a six-year run on the county’s school board. Moon said during the spring primaries that he wanted to stay on the board to watch over its allocation of interest from the North Shore Road settlement.

David Monteith, also an incumbent, came away with three of the county’s five districts and just under 15 percent of votes, the largest percentage of any winner. Monteith is a school bus driver and was the lone commissioner to vote against the North Shore Road settlement. He campaigned on a platform of protecting and increasing the county’s job base.

Donnie Dixon, a newcomer to the board, didn’t win outright in any precincts, but still pulled out nearly 13 percent of the vote. Dixon is a machinist who served a single term as commissioner in the 90s, but is coming back to the board with ideas of greater openness, televised meetings and courting higher paying jobs for the county.

Robert White is the second newcomer but is also no stranger to public life as retired superintendent of the county’s school system. He campaigned on strategic planning and citizen involvement to lead the board, citing the expertise in both areas that he gained as superintendent as good qualities to recommend him for the job.

While the four commissioners had to beat out a total field of nine challengers, the race for chairman was run between only two. Current board member Phil Carson won, edging out Mike Clampitt by just under 5 percent of the votes.

 

Swain County Board of Commissioners (Chairman)

Phil Carson (D)    2,319

Mike Clampitt (R)    2,083

 

Swain County Board of Commissioners (vote for 4)

David Monteith (D)    2,465

Donnie Dixon (D)    2,089

Steve Moon (D)    2,041

Robert White (D)    1,976

James King (R)     1,788

John Herrin (R)    1,778

Andy Parris (R)    1,724

Gerald Shook Jr. (R)    1,604

William (Neil) Holden (L)    1,015

Democrats buck trend in Haywood

Democrats claimed victory in all three open commissioner seats in Haywood County, with incumbents Kirk Kirkpatrick and Bill Upton keeping their spots on the board.

Newcomer Michael Sorrells took the chair left vacant by Skeeter Curtis, who did not seek re-election.

Current board chairman Kirkpatrick took eight districts, including all of Waynesville, Lake Junaluska and Clyde South. He has sat on the commission since 2002 and held the chair since 2008. A lawyer by trade, Kirkpatrick ran on a platform of experience, especially with budget management.

Upton won the privilege of a second term on the board, winning only four precincts but just over 17 percent of the vote. He claimed Clyde North and three Beaverdam districts, placing third behind Kirkpatrick and Sorrells. Now retired, he has spent much of his career in the public service, including a stint as principal of Pisgah High School and long-time superintendent with the Haywood County school system. Unsurprisingly, Upton lists education as his top priority, closely followed by keeping the county’s extremely low tax rate as low as possible.

Sorrells claimed 10 precincts, mostly in the northern and western districts, and took a little over 18 percent of all votes. Although new to the county commission, Sorrells is no stranger to the political process. He has spent the last six years on the Haywood County School Board and campaigned on promises of fiscal responsibility and maintaining low taxes. He is a native of Haywood County and runs a family business, Sorrells Merchandise Company, with his wife.

Republican Denny King pulled up just short of grasping a commission seat, and although he bested Upton in precincts won – seven to Upton’s four – he pulled in only 16 percent of the popular vote.

The three winners will now join fellow Democrat Mark Swanger and lone Republican Kevin Ensley, who both won fights for their positions in 2008.

While the chair currently belongs to Kirkpatrick and Upton serves as vice chairman, they are not guaranteed to keep those titles on the new board. Members will vote for the chairmanship when they take office in December.

 

Haywood County Commissioners

Michael T. Sorrells (D)    10,127

J.W. Kirk Kirkpatrick III (D)    10,022

Bill Upton (D)    9,652

Denny King (R)    8,927

David Bradley (R)    8,703

Tom Freeman (R)    7,919

Newcomer will be on Macon County Board of Commissioners

One new face — Republican Ron Haven — will be on the Macon County Board of Commissioners if unofficial voting results from Tuesday night hold.

Incumbent Bob Simpson, a Democrat, lost his seat as 53 percent of Macon County voters — an impressive number for a midterm election — turned out to vote. This right-leaning county did re-elect Democrat Ronnie Beale, the commission board’s current chairman.

Haven and Beale represent the top two vote-getters in District 2, the Franklin area.

Voters also returned Republican incumbent commissioner Brian McClellan of Highlands to the board to represent District 1. McClellan regained his seat by besting Democrat Daniel Allen “Ricky” Bryson, a former commissioner.

Haven, a business owner, has called for a county department-by-department budget analysis to find areas to cut waste. He campaigned vigorously against steep-slope controls, flatly stating at a recent candidates’ forum that he wanted the county’s planning board to even stop study on the issue.

Macon County is the site of the September 2004 Peeks Creek landslide. This was a natural, not manmade, disaster that claimed five lives, and has since shaped the nature of debate here about what should be done about development on mountainsides.

Beale, who defended the work being done by the planning board, campaigned on a record of school-building projects and the work done to set the table for future economic development.

McClellan also has emphasized job creation, and supports offering incentives to companies willing to settle in Macon County.

 

Macon County Board of Commissioners (District 2, vote for 2)

Ron Haven (R)    5,719

Ronnie Beale (D)    5,539

Charlie Leatherman (R)    5,362

Bob Simpson (D)    4,259

Vic Drummond (U)    2,316

 

Macon County Board of Commissioners (District 1)
Brian McClellan (R)    7,323
Allan (Ricky) Bryson (D)    5,099

Jackson County says no thanks, no more to incumbent commissioners

Jackson County voters upended the board of commissioners Tuesday, calling an abrupt end to progressive land-development regulations that had set this county apart from all others in far Western North Carolina.

The dismantling of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is likely to resonate with other commissioners in WNC. Voters here clearly sent an unmistakable message not to move too far, too fast, when it comes to standing in the way of the region’s development juggernaut.

One of the three Democrat incumbents who lost was Chairman Brian McMahan, who actually cast the sole ‘no’ vote among commissioners against the current development regulations. He also opposed a subsequent moratorium on subdivisions, which some blamed for compounding an economic slowdown in the county.

McMahan, however, was consistent in supporting most of the regulations that were put in place: he just didn’t support all of them. His moderate position, however, didn’t prevent him from being ousted from the chairman’s post by challenger and political newcomer Jack Debnam, who ran unaffiliated with any political party.

Just 92 votes separated the two men in the unofficial tally Tuesday night.

Incumbents William Shelton and Tom Massie joined McMahan in the defeat.

“We’re historical,” said Shelton late Tuesday night, after learning he’d lost to Republican challenger Charles Elder, a former commissioner who represents a more traditional way of doing things. It is a way that Jackson County voters clearly found suited them far better than what had been taking place.

Massie, like Shelton a progressive Democrat when it came to regulating development, was defeated by Republican Doug Cody, a newcomer to Jackson County politics.

“I think it was just the perfect storm,” Shelton said, pointing to a national mood of ousting incumbents, Democrat Party apathy, right-leaning Tea-party influences and local voters upset about the stringent development regulations adopted in Jackson County.

Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners — including Shelton and Massie — 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.

Another piece of commissioner legislation that likely stuck in voters’ craws was an attempt to wrest 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 has been torn down.

A poll of Jackson County residents this summer was a harbinger of sorts: the poll showed only 33 percent of participants had a favorable opinion of their local government, and 46 percent were unfavorable.

The poll, conducted by the WCU Public Policy Institute in partnership with The Smoky Mountain News, questioned nearly 600 voters and had an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.

 

Jackson County Board of Commissioners (Chairman)

Jack Debnam (R)    5,055

Brian McMahan (D)    4,963

 

Jackson County Board of Commissioners (District 1)

Charles Elders (R)    6,022

William Shelton (D)    4,916

 

Jackson County Board of Commissioners (District 2)

Doug Cody (R)    6,075

Tom Massie (D)    4,824

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