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.
“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.