If Macon County commissioners decide to impose term limits for the planning board, beleaguered planning members could become the only ones out of dozens serving on various county boards who are subject to limits on how many years they can serve.
Historically, Macon County commissioners lacked enough volunteers to fill the ranks of its various advisory groups, from the airport authority to solid waste committee to parks and recreation board. Members — especially caring ones dedicated to the particular issue — were welcome to keep serving as long as they were willing.
These days, however, some commissioners are suggesting term limits, at least for the controversial planning board. This follows months of pitched battles between pro-planning and anti-planning factions. A decision by commissioners is expected next week.
If term limits were retroactively imposed, the move would effectively eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the planning board.
“If you do have term limits it doesn’t mean you could never serve again,” Macon County Manager Jack Horton said. “It would give a break in service to give other people opportunities.”
No one quite knows how long some of the longest-serving volunteers have served on the planning board, even the volunteers themselves — Susan Ervin is the acknowledged winner with some two decades of service. Mark West has been on the board for many years, too, so many that, like Ervin, he doesn’t remember his appointment date. Chairman Lewis Penland likewise has years of planning-board work to his credit.
But, that type of service isn’t confined to Macon County’s planning board. Ed Shatley has been a member of the county’s Economic Development Commission for at least as long as Ervin has the planning board. He was chairman in the 1990s, Shatley remains chairman today. Horton remembered that the veteran volunteer — who brings an acknowledged and unquestioned wealth of understanding and history to his unpaid service — was serving on the EDC in 1972 when Horton did his first stint as the Macon County manager.
But, there haven’t been calls among commissioners for new blood to the EDC via term limits. Nor have there been discussions about “balance” being ensured by adding anti-economic forces to an economic development-charged group.
These discrepancies have led some in Macon County to openly speculate that this sudden push for term limits is simply anti-planning politics in action. Planning Board member Al Slagle last month told The Smoky Mountain News that he believed it likely the advisory group was being “loaded” with anti-planning members under the guise of creating “diversity.”
Nuts and Bolts
Macon County has some 50 boards, committees and advisory groups.
County administrators have identified 13 of Macon County’s volunteer groups as high priority, meaning there is a more stringent and outlined application process for membership. These include the planning board, airport authority, EDC and the tourism development groups for greater Macon County and Highlands.
But, most board and committee members labor in total anonymity in unglamorous-to-most, but critical, service: there’s the Nursing and Adult Home Community Advisory Committee, the Dangerous Dog Board, the Garden Committee.
“Some boards are more difficult to fill than others,” Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said in acknowledgement.
The problem of finding an adequate pool of volunteers isn’t confined to Macon County.
“I think it’s fair to say that we have some challenges in identifying qualified persons to serve on committees,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said in an email interview. “We put the word out to the public about submitting an application of interest as we were hoping to build a roster of folks who wanted to service on boards and committees, and to hopefully have some basic information about experience and background. Unfortunately, the response was very minimal.”
In contrast, Haywood County generally has an adequate number of applicants, County Manager Marty Stamey said. Seven people recently applied for two positions on the health board, for example.
The same is true in the town of Bryson City and in Swain County, according to administrators there.
Cindi Woodard, assistant to the Swain County commission board, said that volunteers in that county serve three, three-year terms, take a break for a year, and are eligible again — a similar proposal to what Macon County Commissioner Ron Haven made recently for that county’s planning board.
“Usually people whose terms expire, they would love to serve again,” Woodard said.
Lee Galloway, an 18-year veteran town manager for Waynesville, said there are no term limits on any of the boards and commissions there — and he cautioned in a roundabout way on the dangers of losing experience by instituting them.
“There are some boards that have members who have been on for the entire 18 years, and having that knowledge and expertise and history is fantastic,” Galloway said.