Scott McLeod

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Do you have a muse?

At different times in my life that role has been filled by different entities. As a teen, I had a very close friend whose quiet yet intense lust for a unique life was a source of inspiration for years. Through late high school and college, I fell head over heels in love with writing and was constantly moving from one author to another for guidance. There have been others who kept me on track and provided inspiration who probably didn’t even realize their influence.

Today it seems the need for that kind of outside inspiration has faded a bit. I feel fortunate to have a relatively rich personal and professional life, and a family that dominates — in a positive way — my emotional life.

As a columnist, though, I’m constantly looking for a muse, or, to put it more realistically, for inspiration and topics for a good column. Over the last 20 years, the place that has helped me the most as deadlines hung over my head like a guillotine has been The Sun. It’s a magazine started in 1974 in Chapel Hill by a New York reporter who sought refuge from the inane stories that too often fill newspapers. As founder Sy Safransky says in his own words, he “wanted to start a magazine that would present courageous, honest writing and respect readers in a fundamental way.”

Today The Sun has 70,000 subscribers. In 1990, the publisher made the decision to quit selling advertising and to just rely on subscriptions. That’s as gutsy a move as any publisher ever made. But the magazine has continued to grow, respected for both its content and its attitude.

I can peruse the feature stories, the fiction or the poetry, the reader contributions or Safransky’s notebook and always come away with a better understanding of some important issue of the day or perhaps a better understanding of myself — and ideas to write about in The Smoky Mountain News. The magazine is truly an original gem in a world awash with so much media that a great majority of it is just not worth spending time with.

Here are a few nuggets from the current edition. This is from an interview with economist Richard Wolf, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose 2009 book was called Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It. He has an undergrad degree from Harvard, a master’s from Stanford and a doctorate from Yale:


So the current crisis really began in the 1970s, when the wages stopped rising, but its effects were postponed for a generation by debt. By 2007, however, the American working class had accumulated a level of debt that was unsustainable. People could not make the payments. They were exhausted: exhausted financially, exhausted physically by all that work, and exhausted psychologically because the family had been torn apart by everyone working.

Stay-at-home parents hold families together. When you move everyone into the workplace, tensions in the family become unmanageable. You can see evidence of this in popular culture. The sitcoms of the 1960s showed happy middle-class families, but many sitcoms today show struggling families. Americans are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 65 percent of the world’s psychotropic drugs, tranquilizers, and mood enhancers. We are a people under unbelievable stress.


Or this thought, from Safransky’s notebook:


I NEED TO CUT more pages from my upcoming book, so I’m trying to keep in mind William Faulkner’s advice to writers: “You must kill all your darlings.” No more procrastinating over whether a particular Notebook entry deserves a berth or needs to walk the plank. It’s nothing personal, I tell a comely paragraph (110 words, perfect posture, not an ounce of fat) as I grab it by the collar and give a little push. You wanted to live forever, I say. Of course you did. Deathless prose, et cetera. Soon you’ll be a drop in the ocean of God’s love. Don’t ask if it’s dark. Don’t worry that it’s cold.


A section called Sunbeams is on the last page of every edition and is collected, I assume, by magazine’s staff. Here’s a great one by a name most will recognize:


In her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, Barbara Tuchman writes about a peasant revolt in 1358 that began in the village of St. Leu and spread throughout the Oise Valley. At one estate, the serfs sacked the manor house, killed the knight, and roasted him on a spit in front of his wife and kids. Then, after ten or twelve peasants violated the lady, with the children still watching, they forced her to eat the roasted flesh of her dead husband and then killed her. That is class warfare. Arguing over the optimum marginal tax rate for the top 1 percent is not.

— Al Franken


If you’ve not read The Sun, give it a try. If you’re a regular, then you may already share my addiction. Good stuff.

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



It’s the biggest word in politics, often setting off a firestorm when delivered at a crucial moment. Gov. Beverly Perdue’s “no” to a re-election bid started an avalanche across the state from which the fallout still hasn’t ended. Here in the mountain west, Rep. Heath Shuler delivered a second surprising “no” when he said he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Shuler’s decision was a gut check for mountain Democrats. The district had already been re-drawn by GOP leaders in Raleigh so that even the extremely conservative Shuler would have struggled to win against a viable Republican opponent. The newly re-drawn district would have only voted 40 percent for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. For the GOP, fielding a candidate who could have taken on the ex-NFL quarterback whose political star was still rising became a free-for-all even before Shuler’s announcement. I’ve lost count, but it’s somewhere around eight candidates who are saying they will run in the primary, which means second runoff primary is almost inevitable. The primary is May 8, and the filing period ends on Feb. 29.

Shuler’s chief of staff, Hayden Rogers, is gaining momentum as the heir apparent for Democrats, but one can only wonder how that will play with Democratic leaders in this district who have been chafing with Shuler as their congressman. There are many in leadership positions that never embraced Shuler’s conservative ideology. Name your position — abortion, health care, stimulus package, even gun control — many, if not most, Democratic leaders wanted a representative who was more in line with their positions. It is assumed that Rogers, a Robbinsville native and Princeton graduate, will embrace the same political centrist positions as Shuler. Some have whispered that Rogers may be more conservative than Shuler.

I don’t know Shuler personally but was able to observe first-hand his political transformation. Early in his first campaign, his speeches were not delivered well and lacked substance. He was not very good. Many doubted his abilities, including a lot of the regional press who covered him. I’ve watched as his political abilities grew and improved as he learned the job. Early in 2011, I saw him on a national cable television news show after his bid for the speakership. He was poised, thoughtful and able to discuss big issues with confidence.

If this is indeed Shuler’s political exit, his brief stint would have to be described as wildly successful. He beat a long-time, entrenched incumbent in Charles Taylor in a Republican district. He won three elections, made a symbolic bid for the House speakership, and emerged as a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House who fought hard to reduce the budget deficit. He was talked about as a possible Democratic nominee to run for governor.

But his “no” ends it all — for now.

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


In this country built on capitalism, it’s a constant source of antagonism among politicians and citizens. I’m talking about the intersection of government aid to private businesses, and when is too little and when is too much.

Jackson County has had a poor record of success in this arena. It has a revolving loan fund that lends money to private businesses that the county thinks can create valuable jobs. County leaders have helped nine businesses over the last 18 years, and seven of them are out of business. Five of those that went out of business still owe the county money, dollars that likely won’t be repaid. Two of those still doing business owe the county money, and two who went out of business had paid in full prior to closing their doors.

There are two loans pending: one to the prospective new owners of AM radio station WRGC and one to Jackson Paper.

Critics say the money was given out with too few parameters. Supporters, like Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan — the longest serving commissioner on the board — say the whole plan was job creation at any price.

“The whole purpose was to create jobs,” Cowan said. “Whether you made money, you didn’t, or even if you lost a little.”

Now Macon County is considering using taxpayer money to create its own revolving loan pool, wanting to help entrepreneurs gain footing in today’s tough economy. And so those leaders too — if they go this route — will face hard questions in deciding who to help, and why, and for how much. But what the heck, it’s a tough economy and businesses need help, right?

Today, everything is about the tough economy, or so it seems. Interstate 40 closed due to rockslide, how will it affect the economy? No snow in the mountains this winter, how will it affect the economy? New trail plan released by forest service, how will it affect the economy? Macon County considers land-use regulations, how will it affect the economy?

Last week I had an email dialogue with an old friend who has strong opinions about the automobile industry bailout and whether the government should have gotten involved or just them go through bankruptcy. Two weeks ago a Charlotte Observer article called into question training programs at North Carolina’s community colleges that are geared specifically for industries, industries who might just up and leave the state as their business fortunes change. Remember Dell Computers, which shut down five years after getting millions in tax breaks and incentives, including millions in worker training programs paid for by North Carolina taxpayers?

All governments are in the business of taking our money and spending it. Or, looked at from the other side of the coin, all of us are voluntary members of a society in which we agree — through who we elect — to hand over a certain amount of our earnings in order to receive certain benefits.

This is where political ideology gets into the mix. Wall Street bailout or auto industry bailout? Which suits your idea of where the government ought to get involved?

At the local level, it seems support for helping out the private sector cuts across party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans at the county level defend their revolving loan program even though on paper it seems a dismal failure.

It’s the entrepreneur in me that has a hard time swallowing government aid to businesses of any type, whether it’s a direct loan or a recruitment incentive. That’s because I can walk out my door, look up and down Church Street, and then take a few steps and do the same on Main Street and see dozens of small businesses who could easily take a low-interest $100,000 loan and turn it into several new jobs that would lead to increase revenues for that business.

That would increase local consumer spending, put money into the state and federal government pipeline through payroll taxes, and help those businesses succeed and thereby boost the local economy.

But those businesses up and down Main Stret won’t get that money. It will  go to some unproven entrepreneur who may or may not succeed. So I don’t support local government loans to small businesses. As Jackson’s track record shows, these leaders aren’t equipped to determine who should get these loans, and in the end the process just smacks of favoritism.

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


“[I] discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it ….

— Novelist William Faulkner

What makes a good newspaper? That’s a complicated and subjective question, one that an increasing number of people don’t care much about as they switch to digital sources for their news. But one trait, it seems to me, remains important for news sources no matter whether it’s online or in print: the sense of place.

When you are surrounded by writers, editors, designers and computer geeks — and yes, sales people and administrative types —who like working in a creative and dynamic setting, advice is never in short supply. In an idea business, everyone has plenty to say about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad, what needs to happen and how someone else screwed up. The trick is to get good at latching on to those ideas that work and let others fall by the wayside.

My former publisher at The Mountaineer had one of those axioms that I grabbed hold of and still value. He used to tell me that people in this mountain region are fiercely proud of their culture, perhaps more so than in any place he had lived. He said it was the newspaper’s job to reflect and embrace that truth.

I’m paraphrasing, but the challenge went something like this: you should be able to obliterate the name of the paper and the city in which it is published from the masthead, and still know from reading the stories that you are in the Smoky Mountain region. In today’s world, that would also mean you should be able to happen upon our website and have the same thing happen.

That’s more difficult than you might imagine. In covering politics or county board meetings, courts, law enforcement, and education, stories have similar content no matter whether you are in Montana, Maine or Florida. The stories that reflect the history, culture and values of a region are usually more difficult to find and to write. It’s relatively easy to go to a county board meeting and regurgitate what happened, but much more time-consuming and intellectually challenging for reporters to interview a local personality and turn that into a readable story that reflects the sense of place to which I’ve been referring.

It was last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News that drove this point home. Every now and then you get it right, and even less often do you hit a home run. If there was a press award for capturing a sense of place, last week’s paper would have won first place. Our editors, reporters, designers and everyone else involved in the production of the paper got it right.

Here’s a list of some of the stories that made it into last week’s paper: Caitlin Bowling’s cover story about Bob Plott’s family and the Plott hound breed (the state dog), and the publication of his new book called Colorful Characters of the Smoky Mountains; guest columnist Brent Martin’s opinion piece about bills before Congress that would threaten protection of valuable natural resources; Quintin Ellison’s feature on Anne Lough, a prominent traditional musician who led a shape-note singing program at Lake Junaluska; and another story by Caitlin marking the 10th anniversary of the Balsam Mountain Trust, which puts on educational programs and runs a nature center in the upscale Balsam Mountain Preserve development.

Add to that list of quality stories about the Smoky Mountains the regular, weekly contributions of columnist Quintin Ellison, book reviewer and columnist Gary Carden, naturalist Don Hendershot and Back Then contributor George Ellison.

With the digital age of news upon us, the scope of place that large news outlets cover has never been larger. Newspapers like the N.Y. Times and USA Today, along with national or international websites, are vital to our knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live.

But small, regional outlets like The Smoky Mountain News still take great satisfaction in putting out a product that illuminates that little “postage stamp” that Faulkner so ably describes. And every now and then we do it pretty damn well.

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


Western North Carolina residents will be well served by the merger of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.

The merger undoubtedly makes sense from an administrative and fund-raising perspective, something employees and board members emphasized in an article in last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News. It will give the LTLT (the new organization will retain that name) added resources as it expands its scope in the six westernmost counties, particularly in the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee watersheds.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the merger is a manifestation of the progressive approach to conservation that leaders of these two organizations have helped promote during the last several decades.

“We already had plans to broaden our scope and the areas we touch,” said Ken Murphy, board chairman of the LTLT. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”

That concept — that protecting land in turns help protect the water resources — sounds like common sense. Making it happen in the real world, however, isn’t so easy. LTLT and LTWA volunteers and employees have put together an admirable record of achievement over the years. By researching and providing data on the unique characteristics of the Little Tennessee watershed, these organizations convinced government officials, granting agencies and private entities that protecting the Little Tennessee River watershed was worthwhile.

When I first started covering this region as a reporter and editor, two people who have played a critical role in the LTLT and LTWA became trusted sources and ultimately friends. Paul Carlson and Bill McLarney helped me to understand that in today’s world, conservation isn’t just about locking up land in it wilderness state. The idea that there can be multiple and varied uses and therefore creative ways to preserve land and water was new to me. That approach has made these two organizations more successful than most at bridging political differences and building coalitions.

The LTWA and LTLT aren’t out there alone, that’s for sure. There are many land trusts, environmental groups, watershed associations and individuals who have done yeoman’s work to protect land and water in this region. Ten years ago when development pressures had many of us fearful that much of the rural and wilderness land remaining in the mountains would soon by lost, these voices were often drowned out.

It’s important that the new Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the other environmental groups succeed in adapting to the changing fiscal and political landscape. That’s the only way these organizations will survive and thrive in the decades to come, and their continued success is necessary to preserve the way of life we cherish in Western North Carolina.


It was pouring last Wednesday as I drove home, the cold rain  painting the winter landscape a dull grey. Standing on the sidewalk outside the Haywood County Courthouse was a single peace protester, his raincoat losing the battle against the forces of nature. The lone sentinel was from a group that has stood watch each Wednesday at the courthouse for years, I believe since a short time after the Iraq invasion in March 2003. I think on this day it was Doug Wingeier, a peace activist who has penned letters and guest columns in this paper and others, a man who has traveled the world to promote peace and understanding, a person whom I’ve admired from afar for years.

I usually honk in solidarity with the protesters. It would be incorrect to label myself a pacifist, but I certainly identify with those who advocate an end to war and the settling of political divisions that send too many people to early graves from bombs, bullets, starvation or sickness. I also tap on my horn as a symbol of support for these individuals themselves, who with their stoic, multi-year vigil are a living example of standing up for one’s ideals.

On this day, however, I almost missed Doug and therefore did not get to acknowledge his efforts. I also didn’t have time to read his sign, so I don’t know what it may have said. I could see the magic marker running down the cardboard, though, reminding me of a mother’s tear-streaked eye make-up.

It was the news on the radio that had my attention. U.S. Marines had been videotaped pissing on the bodies of insurgents they (presumably) had killed in Afghanistan. The news had just broke, so condemnation was pouring in from U.S. government and foreign leaders. Inhumane. Disgraceful. Deplorable. I had watched the video prior to leaving the office, and it was painful to watch the smirking young soldiers do the deed.

I won’t talk about how idiotic these soldiers were for taking part in this episode and then for letting it be filmed. They deserve to be reprimanded, perhaps court-martialed. We can rest assured the military will take stern measures.

Most Americans know nothing of war, don’t even know what it’s like as civilians to make sacrifices for a war effort. The latter is, in its own way, shameful. We can read books and watch video footage and get the idea, but that’s not real. When it’s your life or the guy in the bunker across the valley, or when a friend is in mortal danger, things happen.  You act, and what you do may not leave a sense of pride, but you just do it. I grew up in a military town as Vietnam was ending, and I had many very good friends with fathers who were just never right after that war. They had lost something, and many of those men are reaching the end of their lives still trying to get it back.

Wars are promulgated by leaders in nice suits sitting in soft chairs in Kabul and Washington, by warlords in the Middle East fighting for a way of life in a place where most have never experienced what Americans know as freedom. They are the ones who put those young Marines out in the desert where all they can do is try to survive and find their way home, where mistakes will be made, and we would do well to remember that before throwing out blanket condemnations.

War is inhumane, disgraceful, deplorable. Those peace activists standing out there in front of the Haywood County Courthouse every Wednesday trying to get our politicians to end these wars have been trying to tell us that for all these years.  

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


When the state House voted to override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto and stop letting teachers use payroll deductions to pay dues to the N.C. Association of Educators, a cry went up across the state. The vote came late in the night when the legislature was supposed to be considering another measure; the vote was retribution against the teachers group from Republicans who control the General Assembly because its political contributions went overwhelmingly to Democrats; and it was a further erosion of workers’ rights, a move by the GOP nationwide to weaken workers associations and unions.

All of the above are true. It would be hard to argue otherwise.

By my estimation, though, what’s particularly troubling about this move orchestrated by the General Assembly Republican leadership is that it is potentially just a first step toward what could be an orchestrated evisceration of the state’s public schools. I’m a product of North Carolina public schools, a system that as a whole has never been considered great. Only in the last decade have we increased teacher salaries to a respectable level. Student achievement still has ground to make up with counterparts around the nation. Many counties have put together quality programs that send students on to college prepared for what lies ahead, but others are lacking.

So why take a direct punch at the N.C. Association of Educators? To me that’s like taking a shot at working class people, a charge that the GOP is already having to fight off.

I should point out that my wife is a teacher. Though not active in the NCAE, she was as perturbed as one might expect when I shared the news stories about the vote in the General Assembly. It has to be hard for those who slog away daily in classrooms to think much of legislators who make a career of criticizing public schools and turning teachers into scapegoats for many of society’s ills.

In this case, many conservatives who voted for this measure are arguing that the NCAE isn’t really supportive of better schools, that its leaders are merely about padding their own pockets. That line — that worker groups are more about padding the pockets of its leaders than supporting its front-line workers — is almost always a ludicrous charge.

You know, GOP leaders in the General Assembly are right. Teachers have traditionally supported Democrats. The reason is pretty straightforward: Democrats in North Carolina have led the way as teacher salaries have gone up to a respectable level, as classroom sizes have become manageable, as teacher assistants have become mandatory in the younger grades, as resources have gone toward other early remediation measures designed to get students early intervention to shore up basic skills. When you work to improve the lives and the working environment for a particular group of workers, you earn their loyalty.

By over-riding the governor’s veto, the GOP has only reinforced the belief among teachers that their party doesn’t support our public school system. In this state, the NCAE does not have union-type power. It can’t engage in collective bargaining to demand better conditions for teachers. It can and does hire lobbyists to argue for particular issues.

We have been through a worst-in-a-generation recession, and only now is there a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. In this environment, cuts to state programs and to education are painfully necessary. Teachers don’t like the cuts, and they complained about them and used NCAE money to support candidates who vowed to protect public schools.

It’s one thing for elected leaders to get mad about a lack of support from teachers. It’s an entirely different matter for lawmakers to make a political point by punishing an organization for promoting public education. This one was a mistake.

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


I’ve put my keyboard-soft finger on what is probably the most common flaw of the human species: the unnerving tendency to quit doing what we know is good for us. Or, put another way, to make destructive or unwise choices.

As I contemplate the new year and my family, as I watch my children mature and begin to make decisions that will affect their entire adult lives, I couldn’t help pondering my own adolescence and early adulthood. I made some very, ummm, questionable choices. They should have cost me more than they did. I was lucky.

You’ve probably already figured out that I haven’t discovered anything new here. I remember first studying the ancient philosophers as an undergraduate. A playful professor pointed out Aristotle’s views on what the Greeks called “akrasia.” Excuse the layman’s definition, but it’s basically a theory that expounded on a human’s tendency to do what we know isn’t good for us. This particular professor used Aristotle’s point to poke a little fun at incessant partying, lack of sleep, students coming to class not having read assignments, and other aspects of college life that did not contribute positively to the future we all supposedly were preparing for.

Akrasia. The word works. Smokers know smoking is bad, yet they persist. Watching seven hours of TV a day, not good. Drinking too much alcohol, same thing. Breaking a promise, lying, wasting time, you name it. Every religion addresses this weakness, this impefection in the human condition.

All this self-absorbed introspection as 2012 dawned led to one very simple pledge, and that’s simply to start writing regularly in the pages of The Smoky Mountain News.

When we started this newspaper in June 1999, we did it on a shoestring. We had one salesperson, one designer, and one writer. I was the writer, so I wrote. In those days that was a whole bunch of news stories every week plus columns and editorials. It took a tremendous amount of energy, and I loved it.

Over the years, other responsibilities have steered me away from putting fingers to keyboard and collecting my thoughts in essays and columns. Family commitments, a larger business, and community endeavors all conspired to take valuable time. But like so many entrepreneurs who get sidetracked as their business grows, I still find the greatest satisfaction in the labor of love that led me here in the first place.

I said earlier that I was lucky in that some unwise decisions didn’t hurt me too much. In the same way, I was relatively lucky in choosing a career path from an early age. From the time I took my first journalism class as a high school freshman, I pretty much knew where it was going to lead. I worked at The Fayetteville Observer-Times as a high school student, reporting on regional high school sporting events as teletype machines spewing out AP and UPI news reports from around the country provided a constant background beat.

Once in college, I wrote for the college paper and was further encouraged by a few university professors who complimented my writing skills and stoked a desire to stick with the profession. After a satisfying few years as a carpenter and a bit of traveling, I found myself back in journalism. Five newspapers stints later, we started The Smoky Mountain News.

Which brings me to the here and now. One of my co-workers recently sat in my office and talked about her need to write more, to finally get to work on that novel. That happened a day after I had told my wife about my desire to get back to writing. That’s good timing, and perhaps another little nugget of luck.

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


There’s more than just a little irony the official Small Business Saturday promotion that encourages people to spend their money with small, independently owned businesses on Nov. 26 rather than only with big box retailers. Irony or no irony, though, the message is still relevant — small businesses are the engine of our economy, particularly in areas such as Western North Carolina. Let’s hope consumers remember that truth throughout the entire holiday shopping season, not just on this big kickoff weekend.

Now to the irony. The Small Business Saturday promotion was started by American Express, the huge credit card company that controls almost 25 percent of the credit card market in the U.S. That said, let’s give the company kudos for getting on a bandwagon that many of us have been riding on for years.

Whether it’s this Saturday, Black Friday or anytime between now and Christmas, dedicate a portion of your holiday shopping to local, independently-owned small businesses. These businesses generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years and employ just over half of all private sector employees, according to the Small Business Administration.

When you spend money with these businesses, a higher percentage of those dollars stays in the community. Those business owners and their employees are your friends and neighbors.

During the recent Waynesville election, this issue of local vs. big box was a campaign issue. Some argued that the town’s land-use policies inhibit economic development by making it hard for standard big-boxes or chain stores to build. Alderman Leroy Roberson captured my sentiments exactly when interviewed by our newspaper. Here’s an excerpt from that story from last month:

“Cracker Barrel is not my main concern. We are getting lots of good restaurants without Cracker Barrel,” Roberson said. “I want to create a climate that provides for small business. The big chains can take care of themselves. They have millions of dollars they can invest.”

Roberson said it is appropriate to ask chain stores to respect the towns they come in to.

“They should at least try to become a part of the community, in terms of ‘OK, this is the appearance you have, how can I fit into this?’ Not ‘This is the way we do it everywhere else and if you don’t like, we are not coming,’” Roberson said.

Roberson’s philosophy fits nicely with the argument I feel compelled to make every holiday season. It’s the local businesses — whether art galleries, auto parts stores, restaurants, and local and regional retailers — that make our mountain communities such special places to live. Keep that in mind as you make your spending decisions during the holiday season and throughout the year.

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


The clock is ticking on what will be a rigorous and thorough process to replace long-time Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway.

A series of meetings was held in Waynesville Nov. 16-17 by the firm hired to steer the town through the process, Developmental Associates. The firm’s Stephen Straus met with aldermen, town staff, the business community and the public to gauge their perception of challenges facing Waynesville and important traits for a new manager.

“I can tell you there will be a lot of interest in this job. The town of Waynesville is in an enviable position,” Straus told about 20 community members attending one of the public sessions.

Straus said Galloway’s long tenure in Waynesville and his leadership role in state local government associations means a lot of potential managers are aware of the town and its reputation.

“We have contacted some people who are in this profession, and there are others who just know. There is lots of interest,” Straus said.

At one of the public sessions, there was universal praise for the job Galloway has done in Waynesville. Former Mayor Henry Foy touted the town manager’s demeanor in handling problems, wondering how Developmental Associates’ process will find a similar personality.

“You never see anyone come into Lee’s office who leaves mad,” Foy said. “How do you evaluate that kind of professionalism?”

Straus said perhaps the most important tool he has in finding someone who possesses similar traits to Galloway is Galloway himself.

“Quite often a community or a board does not want a departing manager’s input, but that’s not the case here. Lee has already helped me get names, and he will help look at credentials,” said Straus.

Some of the challenges facing Waynesville, according to those attending the meeting, are: aging infrastructure; continuity of land-use planning; maintaining the emphasis on walkable communities and smart growth; economic development; and realizing that Waynesville is a tourist town.

According to Straus, the town board is still working out what the salary range will be for the new manager. He hopes to post the employment ad in newspapers and professional journals after Thanksgiving and run it the entire month of December.

Following that, the plan is to start screening candidates by Jan. 9, and narrow the pool to about eight candidates. At the end of the process, Straus said the town board will likely ask up to four candidates it thinks are capable of doing the job to visit Waynesville. The board’s challenge, he said, will be to determine which of those is best suited for Waynesville.

Galloway started working as Waynesville’s town manager in March 1994 and will retire in June 2012.


I don’t know Duke Energy CEO James Rogers and don’t have anything against him. But it’s not very hard not to imagine he and the giant utility he runs as the symbolic poster children for much of the discontent brewing in this country right now.

In a recent series of public hearings across North Carolina (including one in Franklin and one in Marion) about Duke Energy’s request for a rate hike, the company’s profits and the pay to its top executives have been mentioned by working-class folks who don’t want to see a 17 percent hike in their power bill. Duke has asked the state Utilities Commission to approve the increase, which would take effect in February 2012 if approved.

According to corporate filings and several news stories, Rogers earned $8.8 million in salary last year and received stock work about $1.35 million. Several other top Duke executives made millions. Also shown by recent corporate filings was a profit rate of 12.5 percent of earnings. Duke had an operating margin of 19.1 percent, which is a pretty good lick in this era. Most of those small businesses who will feel this rate hike would be ecstatic about those profits and that operating margin.

Rogers’ salary and compensation are at a level that puts him in elite company. His compensation is 200 times the salary of someone who makes $50,000 a year. The disparity is jaw dropping.

In addition to Rogers’ huge salary, Duke spent $1.73 million lobbying the federal government in the second quarter of this year. Multiply that out and one would guess that Duke spends somewhere close to $7 million a year trying to influence the votes of the men and woman who are going to make decisions about pollution controls, nuclear energy safeguards, etc.

According to Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group, 115 of the 170 state legislators elected in 2010 got a donation from either Duke or Progress Energy. The PACs of Progress Energy and Duke Energy gave $540,000 to General Assembly candidates in the 2010 election alone. That was more than any other PAC. The two companies are on their way toward a merger that will likely be approved.

And here’s a kicker that might raise some hackles. According to Democracy NC, “The companies are also lobbying the N.C. legislature for an unusual law that would allow them to raise rates automatically to recover the millions spent on developing and building new nuclear or other power plants, even if the construction project is ultimately abandoned. The proposal would make ratepayers, rather than investors, bear the financial risk of expansion operations.”

This is not meant as an anti Duke diatribe. Duke Energy is a popular corporate citizen that gives some of its profits back to the communities it serves. Its executives and employees take part in hundreds of community service organization throughout North Carolina.

But the timing of this request is what is so galling. Duke is reaping huge profits, pays its executives exorbitant salaries, and spend millions lobbying lawmakers who make the rules it has to follow, while at the same it wants the poor, the elderly, the unemployed and struggling small businesses to pay more for power.

The reports about of income disparity and poverty are raining down on us like a tropical storm: largest income disparity in U.S. history between top 1 percent and everyone else; elderly rate of poverty highest it has ever been; income gap between young adults and their parents at highest level ever; student debt at record levels; and more and more.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is lobbying the state Utilities Commission to deny the request. The N.C. Public Staff, which represents the public in these rate hike requests, wants the proposed increase cut by almost two-thirds. Obviously, the opinion of the state’s citizens has been overwhelmingly against the rate hike.

Duke wants more than just the rate increase and the ability to let ratepayers take the risk for its expansion. It also wants the Utilities Commission to up its allowable profit margin to 11.5 percent, up from the 10.7 it is now allowed. The Public Staff recommended a return of 9.25 percent. Most U.S. utilities have been allowed returns of 10 to 10.5 percent in the past five years, according to the  industry trade group Edison Electric Institute.

Taken as a package, this sounds like a big corporation trying to stick it to its customers during an economic recession. Duke’s political clout, however, means it will in all likelihood get at least part of the increase. That’s my bet. Any takers?

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


I followed the Janet Moore controversy from the beginning to its conclusion, which was all of three days. The former vice president of marketing for Mission Hospital made a mistake — a mistake that became very public — and paid a high price by losing a job she had held since 1991.

What seems obvious is that Moore was a casualty in a war that involves politics and medical market share, and that the war is far from over. She got caught in the crossfire.

This controversy, however, is also about cultural understanding and the words we use and knowing that what is acceptable in one conversation may be totally out of line in another place at another time. Moore crossed a line, and it cost her a career. In many instances, however, that line is not so clearly marked.


Wrangling over market share

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a short version. An audio recording of Moore speaking at a medical marketing conference earlier this year became fodder in the raging debate among healthcare institutions in Western North Carolina about Mission’s operating agreement with the state.

An excerpt from her comments at that conference was played at a public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 20. She countered that her comments about Mission’s market share were taken out of context. So Park Ridge Hospital officials, who released the earlier, edited version, put her entire conference presentation up on a website. She resigned on Friday, Oct. 21. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported the story on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Here’s what led to Moore’s resignation. At that conference, she told an anecdote about visiting a woman way up in a holler in Haywood County. Here’s how an article by Jon Ostendorff and John Boyle of the Asheville Citizen-Times on Oct. 22 described what she told that audience:

In the recording from the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Marketing Development conference in September, Moore told an anecdote about taking her elderly parents to a remote part of Haywood County.

Moore said they encountered a woman at her trailer “that had in front of it some used appliances and old cars, which is not an unusual sight in our part of the country.”

Moore’s father wanted to know what some pens were in the backyard. At this point, Moore mimicked the woman living there with her “best Haywood County accent,” saying the pens held fighting roosters and curly horned sheep.

“My father said, ‘Lady, what do you do with these things?’ And she said, ‘I sell them on the Internet,’” Moore said. “True story. So here you have this woman in a holler in Haywood County — clearly not investing in dental care, I can tell you — and she is doing e-business. With illegal animals, I might add.”

In the audio recording (which can be found at, go down to picture of Janet Moore and then click on “full presentation” button, and then go about 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the audio to get to the controversial part), Moore’s portrayal of the Haywood County’s accent and her reference to “not investing in dental” care are in poor taste. The ACT story quoted both the chairman of the Haywood County commissioners and the head of the Tourism Development Authority criticizing Moore’s use of stereotypes to describe county residents.

Moore made a mistake. In the audio, she follows up her negative comments by saying that you can’t stereotype rural mountain people, that these folks way back up in the woods are Internet savvy.

Unfortunately, in this case it became clear very quickly that the end did not justify the means.


It is what it is

But what about the comments? Anyone completely outraged about the description? Where do we draw the line when talking about groups of people?

First, of course, is the fact that Moore was in a position where she is paid to say the right things. If you’re a spokesperson or marketing person, a slip of the tongue can be expensive for the company you represent.

In my private life, seldom does a day go by that I don’t hear similar derogatory comments — jokes, by another name — about Yankees and Floridians, or the “left-coasters” in California. As a Southerner who has done a bit of traveling, I’m used to snide or trying-to-be-funny insults coming my way (still happens everyday in television and in movies) about being from the South and living in the Appalachians.

Is it OK for someone here to talk about rude, sarcastic New Yorkers with Yankee accents but not hillbillies with bad teeth and a mountain twang? I guess it’s all about context and timing. Moore’s remarks became a firebomb in the political battle about Mission’s market share. At a different meeting in a less contentious situation, they might have been shrugged off as just being in poor taste.

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


The Occupy Wall Street movement is leaderless, somewhat vague and lacking vision. Still, people are joining in growing numbers around the world in spite of the fact that the movement is flawed in so many very fundamental ways.

And I love it. I’m a sucker for rebels, malcontents, subversives and nonconformists. Always have been and always will be. Makes for challenging parenting. It’s a delicate proposition to encourage one’s children to break the rules and challenge authority while also encouraging them to follow most of the rules and respect teachers, coaches and other adults.

I found my first literary hero in middle school. It was Henry David Thoreau and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which argues that one’s conscience is the moral compass one should follow, not the rules imposed by a state or national government (or, for me during those teen years, silly school rules that wouldn’t let me forego classes on a beautiful late summer day to hang out at the lake with the other malcontents).

It’s a collective moral compass that’s driving this growing movement, telling people that something is fundamentally wrong. In one sense it is a very simple reaction to the country’s problems, such as the fact that the disparity between CEO compensation and average worker pay has doubled in the last decade. Or that political leaders and parties vote against issues they once supported and that might help the country simply because that vote might benefit the opponent or the opposition party.

This all sounds simple, but as one writer has said of the protestors, sometimes simplicity can be very complicated.

Reacting against Wall Street greed, in general, is very easy. Then it gets complicated when we are forced to admit that Wall Street only does what government allows it to do (most of the time). The crash followed years of de-regulation and laissez-faire enforcement from both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Then there are the Occupy Wall Street attacks on capitalism. Capitalism can be very, well, dog-eat-dog, rewarding the most successful with untold riches. But it has helped us  create a very large, very important social safety net. It also encourages entrepreneurship and individualism and invention, which have become synonymous with the American identity and has been the catalyst for making us the leader of the free world.

What these protests lack in intensity and message they make up for in inclusion. All are welcome, whether it’s aging hippies or college students, union supporters and anti-war pacifists, the unemployed and the stay-at-home dad. The shared values are frustration, anger, helplessness and — optimism. The belief that knitting together people from varied backgrounds and beliefs can make a difference in government and in the economy is refreshing. This a big-net, wild-eyed kind of optimism.

And while it shares the belief in the power of democracy that is touted by the Tea Party, it is radically different. Tea Partiers talk about taking America back, but it’s not quite clear who we would be taking it back from; they talk about stopping “them” from spending our money or taking our jobs, but again, it’s not quite clear who “them” is.

A colleague of mine said the Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street supporters — both with their passion and their belief that people can wield influence in a democracy — may end up eventually backing into each other and finding common ground.

Perhaps. That would be called compromise, and I think these new protestors and their open-armed inclusion are symbolic of the kind of compromise we need to solve some very big problems. This movement may very well fizzle, but its fundamental philosophy is admirable.

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


The news media in this country is abuzz with talk about North Carolina. Unfortunately, it’s not flattering. What they’re saying is that we are being controlled by an oligarchy of sorts that begins and ends with multimillionaire Art Pope, the discount store heir who has effectively bought control of state politics.

The magazine story that has lit the national fire starts right here in Western North Carolina, detailing the tight 2010 legislative race in which Franklin orthodontist Jim Davis beat former judge and senator John Snow of Murphy for a state Senate seat.

The piece in the Oct. 10 issue of the New Yorker is titled “State for Sale, a conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds”

The reporter, Jane Mayer, was already well known for reporting on billionaires Charles and David Koch and their political influence. In the week since this more recent article was published, Mayer has been on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC cable news show. Here are a couple of excerpts from Mayer’s article:


That fall, in the remote western corner of the state, John Snow, a retired Democratic judge who had represented the district in the State Senate for three terms, found himself subjected to one political attack after another. Snow, who often voted with the Republicans, was considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, and his record reflected the views of his constituents. His Republican opponent, Jim Davis — an orthodontist loosely allied with the Tea Party — had minimal political experience, and Snow, a former college football star, was expected to be reelected easily. Yet somehow Davis seemed to have almost unlimited money with which to assail Snow.

“…. After the election, the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan, pro-business organization, revealed that two seemingly independent political groups had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow — a huge amount in a poor, backwoods district. Art Pope was instrumental in funding and creating both groups, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Real Jobs NC was responsible for the ‘Go fish!’ ad and the mass mailing that attacked Snow’s ‘pork projects.’ The racially charged ad was produced by the North Carolina Republican Party, and Pope says that he was not involved in its creation. But Pope and three members of his family gave the Davis campaign a four-thousand-dollar check each — the maximum individual donation allowed by state law.


Back during the last General Assembly election, I kept reading about Pope and his influence. While the New Yorker will get credit for nationalizing this story, the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham-based nonprofit that professes to be a “nonpartisan media, research and education center,” did the first real reporting. Way back in 2010 it, in conjunction with the newspaper The Independent, was reporting on Pope’s growing political clout (the institute’s Facing South online magazine is one of the best currently reporting on issues facing North Carolina and the South).

This Mayer story turns on three interesting points.

One is the tie to Western North Carolina. Not only does Mayer use the Snow-Davis race as an example of how Pope and his allies smeared candidates to influence elections, she also quotes Asheville’s Martin Nesbitt, the leading Democrat remaining in the state Senate after the Republican takeover of 2010. Further, Pope’s wealthy parents sent him to the Asheville School. Here’s a description of him from the New Yorker article, an aside from when Mayer was interviewing Pope in his office:


He is now fifty-five years old and bespectacled, but the energy with which he darted from one file to the next suggested why his classmates at the Asheville School, an elite preparatory academy, had nicknamed him the Flea. He was on the school’s basketball team, and had such a strong tendency to spin and bounce off his opponents that he was often given personal fouls.


The second — and perhaps most important — point in the New Yorker piece and the Facing South stories is how much control Pope is indeed wielding in our state. He doesn’t only contribute to campaigns, but he is the primary benefactor for organizations such as the John Locke Institute. That conservative think tank’s writers are regular contributors to newspapers and talk shows and helps set the state’s political agenda. So Pope is savvy enough — and rich enough — to push his message through the media and by influencing campaigns.  

Three groups for which Pope’s foundation and family are the primary benefactors — Civitas Action, Real Jobs NC and Americans for Prosperity — contributed 75 percent of the $2.6 million spent on the state’s 2010 legislative races by independent, nonparty groups. All of that went to Republicans who won a historic majority in both houses of the state legislature. According to Facing South, Pope’s support helped influence 18 GOP victories in those 2010 legislative races. That’s a lot of power for one person, regardless of his political alignment.

Finally, according to Mayer, it’s important to look at the potential for Pope’s influence on national politics. Republicans are now in control of the General Assembly for congressional redistricting. As expected, the new maps will favor Republicans (as they would have favored Democrats if they had been in power — such is the system). North Carolina went to Obama in 2008, and is considered a swing state. The new GOP clout will certainly influence the 2012 presidential race. If he helps hand North Carolina to the Republicans in 2012, Pope has set himself up to become a powerbroker on the national stage.

Times are changing. A recent Supreme Court decision opened the door for corporations to spend more on politics, and so we will see the super-rich who have millions to spend doing just that. And it’s all legal. All voters can do is try to stay informed and keep tabs on who is pulling the levers behind the curtain. In North Carolina, it’s Art Pope who’s playing Oz.

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


Voices from the American Land — along with local partners Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, the Wilderness Society, Tuckasegee Reader, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South, Canary Coalition, Mad Batter Café, Tuckasegee Alliance, New Native Press and City Lights bookstore — presented the Every Breath Sings Mountains event at the Jackson County Public Library on Sept. 23.

The speakers, music and readings drew a packed house to the new library. The entire event was also recorded, and the video is both entertaining and thoughtful.

For those who couldn’t make it, organizers videotaped the entire event. Here are the links, in the proper chronological order.

Part 1: Music by Ian Moore Song and Dance Bluegrass Ensemble, introductions, speaker Matt Tooni
Part 2: Music, speakers George Frizell and William Shelton
Part 3: Thomas Raine Crowe reads from new book; Barbara Duncan speaks and sings; Brent Martin speaks
Part 4: Robert Johnson speaks; Panel Discussion begins with Keith Flynn, George Ellison, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, Charles Frazier
Part 5: Panel Discussion continues
Part 6: Panel Discussion is completed; Music by Ian Moore & Co.; Credits


Here is some information about some of the writers and community members who took part in and organized the event:

• Thomas Rain Crowe is an award winning author, poet an essayist. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment for 2006. Crowe’s literary archives have been purchased by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He is a respected, outspoken advocate for the conservation and protection of the Southern Appalachian landscape, her people and her culture. Crowe lives on a small farm along the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Barbara R. Duncan is education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which she co-authored with Brett Riggs, received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Her book Living Stories of the Cherokee received a Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and World Storytelling Award. The singer-songwriter has also written a poetry chapbook, Crossing Cowee Mountain. Duncan lives on a tributary of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society. Martin is a recipient of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s James S. Dockery Environmental Leadership Award. Martin has published two collections of poetry, Poems from Snow Hill and A Shout in the Woods. Martin’s poems and essays have appeared in Pisgah Review, North Carolina Literary Review, New Southerner, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. Martin lives in the Cowee community.

Western Carolina University historian George Frizzell, Jackson County farmer and former commissioner William Shelton, and Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe. There will also be “a conversation with authors” featuring authors Charles Frazier, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, George Ellison and Keith Flynn. The Ian Moore Song & Dance Bluegrass Ensemble will provide music. There will also be a meet-the-authors book-signing reception catered by the Mad Batter Café. And all audience members will receive a free copy of the chapbook.


The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a resilient, independent spirit. When the U.S. government forced the majority of the tribe to head west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, those who remained were the defiant ones, and it is their offspring who now form the nucleus of the tribe. It is these Native Americans who are using the profits from what was originally a controversial casino to help rediscover their cultural identity.

Prior the construction of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the Eastern Band were a poor tribe with little influence. Tribal members who lived in Cherokee struggled to make a living in a tourism-dominated economy. Because there was little industry and because the region was so isolated, the area around Cherokee, Swain and Graham counties perennially topped the state in unemployment, averaging around 25 percent for many years when the state first started keeping statistics.

Much of that changed with the coming of casino profits. The tribe found itself with a newfound wealth and power. What’s noteworthy in this transformation is how that money has been used to invest in Cherokee and its people, when it could have gone to line the pockets of only the most powerful.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation might be the most notable symbol of this transformation. The Foundation was created as part of the second gaming compact with the state in 2000, and it has funneled millions of dollars into cultural, historical and economic development projects on the Qualla Boundary and surrounding region. Those investments include the Cherokee language immersion program, a Native American art institute, helping restore rivercane for traditional basketmaking, investing in traditional Cherokee arts such as metalsmiths, making broadband more available in rural Western North Carolina and dozens of other worthwhile projects.

The tribe itself has built a new school that uses green technology and celebrates tribal traditions, invested in health care and public safety, and is teaching its youth how to wisely manage the per capita payments they receive from casino profits. It also helps each of its high school graduates pay for college. Men and women who work for the tribe earn good wages and benefits.

In other words, the tribe is investing in itself, its people and its traditions. When you talk to members of the tribe today, the pride in what is happening in Cherokee is obvious.

There are still problems in Cherokee, just as there are everywhere in this country. But over the past decade those of us who live here have witnessed a resurgence among the Eastern Band that surpasses what most thought possible when gambling was first approved. They’ve used the casino profits wisely, to say the least. That’s a credit to the Eastern Band members and its leadership.

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


Once you hit the Haywood County line after heading west on Interstate 40 out of Asheville, Western Carolina University is the acknowledged cultural focal point for all the remaining seven counties in this southwestern corner of our great state. We expect vision and smarts from university leaders, the professors and the students it graduates. We expect those same leaders to value the culture and history of this region, and to help us preserve, protect and brag about our assets.

That’s why it is refreshing to see new Chancellor David Belcher re-start a strategic planning process that he hopes will help steer the university as it deals with the new realities of state budget cuts and other financial challenges.

Many in this region take for granted the gem that we have in WCU. All it takes, though, is a roll call in our public schools and community colleges, small businesses, financial institutions, arts communities and the local governments to see the impact of this university. Its graduates are our leaders, particularly in the seven western counties. WCU and this region are inseparable.

I think the university recognizes this special relationship, though some of its leaders have placed a higher value on it than others. As long as these ties remain strong and grow even deeper, both the university and the region will be better off.


Town Public Works Director Fred Baker. Town Planner Paul Benson. Planning board member Ron Reid. Concerned citizens like Bicycle Haywood’s Cecil Yount. Realtor Brian Noland.

That’s a short list of those who think the state Department of Transportation’s initial plan for Waynesville’s South Main Street does not fit what Waynesville needs. We offer our wholehearted support to those who want something better than a four-lane road with a raised median.

By the time this edition of The Smoky Mountain News hits the streets, a community brainstorming session to gather ideas for the road will be in the history books (it was held Sept. 20). But that doesn’t mean those who want something better shouldn’t continue to let those in charge know exactly how they feel.

Those who want to maintain the character of Waynesville while still allowing Wal-Marts and Best Buys are asking for a smaller road — three lanes at most — with roundabouts instead of traffic lights, bike lanes, and trees between the road and the sidewalks. This is the vision laid out in the Waynesville’s comprehensive land-use plan, and it’s one I believe a majority of citizens want.

Many of us who argue for smart growth have been in this situation too many times: disagreeing with DOT and seeking a compromise that is about more than just moving cars quickly from one spot to another. In this case Waynesville has had to spend its own money to hire a traffic consultant in hopes it can convince the state bureaucracy that it knows what is best for its own community. It’s frustrating to be in the same position again and again.

But it’s a good fight, one worth all the time and energy we can give it. When roads are done wrong — Russ Avenue in Waynesville, N.C. 107 in Sylva — the problems linger for many, many years. Getting it right on the front end is critical.


Our cover story last week on Macon County’s Phil Drake and his business success (“Seizing Opportunity,” ran at a time when there is great controversy in this country about how best to nurture the economy and shake the lingering recession.

Drake is a local example of someone taking a small family business and growing it exponentially, taking some lumps along with way but finding his way through problems. Just as important as his business success, though, is the commitment to Macon County and Western North Carolina shown by Drake, his family, and his network of businesses.

The global economy has brought riches to many people and lifted many from poverty to the middle class. At the same, however, it has robbed many communities of the ability to control their own destinies. Decisions made in boardrooms thousands of miles away take jobs from thousands, leaving families and communities to pick up the pieces.

The “buy local, shop local, do business locally” concept can only go so far, but we in this region can help lift ourselves up by pushing it to its limits. It’s easy to shop with the big boys and to buy stuff over the internet, but in most cases it doesn’t do as much to help your neighbor.

Phil Drake is proving that doing business locally when possible can lead to great successes. Whether you’re a consumer or a businessperson, there’s never been a more important time to take that lesson to heart.

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


I don’t listen to local radio so much anymore, but the story in last week’s edition about the demise of WRGC in Sylva still struck and emotional chord somewhere inside.

When I say I don’t listen to local radio regularly, I mean the very small, very local AM and FM stations like WRGC in Sylva or WPTL in Canton or similar stations in Franklin and Bryson City. Almost every small town has one or two. When I’m in my car I tune them in, but that’s not a lot of listening. I do love nothing better during night driving in the mountains than to see what kind of AM signals I can pick up by just scanning through the dial, and that method leaves me listening to local stations as well as radio personalities from far-off cities in the Midwest.

No, those super-local stations have become, in many ways, irrelevant. I listen to four radio stations here in the mountains, and in this order — WNCW 88.7, WCQS at 95.3 (a very close second), and 104.9, and on rare occasions the WCU station — 90.5 —when I can pick it up.

We even did business with WRGC a few years back. We were the new kid in town then, and our newspaper was trying to gain an audience in Jackson County. We would sponsor the newscasts of local events, hoping to familiarize its listeners with what we were doing.

Perhaps the closing of another business shouldn’t resonate so heavily. But I’m in the media business. When local radio — or local media of any kind — dies a death related to an unsustainable business model, I start sniffing around for clues to survival. Secondly, I’m a small business owner. Anytime someone else shutters their doors I feel some of their pain, and questions about the recession and what it will take to ride out this storm come front and center.

My description earlier, of these stations being super-local, was in all likelihood wrong. These stations used to be hyperlocal. But to keep costs down, the companies that own many of these little stations program national talk shows and no live disc jockey segments where some engineer in some faraway place is keeping an eye on things. This model takes away the local part of a local radio station.

That’s the first step on the path to irrelevance — trying to do the same thing the satellite and internet stations are doing. That’s exactly what happened to newspapers during their great demise in the 1980s and 1990s. Big corporations bought them all up, and so they quit focusing on their local communities and instead focused on profits. The quality of the product suffered, and much of their news was and remains wire copy, the same stories we get from a dozen different places these days.  

And it happened at the same time some very passionate internet bloggers and news sites started, which allowed them to gain a foothold. This sent many good newspapers to their grave, and rendered many others irrelevant.

But there’s a glimmer of hope. We small guys are reporting stories no one else reports. We’re figuring out the internet and even social media, finding ways to grab pieces of those advertising pies. It’s a struggle, but show me companies in any industry — not just media — that aren’t struggling these days.

Here in Western North Carolina, I think we’ll also benefit from the growing realization that it is important to support the local economy. Whether it’s at the farmers market, the local pottery studio, the insurance guy down the street or the dentist you see at the coffee shop, there’s a growing acceptance that if we send our dollars out of the community we are sapping our community’s strength and vibrancy. This only works, though, if the local business produces a quality product. Otherwise, the local side of the equation doesn’t hold up.

We work and live and play in a very unique place. The vacuum created by WRGC’s demise will be filled, and there is a lot of commotion going on right now in Jackson County surrounding the issue of local radio. But we are all better off when there are many media sources doing good work and competing and complementing each other. Well-done local radio can still work. Here’s hoping WRGC finds its way back on the air and into the media mix.

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


Been to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino? Even if you don’t gamble, I’d encourage a walk through. My bet is you’d be absolutely astounded at what is happening in Cherokee.

I took a media tour a couple of weeks ago and, honestly, couldn’t believe what I saw. The reality that there is something that huge, that glitzy and that busy juxtaposed so near secluded mountains, vast wilderness areas and all of our very quaint, very small downtowns at first take seems a little odd.

What’s not odd, though, is how Harrah’s has changed the fortunes of the tribe — and the region — for the better. In fact, as this recession lingers, it’s painful to imagine how Cherokee, Swain and Jackson counties would be faring without the casino revenue.

The casino, in what is admittedly an understatement, has blossomed. It now employs more than 2,000, and that will go up to 2,400 once the current expansion project is done. It attracts about 3.6 million gamers annually, making it the state’s largest tourist attraction.

And now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wants approval, to use a poker term, to go all in: it wants dealers instead of video machines, a move that it estimates would add at least another 400 jobs. Along with those dealers, say gambling industry insiders, would come tens of thousands of more patrons.

The governor and the tribe are both playing hardball in the dealer negotiations, and reportedly the two are not very close to a deal. The state wants an agreement with the tribe for a percentage of casino revenue for its coffers before allowing dealers. While we agree that the state should gets its fair share, we also hope state leaders take into account what Harrah’s provides for a region that has little industry, few large corporations, and traditionally doesn’t get the attention that is lavished on the coast or the urban centers in the Piedmont. I suspect every leader in this part of the state wants the casino to continue to prosper.

Here’s what leaders in Raleigh need to understand: the casino is the right kind of tourist attraction for the mountain region. It doesn’t pollute like a traditional factory (and thereby spoil the attraction of the mountains), doesn’t add to urban sprawl, doesn’t strain infrastructure, and its patrons come for a few days, spend their money and leave.

The state spends millions on tax breaks to attract jobs in other parts of the state, and yet it could shackle the next planned casino expansion because it wants more revenue than the tribe has so far been willing to relinquish.

It’s been more than a decade since the state let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to gambling. Not only did leaders roll out the welcome mat for the casino, it has since set up a lottery. So there’s no moral or ethical argument for delaying approval of the tribe’s attempt to win approval for dealers. It’s all about the money.

The governor, state leaders and the tribe need to get a deal done so Western North Carolina’s lead economic engine can reach its full potential.

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


Many people who lead exceptional lives never break an arm trying to pat themselves on their own back. They just do good things, usually for others and most of the time just because they know it’s the right thing to do. When these people pass away, the memories they leave are markers on the timeline that is our life, a place where meaningful moments and fond recollections pile up and keep us smiling, crying or maybe just thinking.

An old journalism book I hold onto touts a crusty editor’s adage, and I paraphrase, that “everyone has a story, but some are just better than others. Your job is to get good at making that distinction.” In the last couple of weeks two unassuming men who were giants in their respective communities passed away, and their stories have been told in numerous newspaper articles. Here are a couple of more thoughts to add to those well-deserved epitaphs.


I was out of the country when I heard that Keith Wyatt had passed away. Keith was a former teacher and principal in Haywood County. A teacher who worked for years with Keith is a close friend of mine, and she has always put him on a pedestal. She says he was a great principal and a leader who was able to make hard decisions with a twinkle in his eye and with humor.

I met Keith in the 1990s when, as editor of The Mountaineer, we were producing a series of stories on a school bond referendum in Haywood County. He was principal at the old Hazelwood Elementary School (now the Folkmoot Friendship Center), and school leaders thought he would be a great choice to demonstrate to the newspaper how badly the bond money was needed.

And he did. The school was literally falling down around the students and teachers. It was drafty, moldy, cold, paint was peeling, the power supply was inadequate, it was unsafe, and the rooms were too small. In short, it was a dump.

There was great irony, though, in the choice of Keith to demonstrate the need for the referendum. He certainly pointed out the problems, and there were plenty. But he also left me with the impression that he and his teachers would get their jobs done if you put them in a barn without electricity. I left impressed with his commitment to his teachers and his students.

I didn’t really get to know Wyatt, though, until a few years later when I was asked to join the Folkmoot USA Board of Directors. Keith was president of the board at that time, and at my very first meeting he made a point of coming up to me afterward and personally welcoming me to the board. During his presidency and afterwards we worked together a lot.

Years later, I sat in the same seat Keith had occupied as president of that board. And like so many others who have spoken up in the past few days, his quiet, steady influence in my early days with that organization had a lot to do with the years of dedication. He was an exemplary leader.


Sen. Bob Carpenter from Franklin recently passed away. I didn’t know Carpenter personally, but what I do fondly remember about him is a style of politicking that is fast fading but worth emulating.

Sen. Bob and I disagreed on many fundamental issues. Those disagreements, though, never got in the way of a very cordial and respectful relationship. When I was at The Mountaineer and later at The Smoky Mountain News, the eight-term senator would often just stop by the office when returning from Raleigh after a legislative week or when passing through.

Almost always those visits were unannounced and short. But they were very informative. Today lawmakers send out email blasts about what took place during the week in Congress or at the General Assembly. This was before email had become so ubiquitous, and in five or 10 minutes he would go over the week’s happenings.

Sometimes he wanted to tell me how he disagreed with something we had written in a news story or I had written in an editorial, but it was always done very politely and warmly. We could agree to disagree and be respectful of each other’s positions. With Sen. Bob’s passing, we lose another link to an era not so long ago when political differences didn’t turn people into enemies.

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


From the hotel window in Durban, South Africa, I can see the Indian Ocean. Freighters line the horizon like parapets on a castle wall, waiting their turn to berth at the busiest container port in the entire continent of Africa. The ocean breeze makes the water warm enough to swim even as winter here turns to spring, and we did just that today, splashing in the ocean after a run along the sand.

And we weren’t alone. The beach was packed with vacationers and locals, all enjoying a gorgeous Sunday after a rare cold, rainy spell late last week. One of the locals I was talking to said getting the sun back was a welcome occurrence. “Cape Town is supposed to get the rain in winter, we’re not supposed to get rain. Now things are right.”

It’s easy to get lulled into a sort of stupor in a place like this. I am removed from South Africa’s many problems as we work on press releases high atop the Durban Hilton. But even in this tourist district, I move from place to place among a mix of humanity so diverse it is staggering.

I’ve done a bit of traveling, and nowhere is there a mix of humans so colorful in skin color and dress. It’s a human bazaar, and as we strolled along the promenade along the beach I was as wide-eyed as a kid.

Even here, I am reminded of the politicians in Washington and the last few weeks of debate on the debt ceiling and the country’s future. CNN’s worldwide news service is here to remind me. As this is published on Wednesday, Aug. 3, I expect a deal will have been struck to meet a deadline that, if missed, could have sent our country into the first stages of default.

We should all be frustrated at the way this has played out, as politics has trumped the nation’s best interests. “Like spoiled children,” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as I watched and listened and then moaned and groaned. Each day one side or the other sounded more petulant and immature.

I’m in Durban with Ken Howle, a friend who works at Lake Junaluska who asked me if I’d accompany him to the World Methodist Conference to help with media. Ken was asked by the WMC General Secretary George Freeman to handle all the communications at the conference, and so here we are with a couple of thousand Methodists from all over the world. Ken and I are trying to mix fun and work, taking in the local flavor — including the great beach, a brutal rugby match, and some of the local seafood — while we also prepare for the work of communicating what happens here to Methodists around the world.

I was talking to a woman here from the U.S., one who has traveled the world extensively with her husband, and the debt ceiling debate came up. She seemed frustrated, and reminded us: “Yes, they say when we hiccup, the rest of the world gets a cold; when we get the flu, the rest of the world dies.”

The South African paper today (Sunday, July 31), bemoaned the potential fallout to this troubled country if the U.S. does not get its act together. This is a place that suffers from 25 percent official unemployment, where young and old alike beg on the streets to gather enough money to feed themselves and family members.

Ken spoke with a woman waiting in line with us at a restaurant. She had just returned from America, nine months as a CNA at a Mississippi rest home. She told him she would have never come back but her visa expired. Bongie, a local newspaper editor who’s helping us, said the problems in her native Zimbabwe are much worse than here, and that she came to South Africa to find opportunity.

While our own country and the rest of the world suffers, we can’t find leaders who really care. The problem with America isn’t that we’re prosperous. We should be proud of our successes, developing an economy and a standard of living much of the world still envies.

The problem is that we seem to have forgotten how to lead, how to use our great wealth to fix problems in our country or anywhere else.

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


The holidays are upon us, I’m walking almost normal, and I’m ready to sit on the couch and count my blessings.

First off, I’m thinking how lucky I am. No pain meds, no crutches, no cane, just a big scar down the front of my leg and over my knee that’s healed up nicely. Dr. King did a great job it seems. And my therapy is complete, without any setbacks. Lucky me.

I’m also feeling fortunate for the friends and family that I have. That day late in October when I had my freak hiking accident descending Sam’s Knob, my friends and family were with me. Otherwise, I would have been stuck on that mountain.

We knew something bad was wrong. My left foot dropped into a little rutted part of the trail, wrenched backward and popped, the sound like a .22 rifle going off. I tried to stand up and almost lost my groceries, went pale, and sat back down immediately. My left knee was growing before my eyes, swelling up like a bowling ball. It was clear I wasn’t going anywhere. My quadriceps tendon was ruptured, I found out later, which was why I couldn’t move the lower half of my leg.

David, one of those friends who was with me, left with the kids, got to the car, went down the Parkway until he got a cell phone signal. He called EMS and help was on the way. While they were gone the wives stayed with me, comforting, joking, listening to my griping and cussing. I’m fortunate.

Thankful is too small a word to describe how I feel toward the Cruso Volunteer Fire Department rescue men and men, and the Haywood County EMS crew, and the U.S. Forest Service rangers. At first there were just six of them, and they talked me into taking the pain medication. They didn’t want to hear my whining on the way down, and they promised it would be a rough trip. They’d done this before, so I took their advice. So from that time on, the trip down the mountain was a little fuzzy.

By the time I finally counted, though, more than 20 people were there to help with the litter bearing my injured self, taking turns as they maneuvered down the narrow, rutted trail. These backcountry rescue folks were amazing in their efficiency, their training, their grit. It’s not an easy task hauling someone who weighs almost 200 pounds off a remote mountain. Yeah, I’m thankful these people exist and that they do their job whenever called, like on a beautiful Sunday at the end of October, football games and races on the television, me on my back out in the middle of nowhere. Yeah, I’ve got a lot be thankful for.

I’m also appreciative for all the hoops those at Haywood Regional Medical Center jumped through to get the hospital recertified. I had the opportunity to visit its ER that night, and everyone there was attentive, understanding, and all about the job of taking care of me. I was out in and out in just over two hours. I appreciate that.

I’m also very happy that this damn injury, to the same leg which was in an ankle cast two years ago, won’t have any permanent, lasting effect. Friends scratched their heads when they first saw me on crutches, asking if this had anything to do with the injury I had last year. It was actually two years ago, but, hey, time flies. Seems like yesterday, but I had time for one ski season in between. Happy as I am that this recent injury shouldn’t cause any lasting problems, it still hurts to watch my son snowboard down the mountain while all I can do is watch.

When it comes down to it, I’m very blessed. That’s right, blessed. Tore my leg to pieces, went through surgery, therapy, a little pain and am still healing up, but I am blessed. My wife and kids have shown patience and kindness like I never deserved, especially after the injury two years ago put them through pretty much the same — carry me my coffee, carry by briefcase, can’t do anything to help around the house. Even the hard-hearted co-workers used to tossing lightning quick barbs softened some, brought me coffee one or twice, and put up with my whining. Teenage punks have opened doors for me, old ladies helped me at the post office, and my basketball team of 10-year-olds didn’t run over me and cause any re-injuries.

Truth is, one accident can reveal a whole universe of good deeds springing from simple kindness. It is Christmas, isn’t it.

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


As the economic picture gets more and more bleak, the ironies loom larger and larger. Public school systems, community colleges and the state’s universities are being asked to send money back to the state or plan reductions in the coming year to help cover the looming budget shortfall, meaning classrooms will inevitably suffer. Meanwhle, the federal government is about to send billions to the automobile industry to try and save jobs and the key component of our country’s remaining industrial sector.

Money cut from schools while money is sent to the ailing private sector may appear contradictory, but in truth both measures seem to make some sense. At least they make sense given these extraordinary times.

Education ranks as the state’s number one expense. Our public schools, community colleges and universities account for 53 percent of the state budget, a whopping $11.4 billion out of a spending plan that tops $21.3 billion. When a government entity or a private business looks for savings, you go first to where most of your money is spent. A very small percentage savings in this area usually equals a lot of money.

An already pinched public school system will find the money somewhere. While some argue that the state throws too many resources at the school system, we vehemently disagree with that assessment. To the contrary, we have been pinching our public schools and public universities for a couple of decades. There’s not enough money for necessary programs, and the political emphasis on standardized test results have forced too many of those scarce resources into remediation and testing at the expense of culturally significant areas like foreign language and the arts and much-neglected areas like special education, programs for the academically gifted and libraries. And let’s not forget the woeful shortage of guidance counselors.

That said, we also believe that each individual school system can certainly do a better job of spending the money they are allotted. It’s always a good drill to pore over the budgets and scrutinize the spending. The schools will find a way to keep going despite the reductions. Dedicated classroom teachers and administrators are used to this. As administrators in last week’s story about the cuts noted, most of the reductions will come from administrative staff and supplies. Unfortunately, if these reductions become permanent the repercussions will work themselves down into the classroom over time.

As for helping out the auto industry, here’s the troubling truth — what else is there to do? Philosophically, it’s a terrible precedent for taxpayers to become responsible for helping out failing private businesses. But given the current state of the economy and the monumental job losses already suffered in this economy, it would be foolhardy to let the market deal with this problem. Some estimate that as many as 3 million jobs are tied to the auto industry. The ripple effect of the Big Three automakers going under could be too much for our shaky economy to handle.

You know, the larger issue here is that the line in the sand is now a moving target. That’s the line separating government involvement in the private sector and the free market capitalist system that we in America have embraced as the road to prosperity. Are we moving toward a European style mix of socialism and capitalism? How much will our economy have changed once we come out of this recession? If Democrats and Barack Obama move too far to the left on the economy, could it give rise to a viable third party that embraces a Democratic social philosophy and a more right-leaning view of the economy?

All important questions, no doubt, but the matter at hand is preventing further economic collapse. The best way to do that is to help the auto industry. A compromise between Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Bush administration over the weekend would use an existing fund created to pay for fuel-efficient automobile research to bail out the Big Three of Detroit. That seems a good compromise, one both parties will likely support.

When times get as tough as this, lots of the eternal verities will get smashed like champagne glasses in a fireplace to celebrate some new oath to a different kind of future. When I find myself arguing that it’s OK to cut money from schools and it’s necessary to use my tax money to help out Detroit, then a threshold has been crossed. Here’s to a brave new future, whatever it may hold.

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


I’ve been volunteering with the Folkmoot USA International Dance Festival for about 15 years. It’s one of the most culturally rich, unique events in these mountains. It was going on before the Iron Curtain was raised, bringing dancers from those former communist countries to the U.S. for some eye-opening adventures.

Today, as terrorists lurk in shadowy places around the world and political divisions remain firmly entrenched, the message of this festival remains as strong as ever: people are more alike than they are different, and overcoming political and religious differences isn’t all that difficult when you focus on sharing instead of dividing. For the 28 years that Folkmoot has been in existence, politics has never won out over the sharing of traditions.

During the planning for many of the festivals in past years, some of us on the Folkmoot Board had nagging worries in the back of our minds that some countries would simply not get along. But it never happens, at least not for any kind of geopolitical reasons.

No, the worst we’ve had in 28 years are disagreements over who should do the finale, complaints about beds not being comfortable or rooms being too hot. Some of these are problems that have to be dealt with — and thank goodness for the Folkmoot staff — but these aren’t game-changers.

Folkmoot is an opportunity to forget politics and put xenophobic notions aside, and I would encourage everyone reading this to do just that and enjoy one of the performances happening in your community over the next week or so (July 22-31). You won’t be disappointed.


I wrote a story for this year’s Folkmoot Guidebook about the history of the festival. While doing the research, I learned about an early attempt to bring Folkmoot under the tent of Bele Chere, Asheville’s huge street festival.

Charles Starnes, a former Tuscola High School principal and Folkmoot volunteer, was a close friend of Dr. Clint Border, who founded the festival. After Folkmoot’s first festival in 1984, it became very popular very quickly. Asheville’s own Bele Chere started in 1979, and was a small event compared to what it has become today.

Starnes told me — and Brenda O’Keefe of Joey’s Pancakes confirmed — that early on Bele Chere organizers contacted Folkmoot about bringing the festival to Asheville and running it in conjunction with Bele Chere. The idea was that the two festivals together could turn into something really big.

According to both Starnes and O’Keefe, Dr. Border was absolutely adamant that moving the festival to Asheville was not even open to discussion. Folkmoot, he said, would always be based in Haywood County. Twenty-eight years later, it is still here and is very successful.

As for Bele Chere, well, it did not need Folkmoot to thrive. It has become Asheville’s signature event and one of the largest street festivals in the country.


And now for a little politics.

The current debate about debt and spending in the U.S. has highlighted a fundamental flaw of democracy: can people vote against their self-interest in the name of shared sacrifice?

As democracies across Europe — Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and now Italy — teeter on the verge of insolvency, governments are struggling to find a middle ground. Those on opposing sides of the political divides are whipping up their constituents, just like here in the U.S.

Many people have seen this coming and been writing about it for years. We have created social welfare programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — that have become very expensive. The senior citizens who get those benefits aren’t about to support cuts. Military spending here is huge, but those states and communities who depend on military bases don’t want them downsized or closed. The wealthy don’t want to pay more taxes, but they are the ones who can afford it. And on and on.

To fix these problems, I have to vote for leaders who will vote against my self-interest. So do you. The big question is whether any democracy can take this step, where the majority votes against what will benefit them in the short run.

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


Redistricting is always political, and voters on both sides have to accept that. The party with a majority will get districts that it hopes will advance its ideology.

But the recently released map for our 11th Congressional District has ripped out the cultural and business heart of Western North Carolina. By taking a large part of Asheville out of the 11th, we’re left with a district lacking a center, merely a collection of mountain counties strung along the spine the Smokies.

Look, there’s a lot most of us don’t like about Asheville. Most of us in this part of the state prefer small towns and isolated mountains and we don’t like traffic and crowds. Some of us can’t stand the very idea of malls and mega shopping centers.

Still, it is the metropolis of our region. We go there for festivals, we go there to shop for big-ticket items, to attend concerts and other cultural events. We use its hospitals. Many of us go there everyday to work, returning to our small towns every evening.

It gives our district more clout to have a vibrant, growing city whose name constantly comes up around the country as one of the best places to live and raise a family.

On the other side of the coin, I imagine folks in Asheville might be more upset than we are. Now they have to share a representative with Gastonia, a former mill town that has become, more or less, a suburb of Charlotte. There’s little hope that a representative from that new Piedmont district will actually know anything at all about Asheville, which is a mountain town through and through.

Redistricting is difficult and complicated, no doubt, and there is no mandate to think about a region’s culture and history. But Asheville and all of Buncombe County should be in the district that includes the seven western counties. In this case, we belong together, and I hope the lawsuit challenge that is sure to come succeeds.


A report sent to the General Assembly last month recommended — for all intents and purposes — that all three community colleges west of Buncombe merge administrative functions with a larger institution. This is just a bad idea that hopefully will be shelved.

The report’s intent was to find ways to save money at the state’s community college system. That’s a great idea, but unfortunately it is those of use in smaller, rural counties that would suffer from the proposal.

According the report, community colleges with less than 3,000 full-time equivalencies (which is sort of like a full-time student) would merge many of its accounting and administrative positions with the larger colleges. That means no president and no deans locally. Haywood, Southwestern and Tri-County community colleges all have less than 3,000 full-time equivalencies.

Right now, community colleges get 27 percent of their funding from the counties where they are located. Cut the staff, get rid of the local presidents and move staff to Asheville, and you can kiss that money good bye. The local county commissioners would not pay, I’ll guarantee it. Then the savings would disappear.

Plus, community colleges by definition are supposed to serve and reflect the communities where they are located. Without local leaders, they would lose that local focus and the ability to work closely with the local business community.

Finally, this fundamental change would only save a pittance: $5 million out of a $1.2 billion state budget. That’s less than one half of 1 percent. That speaks, it seems to me, to a pretty efficient operation.

Our community colleges are going to take their budget cut from this General Assembly session and make do as best they can. But this merger plan is just a bad idea that would do much more harm than good.

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


A week before this week’s dedication of the new Jackson County Library complex, this newspaper’s 12th birthday passed almost unnoticed by those of us who work to put it out each week. Where there used to be celebrations, we just don’t make a big deal out of it anymore. Another year, another number — now at 13 — on the volume that shows up on the front of each week’s paper.

The first edition of The Smoky Mountain News hit the streets of Western North Carolina on June 2, 1999. The Jackson County Library saga has run like a thread through our paper’s history, starting that first year when there was talk about expanding the library into the land where the Hooper House now stands.

This issue was has been important to me professionally because it acquainted me with so many Jackson County leaders. After having been a reporter and editor in Haywood for nearly eight years, this story got my feet wet in Jackson and was the first issue our newspaper got very involved with. From day one we’ve covered it very closely, following all the twists and turns.

Way back then I got to know people like Jay Denton and Stacy Buchanan, Gail Findlay and Cecil Groves, Julie Spiro and Joyce Moore and many others as these community leaders all got involved in this long, somewhat convoluted debate.

Now, it ends with the Sylva’s oldest Victorian-era home — the Hooper House (once slated for demolition to make way for a new library) — serving as the gateway for visitors and the courthouse (sitting empty and unused all these years) getting a second life. What was once the home of law and justice is now the epicenter of culture and history for Jackson County.

In an era where football stadiums and corporate headquarters too often depict our most ambitious building projects, it is nothing short of brilliant that the citizens of Jackson County have, through heart-rending, sometimes tumultuous debate, ended with this library and the renovated Hooper House. It’s one of those not-so-small miracles that define a community, showing what it values and what is important. What a grand statement.

I told someone last week that an idea was percolating for a column about our newspaper’s anniversary coming at the same time as the library dedication. To me the correlation is simple: when we started this paper, we did so under the pretense that people in this region would value a journalistic endeavor that sought to reach between counties to discuss issues that are important to all of us who live in these mountains.

We are no repository of learning, like the library, but this newspaper has taken a stand against the notion that everyone wants short, surface-level articles without meat and depth. We’ve rebelled a bit against the notion that newspapers needs to dummy down to a populace that has a short attention span and can’t digest complicated issues.

There’s no doubt we lose a lot of readers because of what we don’t do with our newspaper. We don’t try to be a community newspaper — this region has several that are very strong and very good — because that’s not our role. We aren’t an entertainment and music mag, though we do try to cover these areas. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are a hybrid, and our goal is to be interesting, informative and useful each week. Our success, I believe, is a testament to some of the same values that led to the success of the drive to build this new library.

There are many who would argue that neither libraries nor newspapers are needed these days. The digital literary catalogues created by companies like Amazon and Google and the Internet’s infinite news sources have rendered us both obsolete. At least that’s what I’ve heard — at least about newspapers — many, many times since we unloaded those first issues in those brand new blue boxes 12 years ago.

But here’s the truth: both the library and most good newspapers are embracing the digital revolution while still acknowledging many peoples’ abiding love affair with real words on real paper.

What’s important, at least by my estimation, is that this region still shows such strong support for knowledge and civic engagement. That’s worth remembering as we celebrate the people and the accomplishments that led to this one-of-a-kind facility atop that little knoll in downtown Sylva.

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


What do Barack Obama and my son have in common? They both visited Ireland in May. Obama, though, was proud to partake of a pint of the national drink, Guinness Stout, and was shown on dozens of television stations imbibing. My son wouldn’t take a sip, no matter the teasing. Good for him. He’s only 12, for God’s sake.

It was my father-in-law who made the call about bringing Liam on our guys’ trip to Ireland. The idea was to take Bill Sullivan — my father-in-law — to the country his relatives emigrated from to Canada, eventually making their way to Detroit. At first the plan was for the adult males in the family — my father-in-law, my brother-in-laws Patrick, Joe, and Jim, and Patrick’s son, Matthew, who had just graduated from Florida State — to make the trip.

When we sprung the surprise on Bill, his response was almost  immediate. “We gotta take Liam. He’ll be the life of the trip,” he said.

I wondered how Liam would travel with six men, if he would even like it. Most of all, though, I worried about what he would eat. Few humans would survive even a couple of days on his bland diet. I can use my fingers to count what my son will eat. It goes something like this — pasta, pizza, cereal, bag soup, select sandwiches, and ice cream. He’s gotten to where he’ll mix it up with a few beans and, after a bit of cajoling, will even try a few spinach leaves.

In addition to this limited selection, remember he’s also 12. That means he begins to ask about the next meal before the one he’s currently consuming is finished. I remember those days, and most parents of boys know exactly what I’m talking about. So I was a bit worried, but his mother and I decided he would survive the dietary struggles during the trip and that the whole international experience would be worth the possible problems. If any problems arose concerning food, we would just deal with them.

His older sisters, though, were a bit put off by the prospect of Liam going, and it had nothing to do with whatever gastronomical challenges he might have to endure. They’ve done their share of traveling, but neither has been to Europe.

“I can’t believe he’ll get to Europe before me,” fumed 18-year-old Megan.

“Unbelievable,” pouted 15-year-old Hannah.

Truthfully, the sisters were just teasing. I think. I’m over 50 and still can’t decipher the intentions of women young or old, even those I’m closest to (you girls were just joking, right?).

Then the teasing from the men started. In addition to his utter lack of creativity with solid foods, Liam’s liquid diet is an either-or proposition. Water or milk. Nothing else. Nada. I’d like to take some credit for this, like those parents whose children enter college and have never had sugar or a soda. But no, it’s just his choice. Milk or water. Water or milk.

“This will be his chance to expand that limited fluid intake to include Guinness,” declared Uncle Patrick Doone, the only among us with living relatives in Ireland. As emails, cards and calls were exchanged during the planning of the trip, the teasing built to a bit of a crescendo, with me doing my bit to egg it on. One day Liam — not knowing whether we were kidding or not — decided he wasn’t going to take it any more.

“Dad, I’m not going to do it. I want y’all to quit saying that,” he pronounced, rather forcefully, one night at dinner.

Point taken. We all enjoyed the teasing, but we put it to bed rather quickly.

So we got to work planning the trip. A couple of days before departure, Liam decided that he and I should play Frisbee across Ireland. “I hear there are a lot of green, grassy fields there,” he said as we looked over a map. Indeed. So we did just that, pulling out the disc whenever possible to celebrate the beauty of island. The green fields did not disappoint.

So we made our tour of castles, manor houses, museums, national parks, rugged coastlines, small villages and large towns, breweries, distilleries, restaurants and pubs across southern Ireland. Every grand trip needs a rallying cry, and we found ours the first day, repeating it across the land: “Six pints of Guinness and a glass of milk.” Onward.

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


A planned new access road that will provide an exit and entrance into Southwestern Community College in Webster should not be a controversial project. The college’s growth, the entire country’s renewed emphasis on public safety in the post-9/11 era, and SCC’s unusual layout running up the side of a hill all point to the need for the project.

But this project has become a hotly debated topic among many in Jackson County now that the chairman of the board of commissioners is criticizing the preference given to the road despite what he says are other important needs in the county.

“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said at a board meeting last week. And, even more pointed, “I told (Department of Transportation officials) this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”

What’s important here is that those critical of the road be sure to separate what are two different issues: SCC’s need for the road versus how this road was OK’d over other projects.

About 11,000 vehicles a day travel past SCC on N.C. 116, right past the school’s entrance. The college has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, jumping from 2,372 full-time students in 2000 to 3,668 full-timers in 2010. That’s a 54-percent growth in enrollment over the past decade, and yet traffic in and out of the school must use the same roads.

The safety issue is one that has gained priority over the last decade. As we pointed out in an article in last week’s newspaper, both Tuscola and Smoky Mountain high schools have had second entrance/exit roads built in recent years to make sure there was more than one way in and out of the campuses. County Commissioner Joe Cowan, in response to Debnam’s criticism, was adamant that public safety is a very important aspect of this project.

Finally, in this economy it pays to feed your biggest existing industry. In Jackson County, that industry is education. Between the two colleges, there is no larger employer in the county and no other entities that attract more people. It’s good for Jackson County when the state invests money in Western Carolina University and SCC.

But it’s easy to understand why the issues raised by Debnam are getting traction.

In Jackson County, the Southern Loop controversy has led to a substantial level of mistrust about just about all Department of Transportation projects. There’s also a new, combustible mix on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners — two new GOP members and one Independent, along with two incumbent Democrats.

Conrad Burrell, who is the regional representative on the state Board of Transportation, is also a long-time member of the SCC Board of Trustees. The fact that he openly supported this road, and that some speculate it could provide a ramp that would aid the proposed Southern Loop — which Burrell also supports and many others in Jackson County don’t — has opened the door for criticism of the SCC project. Debnam thinks Burrell’s support of SCC has pushed this project ahead of others.

Some also think that DOT officials and Burrell are laying the groundwork for the Southern Loop, and that this road getting pushed ahead of others is part of that plan. Let’s hope not. Grouping these two projects could put SCC in the crosshairs of a controversy it in which it doesn’t need to be involved.

Road building decisions are as byzantine as any process in government. It’s never a bad idea to closely examine decisions by state bureaucrats about expenditures, especially when it comes to roads. The DOT has proven itself over the years to be an insular agency that too often makes decisions contrary to the wishes of the taxpayers who are paying its bills. Because of that, the public — and leaders like Debnam — has every right to scrutinize the projects that will affect their communities. Sure, the influence of someone as powerful as Burrell will definitely play a part in which roads are built — that’s his job as a DOT board member.

In this case, though, SCC shouldn’t be punished because of suspicions about the motives of those who support this project. The road is been discussed for more than a decade. Let’s get it done. The other issues will still be there to investigate for as long as anyone wants.

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


North Carolina is facing a budget crisis. I get that. What I don’t get is the proposed slashing of so many worthwhile programs when a relatively simple answer – not a panacea, mind you, but a stopgap way to provide salve to some of the bloodletting – is available.

What I see is ideology running roughshod over smart governance. Sorry, but that’s the truth about the current House budget proposal.

I’ll tell you why objectivity is impossible for me. This budget slashes programs that are very important. As Rep. Ray Rapp said, we’re “eating our feedcorn” with the current House prospoal.

My wife’s a teacher. I know how hard she works all day and then for a couple of hours amost every night, and all I hear is constant criticism about public education. I also know my own children have received pretty good schooling in those public schools.

Back in the day, I was able to attend college without having to rely totally on loans partly because of grants that provided aid to those from disadvantaged households. Among the cuts proposed by House leaders is a reduction in the amount the UNC system needs to meet the needs of students who can’t afford college. This comes after tuition at our public universities has risen nearly 200 percent in the past decade.

Children who are entering school and are at risk will be told to go find help elsewhere because it won’t be funded in this year’s budget. And the teachers in second and third grades won’t have assistants to help. According to one news report, the House budget on public educaiton would place North Carolina 46th in the nation in per pupil spending. Ridiculous.

Community colleges will get a 10 percent cut and the university system a 15 percent cut. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources works every day to protect the state’s land, water and air resources. It would lose hundreds of jobs. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, “GOP leaders have long felt that DENR has given business too hard a time with permitting, and that it’s full of liberal tree-huggers. Those tree-huggers have fought for decades … to protect our natural wonders that are valued not just by residents buy by the millions of tourists who have spent tens of millions of dollars on Tar Heel soil through the decades.”

And there’s much more that anyone who can read the newspaper or do a Google search will easily find. I agree that in this business climate the state needs to reduce spending. But if we keep the state’s current sales tax rate intact – which most won’t even notice — and don’t reduce it by the penny the House GOP leadership is advocating, then we cut the budget shortfall nearly in half, from somewhere near $2 billion down to $1 billion. With it we save jobs, protect education and the environment, and still make big cuts in spending.

But the anti-tax ideology is trumping common sense. Shameful.


The Jan. 10 death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn was an unspeakable tragedy, one compounded by the questions surrounding both the cause of death and the potential cover-up by employees of the Swain County Department of Social Services.

At this time, two needs are paramount: a speedy and thorough investigation by the SBI and the Swain County Sheriff’s Office; and just as important, an unwavering commitment to seek the truth — however ugly that might ultimately be — among Swain and Cherokee leaders trying to sort through familial and personal allegiances during the investigation of what could be a very serious crime.

Aubrey’s short life was beset by problems from the beginning. Her single mother, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is in jail awaiting sentencing on a federal drug charge. The mom left her infant to live with a great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, when the baby was just months old. Both law enforcement and Department of Social Services had been called to Powell’s home several times prior to the winter night in January when Aubrey was brought to the Cherokee hospital cold and lifeless.

Swain law enforcement authorities investigating Aubrey’s death became suspicious not just of the cause of death but also of the activities of Swain DSS. It took DSS five weeks to turn over their case files on Aubrey to law enforcement. According to warrants, a DSS worker admitted falsifying reports in order to cover up the agency’s missteps in looking into Aubrey’s death. How high up the DSS chain of command the possible cover up goes is what the SBI and Swain law enforcement authorities are still looking into after seizing DSS files and computers.

There won’t be any winners as this case proceeds. Powell may be guilty of neglect or abuse in the child’s death, and DSS employees may also be guilty of crimes. Families and friends in Swain and Cherokee are lining up on opposing sides. County commissioners in Swain have asked for the resignation of DSS board members, and three of them have quit and done so while criticizing commissioners. The five DSS workers named in the criminal investigation have been banned by Cherokee from working on cases involving children on the Qualla Boundary.

Justice, when it comes, will be painful — but less so than the short life of young Aubrey. The one ray of hope, in the end, is that what will emerge from this unnecessary tragedy are lessons that might save the life of the next innocent child placed in a similar situation.

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


You hear it often, mostly from those of us who are guilty. I’m talking about making a promise of spending “quality time” with someone we care about, a precious and valuable experience in these hurried and harried times.

And a few weeks ago I was going to do just that. I planned for dinner and a football game night with my son, Liam. Just us at the house, a huge pizza, him slurping cold milk out of a frosty beer mug and me filling my glass with something a little tastier. He’s 10, and at this age a passion for sports has become something we share. In a household where the only men are the bookends — I’m the oldest and he’s the youngest, with a wife and two daughters in between — we seldom get several hours to do indulge our passion.

On this night, I hatched a plan for the girls to do a movie in Asheville. They took the bait, and we looked forward to the game. An hour or two prior, though, he found a better offer.

“Dad, can I spend the night with Jack and Mason?” he asked after spending the afternoon playing hard with his buddies.

That’s how quick a plan for that elusive “quality time” can disappear. That game and our pre-game dinner had been the most looked-forward-to event on my calendar that week. But that’s also why I’ve learned over the years that the search for that special time — more times than not — is a recipe for disappointment. You can’t run through the week and neglect a son or a wife in hopes that some hyped-up special event will make up for what you’ve just sprinted past. Doesn’t work that way.

I should have known this. It’s a mantra I preached over the years — only in a different set of circumstances — as I became accustomed to driving my daughters to swim practice at 5 a.m. three or four mornings a week. Friends and family would hear about the early morning practices and tell me how bad I had it, how crazy I was for letting my girls get that caught up in swimming.

I would shake my head and tell them they were wrong. Those five minutes around the house before the sun rose and those 15 minutes in the car became a precious commodity. Some mornings there would hardly be a word as we listened to NPR or the girls just dozed. Others we would have conversations about everything from the news on the radio to boys to school to how they should treat their little brother to some crazy family story about one of my brothers or one of Lori’s sisters. Those 20 minutes added up to hundreds of hours spent together, forging ties that will never be broken.

But my oldest has had her license for half a year now. I’m not needed as the chauffeur for the early morning swim practices. That lesson about time had been replaced with me looking forward to that special Saturday night with Liam. Yeah, I was disappointed when he picked his friends over me, but just like that, he reminded me of a lesson I had too quickly forgotten.

Saturday is errand day for us, as it is for many families. This particular morning — prior to the big game — the plans included a trip to the dump, to the dreaded Super Wal-Mart, to the shoe store, over to Ingles and back to the house. The idea was to rush and get the chores done and get things in motion for the night.

And so we were off. The trash takes twice as long with my son helping, but he’s learning how to break down the cardboard and how to get it in the green trailer properly. That’s his job, and so we muddle through it. At Wally World we tried to get in and out fast, but he wanted to trade in a Christmas gift card for a toy, and so we were there quite a while as he figured out which toy gun was the best. Shoe shopping was taxing, but we finally got just what he needed. And so it went. Suffice it to say the errands took longer than I’d hoped.

On Sunday, after the football game disappointment, Lori and I went to the lake for a walk, and Liam wanted to come along. As we walked, he became a Star Wars clone warrior, protecting our perimeter, running, rolling, flipping, hiding and shooting. All around the lake we went, rubber bullets flying, us getting dirty looks from those who think kids and toy guns are a bad mix. You can tell when children are just having fun in their escape mode, when the game becomes reality and to hell with what most of us consider the real world. He was in that zone.

On the way home he was was tired. He sat quietly in the back before telling us that Saturday morning had been one of the best he could remember. It was fun doing all that stuff together with dad, he says.

And so it was, and out the window once again went the pompous idea that anyone can really measure out planned teaspoons of quality time, like there’s a recipe that adds meaning to time spent together. It comes when you least expect it, amid all those hurried and harried moments we call life.

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


This time, WCU passes academic integrity test

If you want a messy issue with lots of overtones, then let’s talk about academic integrity and the role of corporations on college campuses. It’s a big ol’ Pandora’s box, already open and opinions on the fly everywhere.

Last week our cover story focused on banking giant BB&T’s recent donation to WCU. It seems BB&T’s CEO is a huge Ayn Rand fan. Rand is a philosopher and novelist who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1925 when the Bolsheviks and their rabid, violent form of communism had taken over that country.

Her book, Atlas Shrugged, espouses unfettered capitalism, small government and taking actions mainly for self-interest (let me admit not having read any of Ayn Rand’s books, but I have done some studying of her writings over the last several weeks).

But the big debate here is not over the philosophy of Rand and the thoughts she espouses. It’s about academic freedom and this mountain university that people in this region hold near and dear to their collective hearts.

The million-dollar gift came with a few stipulations. The new Distinguished Professorship of Capitalism at WCU would work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute and “have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude toward Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.” The agreement with the bank also required that Atlas Shrugged be required reading in at least one course and that a free copy of the book be distributed to juniors.

This is what drew the ire of some faculty. Philosophy professor Daryl Hale was among those who criticized the university’s partnership with BB&T, and he became a spokesperson for other disgruntled faculty. “The idea that any donor could have conditions that effectively dictate specific textbooks or course content is something touchy to a lot of folks,” said Hale.

According to WCU officials, the faculty concerns led to the creation of a committee to study the agreement. If the new professor was required to have a “positive attitude” toward Rand, how could they be expected to be critical of someone who is considered a fairly controversial philosopher? And what would that mean in the long run, for a public university to require a professor to have a particular view of any controversial thinker?

The faculty concerns led to some backpedaling by university administrators. No book will be required reading simply due to the donation, and the new language in the agreement with BB&T does not mention the Ayn Rand Institute. In other words, the most controversial aspects of the agreement were removed.

Colleges and universities are facing new funding challenges, and it’s certainly not unusual for businesses and individuals to offer scholarships or to set up endowed professorships. A business major who succeeded is certainly within his right to set up a grant that pays for a low-income student to study abroad. A really wealthy alumni may set up a professorship in special education because he or she suffered from some learning disability. These are accepted forms of philanthropy.

But dictating curriculum is completely over that line. WCU needs to invite corporate support without selling its soul. In this case, the modified agreement seems to accomplish that. But there will be continued pressures to bow to corporate influence, and it is this long-term issue that trustees and administrators — as well as faculty and student leaders — need to remain vigilant about.

(Scott McLeod is the editor and publisher of The Smoky Mountain News. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


The new years toasts are over, and we’re a week into 2009. If hindsight is 20-20, then it’s time to feel pretty confident inpassing judgment on 2008 — it sucked.

Ever want to just drop kick a time span into oblivion? In more ways than can be said here, that’s how I feel about a lot of last year. Nothing’s all bad, but the balance sheet for 2008 ends up on the negative side. Good riddance.

And this is coming from someone who considers himself an optimist, one who can find the jewel in an avalanche of slime. In this job we often have to wallow in the mud with the power-mongers and the self-righteous, the pitiful and the abused, but we do it in hopes of making things better. So instead of letting bad news drag me down, typically it’s a springboard to look at what could be or how good I’ve got it.

But many times during the last year, that was hard to do.

Of course there is the bad economic conditions that waddled into our lives in 2008 and just sat there, a huge gorilla with its arms folded and a nasty snarl on its face, squatting there in the middle of the room and refusing to leave. It’s been tough. In our business we’ve had to cut people’s hours, have layoffs, and hold the line on all spending. And there may be more to come. We’ll see how the winter shapes up.

Every business owner has a similar story. No one is happy with sales and profits (or should I say losses), and everyone is getting a little desperate. When business is bad and salaries are cut or workers are let go, lives are screwed up. These are scary times.

And if the recession wasn’t enough to scare the bejeesus out of you, what about the newspaper industry in general? This business is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up, and a good part of that change is eliminating resources going into the gathering of news. All across the country, newspapers are cutting back. We who believe in the value of professional reporting to analyze and interpret the news are, I’m afraid, fast becoming relics. Our industry is changing, but no one can see where the future lies. That uncertainty is unsettling.

On top of that, we’ve had too many health issues here at our business. People I care about are dealing with tough stuff themselves or problems afflicting loved ones, and of course it affects their work. How can it not? And how, as a boss, can you not feel sympathy toward their plight? Never mind that it happens when you’re trying to squeeze blood from a turnip, so that these personal problems run up against bad times on the business side.

There was also my own private nightmare in 2008. My mother-in-law battled through a tough summer with a major illness, and then my mother became unexpectedly ill and fought like hell for almost three months before passing away. Losing a mother you’re close to — besides having to dealing with the grief — is like cutting the last tether holding you to the life raft, and suddenly you’re out there in the middle of the ocean on your own emotionally. No matter your age, it just takes time to regain your balance.

A friend of nearly 30 years also lost his mom this year. He’s one of those guys who makes proclamations that stick in your head, a blue-collar philosopher who thinks hard about life. I got him on the phone when he was driving back from visiting family after she died, and he had been on the highway alone for more than 10 hours. “No one said the journey was going to be easy, that it wasn’t going to get rough at times,” he said. “You just got to keep moving.”

And so we do, keep putting one foot in front of the other, get out of bed, get dressed, get the kids to school, go to work, go through the routines of our life. The little things will lift you up, the unexpected silly email from the co-worker, the stories about my wife’s students, the declarations of omnipotence from my 10-year-old during breakfast, the angst of my 13-year-old, the sunny smile of my 16-year-old who is too wrapped up worrying about school and sports but who just can’t help being a ray of sunshine in whatever room she’s in.

I can’t stand whiners. They get under my skin real fast. If you feel the same, you’ve probably read enough of this. Too much damn grousing. Time to move on, one foot in front of the other, heading forward. Here’s to 2009.

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


In this country, the people own the government. It’s ours. End of debate.

That’s something we can all be thankful for. A bill in the North Carolina General Assembly is attempting to enshrine this simple fact in the state constitution. We would encourage readers to write, call or email your lawmakers asking them to support it (Sen. Ralph Hise, who represents part of Haywood County, is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill).

The legislation – House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 67 – would put an amendment to the state constitution on the 2012 ballot for voter approval. The wording is yet to be finalized, but in essence it would make access to government records and meetings a right under the North Carolina Constitution.

The need for the amendment is something those of us in the press probably appreciate more than most. Every few days we get stonewalled by some public official when requesting documents that are a matter of public record. Sometimes there is a legitimate question of what is a public record and what isn’t, but other times it’s just a petty display of power by someone who holds access to the information.

Worse, every year new bills are introduced in the General Assembly that, taken en masse, would seriously compromise the ideal of open government that is a cornerstone of our republic.

“Every year we see it, whether it’s another attempt to erode access to 911 tapes, or to protect conversation between public sector lawyers and their clients about stuff that neither should be able to hide,” said John Bussian, the chief lobbyist for the North Carolina Press Association.

The Republican leadership in the General Assembly is supporting the constitutional amendment. Rep. Stephen LaRoque, a Kinston representative, is a co-sponsor of the House bill.

“We need to do this so that open government truly is a right rather than a privilege,” LaRoque told The Raleigh News and Observer.

The primary opponents of the bill are lobbyists for local governments, school boards and sheriff departments. They oppose a provision that would require a two-thirds majority for any exceptions to the open records and meetings law. However, we believe that any necessary national security or other important exception would easily garner enough support to garner a super majority. And in fact, we think it’s critical that any exception that blocks access to open records be able to win the support of two-thirds of members of the General Assembly.

The timing of this debate couldn’t be better. This week, March 13-19, is Sunshine Week. A coalition of groups from around the country is encouraging government at all levels to maintain openness. This amendment would add a new gravitas to the sanctity of open government in North Carolina, and we hope it shows up on the ballot for a vote of the people.

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


Growing up, I knew America was the country of grand ideas carried out from the moral high ground. We could put a man on the moon, we could end institutionalized racism, fight a war on poverty and try to wipe out air and water pollution. It was part of our national identity.

Those days are gone. Those sweeping programs and ideas that galvanized almost the entire country just aren’t around today. Banality and boorishness rule in the current state of politics, and problems fester for decades.

This realization hit me after I received an email from Brent Martin. Brent is the Southern Appalachian Program Director for the Wilderness Society, and he’s based in Sylva. We published an article in last week’s edition by Martin that called attention to the Weeks Act, federal legislation approved 100 years ago on March 1 that authorized the creation of the our national forests (

Here’s an excerpt from that article: “... But drive or walk anywhere in the Western North Carolina region and you will likely see beautiful forested mountains. I think we will have these for years to come, and this is due to the vision of many who came before us over one hundred years ago. This gives me hope.”

Virgin forests from Maine to Alabama had been cut over by 1911, leaving a swath of environmental and cultural destruction unknown in America to that point. The purchase of these devastated lands from timber companies was a sort of first step in land development regulations, a way to make use of the country’s resources while adding a new layer of federal protection through ownership.

I haven’t done the research, but can only assume the Weeks Act did not pass without some squabbling about the government takeover of private property rights (amazing how some things never change).

Can we ever do something like the Weeks Act again, find the political will to do something so big and so good?

I had this same kind of sinking feeling about our national spirit a little while after attending space camp with my son when he was in the fifth grade. We spent two days in Huntsville, Ala., learning all about U.S. space exploration from the Mercury missions up through the shuttle. And we heard talk about a manned Mars mission NASA was planning, and we left intrigued and inspired, and I saw the wonder of a 10-year-old thinking about space and planetary travel.

Over the ensuing years, though, we read how the idea was scrapped and how there just wasn’t enough money. A big, sweeping idea finds itself on the scrap heap.

One of my good friends, a bright guy who always thinks out of the box, says our country’s great opportunity in this century is with energy. Spend every penny on cutting our dependence on oil, figuring out the most efficient renewable sources while making energy reduction — mass transit, better cars, better light bulbs, etc. — the number one national priority.

If we could turn that corner on energy, we could save those same forests Martin wrote about while also leading the way through this century that is certainly going to create unimaginable challenges for industrialized countries.

Anyone think we will be the country to lead the way? Can we get going before Brazil and China leave us in the dust? Right now we’re taking baby steps while letting crazy despots ruling oil-rich Arabian kingdoms determine the fate of our economy.

I’m an optimist at heart, always will be. Can’t help it. So maybe the reality is that every generation doesn’t get the opportunity to think big. Maybe that post-World War II generation or two learned lessons that helped them change society. Maybe we haven’t learned those lessons, or perhaps we’re just bogged down in the fast-changing, overwhelming information age that leaves too much to comprehend.

Our challenge? Perhaps it’s the more mundane task of picking our way through a minefield of seemingly trivial stuff, setting the stage for a big show for our kids. We have to figure out how to keep our government from going bankrupt (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare). We have re-draw the lines defining the proper reach of government (taxes, regulations, unions) in a free and democratic society. We have to determine how much influence the largest corporations the world has ever known will have over governments and personal lives.

Perhaps working through these issues will re-shape a new identity that will define America in the coming century. The optimist in me is hoping that is indeed the case.

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


Politics and state budgets aren’t usually that interesting, but this year that’s not the case. Ideologies are clashing as lawmakers struggle to find a way through this recession, and we will all be affected by the outcome.

North Carolina and Wisconsin are very different states but share a similar problem — a budget crisis like that facing states across the country as stimulus funding dries up and tax revenues are still down. Fortunately for us who live in the Tar Heel state, our leaders are dealing with their problems in a very different fashion.

In last week’s edition, we published a cover story examining how the state was looking at this year’s Golden LEAF allocation as one extra pot of money from which to stem an expected $2.4 billion budget shortfall. The money is a continuing payment from the massive lawsuit brought against tobacco companies by 45 states.

Gov. Beverly Perdue does not support raiding the Golden LEAF money. She has sent a budget to lawmakers that will lead to a raft of cuts, including cutting thousands of state jobs, but she says she won’t reduce teaching positions. A story in The Mountaineer newspaper this week had local lawmakers predicting the possible closure of the prison in Hazelwood and significant cuts to community colleges and a cost shifting that will force public schools to come up with money for transportation and text books (meaning teachers could be cut despite Perdue’s promises).

Amid this climate, what is the state to do? Even the Democratic governor’s budget will hurt local communities while keeping alive a sales tax that was due to expire. Almost every GOP lawmaker in the General Assembly ran on the promise to sunset that tax, so the Republicans — who control both chambers of the state legislature — have to either make deeper cuts or find new money. And that is what led to the proposal that money from funds like the Golden LEAF may be diverted for at least a year.

After our story ran last week, newly elected Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, called to say our story was good in pointing out the budget position the state finds itself in. Now, however, everyone has to look for creative ways to find a fix.

“What if the Golden LEAF money were re-distributed to, say, the Rural Center,” suggested Davis, saying this was just an example of the kind of thinking that needs to happen in the General Assembly. His point was the money would still come back to the rural communities who need it, but that the $1.6 million in administrative costs could be saved.

So what’s going to happen in Raleigh come June when the rubber hits the road? Unfortunately, I believe some sacred cows will be gored in the name of fiscal responsibility. Personally, I think a one-year diversion of funds going to some granting agencies is not a bad idea. I also think pay cuts for higher-paid state employees is not out of the question.

I would rather look at those options rather than cutting classroom teachers, raising tuition, and hamstringing the community colleges. We can only hope that with compromises a fair spending plan can be developed.


In Wisconsin, the plan to take away the bargaining rights of unions is just shortsighted, an idea that will do much more harm than good.

For those following the situation up there, the GOP governor wants public sector employees to begin paying some of their own money into their retirement and health insurance plans. In a state where the average teacher salary is about $75,000 per year, this seems a reasonable proposition.

On the other hand, he also wants to take away the collective bargaining rights of the union. The employees have agreed to the pay concessions, but they are protesting in the streets to protect their bargaining rights for the future.

As the economy has soured and we’ve lost manufacturing jobs in this country, unions have been painted as a big evil. The union groups that once were credited with standing up for the little guys and winning concessions from factory owners are now painted as the cause for the flight of manufacturing to the Third World.

Despite sometimes unsavory actions by union leaders and despite sometimes unreasonable demands for workers who make more than most working-class folks, I still believe strongly that unions play an important role in the American workplace.

As income disparity widens, unions remain a voice for the working class. As the workplace changes, unions continue fighting for benefits and fairness. Taking away their voice is just wrong, and that’s exactly what the Wisconsin governor wants to do.

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


Most people predicted that this session of the North Carolina General Assembly was going to be fast and furious, and it appears that is indeed the case. The GOP-led General Assembly is advancing legislation that Democrats have traditionally not supported, like raising the cap on charter schools and opposing the federal health care law passed last year by Congress.

In addition, the $3.7 billion projected budget shortfall is also forcing lawmakers to look all over for money, a challenge that is also highlighting the different philosophies of both parties.

The Golden Leaf as a golden egg

It appears a move is afoot to snag money that is supposed to be headed for the Golden LEAF Foundation.

This fund was established from the tobacco settlement proceeds and is supposed to be used to promote the “long-term, economic advancement of rural, economically distressed, and tobacco-dependent counties.” That said, the $68 million annual settlement payment is being eyed by GOP leaders in the General Assembly as a piece of the deficit-reduction puzzle.

On Thursday, the Senate gave tentative approval to a plan that would take proposal that would take money from approximately 20 state accounts and the three funds supported by the 1998 national tobacco settlement — Golden LEAF gets half the tobacco settlement money, and two sister funds, the Health and Wellness Trust Fund and the Tobacco Trust Fund, share the other half.

The vote was 30-18 to take what would amount to about $142 million in all.

An email was sent out yesterday by the Golden Leaf Foundation president saying the idea was a bad one, and that other states have taken similar actions with bad results.

“That’s not the answer. Other states have used their tobacco settlement funds long ago to patch their budget. Now their money is gone, and they face the same issues we face but don’t have access to the assets you currently do through the Golden LEAF Foundation to create jobs and expand economic opportunity. Golden LEAF has helped create an anticipated 4,300 jobs and over $900 million in capital investments in the last two years alone, wrote Golden Leaf president Dan Gerlach.

A Western North Carolina source who is involved in an economic development project funded by the Golden Leaf Fund told The Smoky Mountain News on Thursday that conference calls were held around the region on Thursday to discuss the possibility the fund would be raided and ongoing projects might be stopped in their tracks.

So far this issue has been mostly split right down party lines, with Republicans supporting taking the money and Democrats — along with Gov. Bev Perdue — insisting the money stay where it is. Some Republicans have suggested that the Golden LEAF Fund should be dissolved and all of its $600 million in assets go toward deficit reduction.

N.C.’s own health care debate

Rep. Ray Rapp, D- Mars Hill, wrote in his e-newsletter that debate on repealing the federal health care law was one of the two dominant topics from the General Assembly’s first full week in session (the other was the economy).

Republicans in the House introduced and passed a bill to block the requirement in the federal health care law that requires everyone to buy health insurance by 2014. The bill — which passed essentially along party lines, 66-50 — would force Attorney General Roy Cooper to join other states in challenging the federal law.

“It only seems fair that we ask everyone to take personal responsibility for their own health by purchasing their own insurance so that we can require insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, allow young people to stay on their parents’ health policies until age 26, eliminate life time limits and provide tax credits for small businesses that want to cover their employees,” said Rapp, who has been appointed Democratic whip for this session of the General Assembly.

Rapp and other Democrats point out that the Attorney General has said it would cost $344,000 to join the suit, tough money to come by in the face of the projected budget shortfall. Both Rapp and Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, voted against the bill. Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, voted for the bill.

In other General Assembly news

• As reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times Friday, Feb. 4, bills are progressing in both the House and Senate that would ban the practice of involuntary annexation, which forces residents near town limits into the town’s jurisdiction. Annexations typically mean additional city taxes and are usually accompanied by more services.

However, towns now have the right to grow their boundaries even if the residents to be annexed don’t support the move. These laws would ban that type annexation.

“I believe that people should have the opportunity to vote whether or not they should be included in an adjacent municipality,” said rep. Tim Moffitt, a Republican lawmaker from Buncombe County.

The bills would halt all involuntary annexations until July 1, 2012, during which time GOP leaders want to craft a new set of laws governing annexation.

• The Associated Press is reporting that Republicans are in support of a bill to lift the cap on charter schools and allowing proceeds from the state lottery to be used to build new charter schools.

State laws governing charter schools have changed very little since a bill passed in 1996 allowing for up to 100 charter schools in North Carolina. Because of the cap, charter school supporters say students in 53 of the state’s counties don’t have charter schools. The current 100 schools have a waiting list of 20,000 families, according to Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

Charter schools don’t charge tuition and have open enrollment. They are run by private boards and exempt from many of the rules that are in place in traditional public schools. The state money allocated for each student follows that student to a charter school, but so far charters have not received any lottery money.

Opponents also worry that lifting the requirement that enrollment in charter schools reflect the general racial and ethnic composition of a county could lead to problems. They argued for slowly raising the allowable number of schools rather than a blanket lifting of the cap.

“What I do not want to do is create a dual system of schools and charter schools,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg.

The bill is currently in committee.


This is a very odd business, the telling of the news. It’s even more odd as part of an independent media operation. You work weird hours, meet all kinds of  people, find yourself in lots of odd places and odd situations, and adhere — oddly enough — to an old-fashioned principle of right and wrong. That means we tell stories, but we also take up causes.

The problem — in business as in life — is that right and wrong are not always black and white. So sometimes you find yourself out there on the skinny branches all alone, about to fall, the ground a long way down but holding on to the gut feeling that you’re on the right track.

Such is the case with The Smoky Mountain News and our reporting on Haywood Regional Medical Center’s problems. That coverage started back in 2004, long before any of our brethren in the media were seeing — or at least reporting — on the problems at the hospital. We could have left it alone and not put resources into the story, but it seemed apparent to us that the hospital serving Haywood’s citizens was in a downward spiral. We felt it was important to discuss this with the community.

I bring this up now because of a legal verdict announced this week. Our newspaper and others are carrying reports that an emergency room doctors group — Haywood Emergency Physicians — has won a lawsuit against Haywood Regional Medical Center. The suit stems from the firing of the doctors back in December 2006, when many of the accusations that eventually made headlines in all the regional media were spoken in a public forum for the first time.

Most know of Haywood Regional Medical Center’s demise and near closure, and of its resurrection and new life as part of MedWest with Harris Regional in Sylva and Swain County. All three hospitals are now under the umbrella of a management contract with Carolinas Medical Center based in Charlotte.

It was a legal notice in the Feb. 22, 2008 Asheville Citizen-Times — two years after the firing of the emergency room docs — that alerted the community to HRMC’s near-death experience. Here’s a line from that notice, for those who don’t remember or aren’t familiar with the story: “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has determined that Haywood Regional Medical Center is not in compliance with the conditions of participation  ….”

Problems that led to no Medicare and Medicaid money also led most major insurers to drop the hospital. That basically meant no money coming in. That precipitated a whirlwind of media coverage and change, including the resignation of HRMC CEO David Rice and the head of the HRMC board, the near closure of the hospital as patient numbers dropped almost to zero, and the public disclosure that hospital administrators had created an atmosphere of fear and manipulation that had employees afraid to point out problems or sound alarms.

Four years before this crisis, many physicians had told us that things were bad at HRMC and getting worse, that the administration was not working with physicians but manipulating them. We published stories with anonymous sources — extremely rare for any for any credible news organization — and called into question management decisions. When orthopedists and then anesthesiologists left en masse in 2004, we pointed out problems those docs and others were having with administration. We kept up the reporting in 2005 and 2006.

What did it get us?

Well, our largest advertiser — the hospital — simply went away, dropped us like a rock. Ouch. We wrote it off to the cost of doing business and moved on.

It got worse, and a little odd. I got a call one day from the previous CEO David Rice telling me that our newspaper racks were on the loading ramp in back of the hospital and that I could come pick them up. HRMC was banning The Smoky Mountain News from its property. Sounds a little like Hosni Mubarak and the current media clampdown in Egypt. That’s what we thought, but pleas to hospital board members didn’t get us very far.

Worse, none of the other media was following. We thought that once news started getting out about what was transpiring at HRMC, others would surely begin reporting. Well, they didn’t, at least not until February 2008 and the beginning of the public crisis.

The docs who use to make up Haywood Emergency Physicians, by winning this lawsuit, are vindicated. Those doctors said long ago that they were done wrong, and they also complained that their situation was not unique. The hospital administration was creating serious problems. It turns out that they were right on.

Vindication isn’t something newspapers should consider in choosing what to cover, but I’ll admit to some professional and personal satisfaction in how this story has played out over the last seven years since we started reporting on it. There’s a healthy relationship between the medical community and the hospital administration. Many hospital employees are telling us that their professional situation is vastly improved.

More importantly, citizens who need access to medical care are still able to get it right here in the communities we call home. There was a point in the not-too-distant past when that was very much in doubt.

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


“… but a belief in hard work and treating others fairly was ingrained from a very early age in my brothers and I.”


See the mistake in the sentence fragment above? Hear it? I bet most people don’t, and I suspect that 10 years from now even fewer still will spot it.

But at least two readers caught my grammatical faux pas from two weeks ago and felt they should let me know about it. Others probably read it and just laughed at my goof. To be honest, I’m embarrassed to have made the mistake.

The rule is that when the object of the preposition is a personal pronoun, it should be “me” and not “I.” So the correct wording should have been “but a belief in hard work and treating others fairly was ingrained from a very early age in my brothers and me … ingrained in … me (not ingrained in … “I.”) Now you hear it? Of course.

No excuse for such a mistake, and I’ll attribute it to deadline writing. I know the rule, but I also sometimes forget it. Like a word whose spelling I can’t commit to memory, and so I know it is wise to look it up when using it.  Effective writers, I tell people, know their weaknesses and when to use their crutches. That’s why editors are so important.


The permanence of print

This little episode, however, brought to mind several reasons regarding why I think newspapers still have a future.

In many ways, print newspapers have become a bit staid in a digital age when information can soar around the globe in a few hours. However, staid can also mean serious, solid and steady. That also translates into credible, and every single serious newspaper still around guards its credibility like a mother protecting her children.

And our readers expect us to get it right. When we don’t — whether it’s a mistake in grammar or a factual error — they let us know, and we in turn let you know that we got it wrong. Again, every credible newspaper wears its mistakes on its sleeves.

How often do you see that in digital media? Most of the reporters and editors and designers at digital sites certainly care about their integrity, but there is also the constant need to move on, to get the next post up and the next story finished in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle in which they operate.

Right now, most digital media sites are understaffed and poorly financed because the successful business model for them — with a few notable, rare exceptions — has not been developed (especially at the local and regional level). That means they are more than likely under even more pressure to churn out stories and copy.


The digital age is upon us

This is not meant as a criticism of Internet news. To the contrary, every print media company is scrambling to stay abreast of the fast-changing digital news business. As creators of unique content and storehouses of troves of historical information, I’m betting that we will be able to continue to make a successful business of providing information in whatever platform becomes profitable.

But I do tire of hearing that print is dead as a doornail. It’s pretty obvious to me that right now people have learned to get their information —news and advertising  — from a variety of sources. That includes print, digital, television, and probably several other new devices that are being developed in some garage or college dorm room right now.

But for some readers, print still holds a kind of integrity that the new media — as exciting and whizbang as it is — can’t touch. We know times will change, and all I can promise is that when it does, we plan to be there.


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


Few things are as maddening to me as when politics gets in the way of doing the right thing. That’s just what happened in the U.S. Senate last week when the DREAM Act failed to pass.

Worse, the Senate vote emboldens those who want this country to be governed by fear, afraid of immigrants, gays, minorities, liberals, the federal government, and all those other imaginary boogies that they claim are trying to take America from them.

Perhaps some of you have followed the debate on immigration. This bill would have created an arduous but attainable path to U.S. citizenship for those who as infants or small children were smuggled across a border and who have now graduated from high school and have at least two years of college or want to serve this country in the military and fight against the Taliban or Al Qaeda. The great majority of these immigrants have never had another home other than the U.S., did not come here of their own free will, and want nothing except to work, pay taxes, and be citizens of the only country they know.

I’d like to extend a special thanks to North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, who was one of five from her party to join Republicans and help kill this bill. She claims on her website to be “for North Carolina families, our military and veterans.”

I happen to be a member of one of those North Carolina families, and I think Hagan’s stand on this issue is dead wrong. My father was raised the son of a textile mill worker before joining the military, and my mother was raised in a North Carolina coastal town where she worked on farms as a child. They both valued hard work, honesty and the American “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy that included a heavy emphasis on education. They overcame many disadvantages, but a belief in hard work and treating others fairly was ingrained from a very early age in my brothers and I.

I don’t understand this fear that immigrants may somehow take a job one of my children may need or want. To the contrary, I’m glad we have people here who value those same traits passed to me from my parents. This bill is not about some underclass that wants to take advantage of the system. To the contrary, it is about young people who want to attend college, serve this country, work and pay taxes.

If anyone — an immigrant who may have just attained legal status or a kid from down the street — bests one of my children as they work to attain their dreams, then the message isn’t that we need to block that other youth’s path to success. To the contrary, the lesson is that my kid needs to work harder and do better. You don’t blame the person who succeeded.

By my thinking this goes straight to the core of what most of us believe about America. We have an economy and a national philosophy based on the belief that capitalism, competition and a kind of Darwinian social system will end up bringing out the best in all of us and create the best society. If that’s true, then it is also true that we want all the smartest, hardest-working and best-educated immigrants in the world as part of the mix. We can’t open the door to every immigrant, but we need to roll out the red carpet to the best and the brightest and the hardest working. This bill was going to open a path to citizenship for just those immigrants.

But we’ve become timid and scared. Yes, there is terrifying drug violence and gang warfare along the Mexican border. Yes, we have illegal Hispanic immigrants using our social service system and health care system and our education system. Yes, Caucasians will become a minority sometime in the next half century.

This bill, though, was not about any of that. It was about those who were once small children who through no fault of their own were brought here by their parents. They are as American as our immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents, raised in a society that teaches that those who stay out of trouble, work hard and are smart can attain whatever they want.

Except, it seems, a path to citizenship.

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


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..)


Before Haywood County commissioners approve a request to cut property taxes on a business that plans to build an $8 million solar farm near Canton, they need to get serious about developing a long-term green collar industry incentive package. One break for one company seems more like a handout, which in this day every other company could find fault with.

On the surface the request seems almost inconsequential given the relatively small amount of money involved, about $32,000 over five years. In this economy, however, many will be watching the commissioners very closely. A whole lot of local, long-time businesses are struggling to keep people employed while paying their taxes in full.

FLS Solar Energy is planning what is billed as the largest solar farm in the Southeast on an old landfill in Canton. It will install 3,200 solar panels on seven acres that will produce enough electricity to power 1,200 homes. The company has signed a 20-year agreement to sell the electricity to Progress Energy. The utility giant must, under state law, start producing an increasing percentage of its power from green sources.

The announcement late last year that Haywood would be chosen for the solar farm was met with near universal excitement. Although the project won’t produce any long-term jobs, it is being hailed as a coup for Haywood County and Western North Carolina. Row upon row of solar panels will track the sun from an old landfill, proving that this region cares about energy production and global warming, perhaps providing some intangible benefits when it comes to business recruitment. It’s difficult to gauge the economic development benefit of having the largest solar farm in the Southeast (though it’s likely a larger facility somewhere won’t be far behind), but most believe that benefit is more symbolic than tangible.

FLS, for its part, is asking for help to make it through its first five years in opration. The $32,000 it wants Haywood County to forgive amounts to 80 percent of its business property taxes for the first five years it is in operation.

But here’s the rub: even though the request has the endorsement of the county Economic Development Commission, it doesn’t meet existing criteria for the tax break. Specifically, to get the 80 percent tax break the county’s guidelines say the project needs to create 100 jobs and have an investment of at least $10 million. This project is expected to employ 12 as it’s built and no one after it is up and running, and it already qualifies for the federal government’s 30 percent solar energy tax break.

Projects like this are appealing for many reasons, one of which is the “coolness” factor. That line of thinking says if you support green projects, you are cool and everyone will want to join in. But that’s a weak foundation for county policy.

If Haywood wants to become an epicenter of green energy and environmentalism, giving a one-time handout to a solar farm won’t get it there. Instead, county leaders need to develop an array of tax breaks, grants and incentives for new businesses engaged in green technology and for existing businesses that become energy efficient and recycle. In this case the fact that old landfill property is being used is probably more significant than the solar energy aspect of the project.

The green initiative being led by Haywood Community College President Rose Johnson and flourishing under the auspices of HCC and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce should be encouraged and embraced. The county’s effort to get methane energy from the old landfill is also worth touting. The role of the Commission for a Clean County should be expanded and officially endorsed by the county.

Yes, Haywood County could benefit immensely by becoming a leader in all things green, and businesses and people in the mountains have been embracing this philosophy for decades. But there is a competition out there. Local governments across the nation are also trying to grab this mantle. Haywood needs a long-term plan and a real investment to get there. Helping this company might be symbolic of where the county wants to go, but approving this tax break isn’t really all that progressive. In fact it is simply applying an old-style economic development model to a new industry.

We wish FLS great success, and solar energy is a crucial component for meeting future energy needs. From Haywood County’s perspective, however, approving this tax break at this time is like putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

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


“Gov. Beverly Perdue probably didn’t set out to give Western North Carolina a slap in the face Wednesday.

“But we know a slap in the face when we see one, and this sure qualifies.”

— Asheville Citizen-Times editorial, April 23


Asheville Citizen-Times Editorial Page Editor Jim Buchanan — a Haywood County resident and a friend of mine — was right on target with this one. My sentiments exactly, and a sentiment shared by a whole lot of people in our region.

Gov. Beverly Perdue chose not to attend the first official event in the yearlong celebration of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The occasion was a Governors Proclamation Ceremony and it was held at Clingmans Dome. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen was there.

According to Perdue’s spokesperson, Chrissy Pearson, “The governor was invited and did give serous consideration but given the length of the trip and the potential travel cost involved she declined. It is so far out of the way and we are trying to cut back on travel.”

Perhaps Ms. Pearson didn’t get the significance of her words, but the “so far out of the way” line is a bit hard to swallow. Everyone out here knows how far we are from Raleigh (it’s about 6 hours from Clingmans Dome to Raleigh, and MapQuest estimates the fuel cost there and back at about $70). The distance in miles is significant, but it’s the attitude that can be read into the governor’s statement that is more revealing.

I could go on for thousands of words, but here are three important points about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the southwestern part of her own state that Gov. Perdue might need to be reminded of:

• The park is probably the single largest economic engine in the state, if one doesn’t consider the “beach” as one entity. Nearly 10 million people a year visit the park, and the surrounding communities depend on it — especially when times are as tough as they are now. But somehow Tennessee has laid claim to the Smoky Mountains. Most citizens of this country think of Tennessee when they think of the park, and its governor made sure he had time on his schedule to get to the ceremony. Perdue’s absence only solidifies Tennessee’s link with the Smokies and surely will help the towns on the western side of the park.

• The still-evolving legacy of the park— from a cultural standpoint — deserves recognition from leaders in Raleigh, including the governor. She could have stood on the podium and made note of how the creation of the park was controversial in its day because so many residents were uprooted from their homes and communities, their land forcibly “taken” (though they did get compensation, that’s the general phrase used). She could have pointed out that the initial skepticism about the park was heartfelt but that its creation has become a grand success, creating a jewel for future generations and a permanent gold mine for the economies in the state’s far west.

• Finally, she could have assured citizens here that this region, though many miles from Raleigh, is not “out of the way.” From a political standpoint, Perdue should know that citizens in the mountains have a long history feeling that they have been left out. A visit to this important ceremony would have helped establish that Perdue does indeed feel differently.

I’ve had the good fortune to live, literally, all over North Carolina — Fayetteville (south piedmont), Boone and Blowing Rock (northwest), Durham (central), Raleigh (central), Roanoke Rapids (northeast), Elizabethtown (southeast) and now Waynesville. All of those places are special, but not a single one has people imbued with the strong sense of place that is the norm for those here in the mountains. The creation of the park is an important component of this legacy, and Perdue’s no-show will have some saying that she just doesn’t understand that.

In the grand scheme of things, this probably doesn’t rank very high in terms of Perdue’s mistakes during her early months in the governor’s office. What it indicates, however, is that some things just haven’t changed much in Raleigh.

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


Every now and then a government proposal takes on such a vigorous life of its own that its intent gets clouded, those supporting it — or just discussing it even-handedly — get tarred and feathered and what started as an honest effort to do something worthwhile just blows up.

Such was the case with the proposed nuisance ordinance Haywood commissioners and their planning board abandoned last week. In the end, even what was good and right about this proposal just got lost in the noise.

The ordinance started out as an attempt to protect public health and clean up some of the junk that accumulates on private property. Cleaning up junk and protecting public health are, in almost all cases, admirable goals. The ordinance would have regulated items like open sewage, refuse, old swimming pools, garbage, junked vehicles and such. It’s intent was to prevent injuries, get rid of junk and abandoned manufactured homes and to “abate public nuisances.”

As a citizen of Haywood County, I don’t have a problem with this proposal. In plain English, the law was trying to get people to keep their old stuff from causing health hazards or looking just plain ugly.

But therein lies the problem. This ordinance, stripped of all the lawyer-speak, in essence would have codified a subjective opinion — the opinion of planners and commissioners, one would assume — as to what was unsightly, unhealthy, or, in the words of the proposal, a “public nuisance.”

As has happened time and again in counties and towns throughout these mountains, opposition mounted as the debate took a detour from the merits of the proposal to a broad fight against the erosion of property rights. The wording of this particular proposal invited protest. “The following are hereby expressly declared to be public nuisances,” it read, and went on to say “outdoor storage of .... all-terrain vehicles, toys, bicycles, ....”

County board Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick explained that these references needed to be taken in context to public health and safety, but it didn’t matter. County commissioners and planners had no choice but to toss out the proposal. If there were supporters who thought a re-wording might make this law more palatable, they didn’t show up. From any objective measure of public opinion, the majority of Haywood citizens were against this measure, vehemently against it. And so commissioners struck it down, as they should have.

What was disappointing in this whole affair?

Well, there was the treatment of officials on the planning board and county board. Everyone has a right to get emotional in their opposition to laws they don’t support. That’s the American way, as many have said.

But to say commissioners or supporters of this ordinance aren’t adhering to the Constitution or are somehow less than patriotic is pure bluster. Trust me, there are much more stringent ordinances in many places in this country that have withstood legal challenges. Nothing at all in this proposal was unconstitutional. Bareknuckle politics are fine, but the argument should remain against the policy proposed, not the people who might feel differently about it than you.

In addition to the petty name calling and cussing, also bothersome in this debate was the way stereotypes were tossed around as if they really mean anything. Outsiders were for it, locals were against it. Rich people were for it, working class folks against it. Conservatives against it, liberals for it. This is akin to the blather from the television and radio blowhards on both the left and right who are so quick to pigeonhole those they don’t agree with and take the easy way out of a real debate on the merits of a proposal.

Of course the good part of this episode has been the real, community debate that has taken place. Many great points have been raised. It’s been a real civics lesson for the community, messy and sometimes ugly as it was.

And the continued participation in civic affairs of this new group — We the People — can only serve to bring attention to the important issues the county board, planners and municipal officials will be discussing in the near future. Too often we in the media sit in empty meeting rooms and write stories about what we think are important issues but that no one else seems to care about. This proposal shows that people do care and that they want to be engaged in the process, and that will make for good government in the long run.

That’s a pretty damn good outcome, and it’s a good bet one active citizen group will beget another that feels a little differently. Do you think, heaven forbid, that the majority of the citizenry will actually start taking an active role in shaping the affairs of the community in which they live? Wake me up, I must be dreaming.

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


Much as I dislike posing the question, here it is: can you imagine a future without newspapers? Would it be a dark day or good riddance to a biased blight upon the information landscape?

Well, if you’re reading this you’ve likely got an opinion. It means you’re a newspaper reader. It’s part of your life, something you can’t imagine living without. But it’s past time for nostalgia. That warm fuzzy about holding a newspaper in your hands as a cup of coffee tickles your nostrils won’t pay the bills for printing, for staffing, and for distribution if not enough people choose to read.

Make no mistake: newspapers are in trouble. Most have heard about the closings of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News. We know that a host of other large dailies are limping along. They’re being battered by the tidal wave that is the Internet and the unexpected and lingering depth of this recession, which is slashing advertising revenues.

So what does it all mean?


If I — or anyone else — knew the future of the information and journalism industry, it would be a Bill Gates opportunity. Figuring out how to make money on gathering and packaging information in an age when most of us are completely overwhelmed with information is proving difficult.

Here’s what I do know: the traditional printed daily newspaper business model is broken. It was built on three streams of revenue: subscriptions, retail advertising, and classifieds. Well, classifieds have gone online or to all classified papers (Iwanna, in our case). Paid home delivery subscriptions have been declining for almost two decades, and it doesn’t appear much will change.

So daily papers are left to depend on two revenue streams that will continue to decline — classifieds, home delivery — and are having to rely more heavily on advertising to pay the bills. Trouble is, many businesses that used to buy those newspaper ads are looking at alternatives to the very expensive daily newspaper rates. Those alternatives include weekly newspapers like ours, television and local cable companies, radio, direct mail, and billboards.

And, of course, the Internet.


What about papers like ours?

I tell many people that, unfortunately for dailies across the country, we are part of their problem. Free distribution weeklies with unique content like ours, Mountain Xpress in Asheville, the Independent in the Triangle, and the Rhinoceros Times in the Triad are chipping away at the advertising revenues the big dailies used to monopolize.

But we are also suffering during this recession. We depend solely on advertising revenue, and that has declined steeply. We are being forced to invent new products to help advertisers, take on smaller jobs, and generally morph into a broader media and publishing company that has a newspaper as its flagship.


For our business, local advertising is the key. Another question, then, is how will the local businesses get their information out to readers?

Google is spending millions trying to figure that out, but many businesses tell us that print advertising in a local newspaper is still their best source for getting customers in the door. As the web becomes bogged down with information — search “smoky mountains” on Google and 2.4 million entries come up, while “smoky mountain real estate” will get you 163,000 entries — many advertisers who go solely to web are finding it a “needle in the haystack” gamble.

In the future, that haystack is just going to get astronomically larger. As blogging and social networking spiral out of control, navigating the web gets unwieldy.

So local papers still have a future, and that is what many analysts are now saying. Our news and our advertising still are unique and original, stuff that in many cases won’t be found anywhere else — at least for now.


Everyone who goes online for news or turns on the televisions for news still depends primarily on newspapers. The most popular Internet news sites are papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Huffington Post and the Drudge Report pick through newspaper sites, as do Rush Limbaugh, Anderson Cooper and the writers for Jay Leno and David Letterman. They put their own spin and their own reporting into it, but almost all the stories originated with newspaper journalists.

Local television news depends on a region’s newspapers for their stories. I can’t tell you how often we’ve watched WLOS reporters hit the newsstand at our office early Wednesday morning, only to see one or more of the stories show up on the news later that day. CNN has a staff of probably a dozen reporters in Washington, while the Washington Post has several hundred.

Make no mistake, those in power — whether that is in government, business, politics or wherever — will be much more insulated from public scrutiny when all the newspapers in this country are gone. No one consistently does the type of reporting we do every single day.


But what about the stories, the information we provide? How can we continue investing in those type stories as information seekers migrate toward the web?

Well, several efforts are being tried. One of the most original is for local papers to all adopt the National Public Radio format and register as nonprofit organizations. Revenues would not be taxable, and donations would be tax-deductible.

A few days ago Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland, introduced into Congress the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes. Cardin argues that since newspapers are doing so badly, the government would not lose any revenue. He says the bill is aimed at local papers, not chains or conglomerates.

Another model is to begin charging for the online news. Many papers adopted this model, then switched to free access. Now many are switching back, putting a value on their news.

Could we get, say, $45 a year for people to access all our news and advertising?

Or, could we use another business model known as micro-payments, where a program is set up to charge someone’s credit card 5 cents for every story accessed on a Web site?


Or will newspapers simply go away at some point in the future?

In researching this article I came across this nugget: “Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”

This particular writer, Clay Shirky, threw up his hands, admitting he did not know who would perform that function or how society would find a way to benefit from the work now done only by newspapers. His conclusion is that society needs good journalism, not newspapers, per se.

It’s safe to say we’re living in an information revolution. To the victor goes the spoils.

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


There’s talk all over about America’s newfound love affair with frugality. What Time magazine has dubbed the Great Recession is threatening the American consumer culture, pundits and writers say, forcing us to re-think whether we need the biggest plasma screen television or the newest and greatest cell phone.

But it’s not just the gadgets that we’re re-thinking. Read the newspapers and news magazines and they also tell you that we’re eating out less, going less often to the high-end grocery stores, keeping the old car longer and putting off repairs to the house.

This may be new lifestyle for many, but not at my house. My wife has always been the “bring it back down to earth” person in our family. She enjoys nothing better than catching me or one of our children talking about how we “need” to get one of those or we “need ” to do that. “Need?” she’ll ask, eyebrows raised. OK, scratch that.

My wife’s point is this: for too many of us, what we “need” and what we “want” seldom diverge. They are one and the same, and so gadgets and other stuff piles up in closets and under beds as we gobble up everything the retailers throw at us.

Who knows whether this new emphasis on frugality is a fad or a permanent change, but it is interesting to note how lifestyle choices like these ebb and flow with the economic times. I’m old enough to remember the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo of the early 1970s. Price spiked, lines formed, and all of a sudden the country’s consciousness about energy and where it came from were all over the news.

Then came the late 1970s and early 1980s and inflation, job losses and more focus on our energy. Both presidents Nixon and Carter tried to raise our awareness of the country’s need to change its policies, but even during those bad economic times Americans didn’t embrace a radical new lifestyle.

But there was a rising consciousness of what was happening. Those times did signal the start of a concerted, mainstream environmental movement. The idea of using less, recycling and saving energy became commonplace, even though we didn’t all embrace it. The 1960s subculture had fomented into a fringe movement that now had advocates all the way to the White House. I remember some guy in Fayetteville who taught at the college near our house, and we’d see him riding his bike to work even in the winter.

That memory came back to me last week when we wrote a couple of stories about farmers and retailers. One story was about the growing popularity of biking to work again. Companies like Mast General Store even pay their workers to bike, figuring the benefits to the environment and their employees’ health are worth the investment.

The other story we wrote was about Whittier farmer William Shelton who has begun selling his products to individual families in addition to maintaining a wholesale business. Sign up for a share and you’ll get fresh vegetables each week from his farm.

Many growers are doing this, but Shelton is the first we’ve heard about who has been on the farm for several generations and has changed his business model to connect with the growing demand for local food. The markets also influenced his decision. Farmers like Shelton find it hard to compete against huge corporate farms and foreign competition.

And so he and others have decided to sell their food to people like you and me, counting on our desire for fresh and tasty food rather than the bland vegetables available in our grocery stores. These growers are also counting on the fact we, the consumer, will work harder to get our food. The large retailers are awfully convenient, but — just like biking to work — the benefits of eating local food go beyond taste to helping create the kind of community that most of us want to live in.

Last week’s paper brought together several of the issues arising from this new way of thinking that this Great Recession is helping promulgate. The demise of a consumer culture changes the equation of our lives. Cheaper, faster and easier don’t add up to better. The truth is that we’ve always known this, but often it takes eating a little humble pie before we remember what our parents and grandparents tried teaching us a long time ago.

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


Don’t you just love how words and labels take on a life of their own in the ideological debate that helps shape public policy. The give-and-take of real debate is important — as it helps us find a middle ground upon which to govern — but the word play often gets comical.

My, uhhmm, favorite in this current political climate is the claim that we are becoming a socialist country. The fear is that the trifecta of bank bailouts, red-ink stimulus packages and corporate handouts is sending us down the path of no return, and that soon the government will own even more private corporations. Now, as the politicians try to find a way to provide health care for every citizen, the cry is getting even more common.

As a New York Times writer put it a couple of months ago, “socialism” has replaced “liberal” as the “go-to” slur among conservatives who love to hear themselves talk.

It’s not just at the national scene that this accusation is getting tossed around. At the Tea Parties protesting higher taxes it was claimed that the country is changing, but in the wrong way. As the different groups around North Carolina protested spending at the local level, you could read about accusations that even county governments were becoming socialistic, whatever that means.

“Once the government owns GM,” a man was saying the other day in the locker room at the gym, “there’s no turning back. We’ll have to buy more private companies because no one else is going to want to buy them.”

And that’s really the crux of this new front in the ideological war. In this country, particularly since FDR and the New Deal era, government has taken a strong role in addressing our social problems. Most of these programs were aimed at the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. Those of different political stripes argued over how to administer the programs and how much should be spent, but there was general agreement that the less fortunate deserved government help.

But now it’s not just the needy we are helping. No, this time we step in and help rich bankers and U.S. autoworkers making $60,000 per year, all in the name of saving the economy. Before blasting Obama about all this, let’s remember that it was the previous administration that jumped into the fray by approving the initial bank bailout.

Then along came Obama and the tab to the banks grew, along with the approval to help the auto industry and the larger package of stimulus spending. And now, there’s a chance this government largesse will extend to California and maybe another state or two who are drowning in red ink.

But just what defines socialism, if that is indeed where we are headed? According to Newsweek, European democracies spend on average 47.1 percent of their country’s gross domestic product, while in the U.S. the figure is 39.1 percent. I don’t know what an economist would say, but it seems we still have a ways to go in a strict economic sense before we resemble those governments we love to hate in Europe.

The argument — whether one is conservative or liberal — should not be about labels. Those labels — like “socialism” — make arguing the nuances of important policy more difficult, kind of like demonizing the opponent rather than matching wits against them. What we should be worrying about is just how much government intervention is necessary, and what is the wisest way to spend our depleting federal and state resources.

Way back in March, President Obama had this to say during an interview on this subject: “By the time we got here, there already had been an enormous infusion of taxpayer money into the financial system. The fact that we’ve had to take these extraordinary measures and intervene is not an indication of my ideological preference, but an indication of the degree to which lax regulation and extravagant risk taking has precipitated a crisis.”

Both the private sector and the government failed us in this crisis. Now as a country we have to find some middle ground between the wealth production that comes with a freewheeling private sector and unfettered capitalism, and the proper role for government oversight and stiff bureaucratic regulations.

The government has a role in helping us out of this mess. How large a role is still being debated, but that intervention has nothing to do with socialism.

It won’t be easy, but I don’t think there’s much chance we’ll become a socialist country in the process.

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


The end of this year’s Folkmoot USA, some of the acquaintances I made during the festival, and my own ongoing interest in all things political has led me along one of those idealistic wanderings that I’ve often tried to swear off. It’s cliché, I know, but I kept coming back to the truth that we should spend more time celebrating what we all have in common instead of fighting over what we disagree about.

A book I recently read probably contributed to the imaginary dance with what could be, as opposed to what is. I had little time to read in April and May, and so spent a long time getting through the popular Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. A book that should have taken a week at most to read sat on my nightstand for nearly two months as I pecked away at a chapter here and a chapter there.

This book has become required reading in many schools, and for good reason. It’s the true story of a mountain climber who almost died attempting to conquer K2, only to be saved by the villagers in one of the most isolated areas on earth. He came away with the notion that these people living in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and their children — especially the girls — deserved an education.

Despite all our preconceived notions of Islamic fundamentalists, the very conservative village elders throughout the region welcomed Mortenson. As they saw how their children were empowered, and how Mortenson had no agenda except that of educating children who otherwise might not ever learn to read and write, they embraced the American and his simple goal of helping kids in these remote areas.

I thought about that book as this year’s 10-day Folkmoot international festival got under way (In the interest of disclosure, let me say that I am president of the Folkmoot board and have been a fan of this festival since I first arrived in Waynesville in 1992). Folkmoot doesn’t do anything as significant as building schools, but it has thrived for 25 years for many similar reasons, I think. Folkmoot touches lives on so many different levels.

When we begin planning for each festival, Folkmoot is a local event for almost everyone involved. Each of these groups was back home in their own country, trying to figure out how much money they needed, which members would be coming, when they would leave, and all those many preparations that go with international travel.

As all the planning comes together and we are just a few weeks away from the start of Folkmoot, those of us in Western North Carolina also begin to get excited about this festival. I know my own children — Liam, Hannah and Megan — are a font of questions and queries about who’s coming, when will they arrive, what shows will we go to, how old are the dancers and on and on and on. By that time they are already learning about all these countries, saoking up knowledge without even knowing it.

As Folkmoot gets under way, we have close to 300 performers from all over the world housed with local guides, spending the day with bus drivers and volunteers, and interacting with Americans from many different socio-economic levels and age groups. It’s my hope that they leave with a better understanding of our values and firsthand experiences of our hospitality, thanks to those interactions and the audiences they perform for. And these performers also share much with us, offering a glimpse of their own culture, and doing so in many different ways.

We invite the different groups here for this festival and, after spending time with people from countries they have never visited, they leave. Again, we hope when they depart they do so with the realization that we are all more alike than different; that when we celebrate each other’s culture we foster a better understanding of this complicated world. That’s the simple message of Folkmoot we want to send home with these wonderful performers.

By my estimates, during its 26-year run Folkmoot has brought a total of more than 7,500 performers to these mountains to share their dance, their music and their heritage. A minimum of 2,600 volunteers and employees has been associated with Folkmoot over those years. Around 250,000 to 300,000 spectators have been to ticketed events over the 26 years of the festival, and that doesn’t include the huge audiences at each Parade Day and International Festival Day.

By any one’s count that’s a huge helping of international goodwill that we here in Western North Carolina are responsible for. Here is Folkmoot’s mission statement: “Folkmoot USA promotes world friendship and celebrates cultural heritage by hosting the North Carolina International Folk Festival and other programs for residents and visitors.”

I don’t want to over-emphasize the impact of this international festival that Western North Carolina has embraced so generously, but let us at least revel for a few moments in the fact that Folkmoot is indeed a unique and inspiring event.

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


It’s Election Day (or very early morning, actually) as I sit to finish this, and the theme of the day was uttered a few weeks ago by a guy running for a local office: “I don’t care if I win or lose, I just want this to be over,” he said, referring to the campaigning.

And who can blame him. Anyone who has watched television or opened his mailbox lately has been barraged by advertising that is, in a word, slimy. The problem with political campaigns is that the advertising has all turned into a game of making up negative issues to attach to your opponent rather than standing for something yourself. It’s not about someone’s ideas, smarts or qualifications. It’s about making the populace fear the opponent’s intentions.

Take Sen. John Snow (even if he lost Nov. 2, he still gets the title) and his race to keep his N.C. Senate seat, for example. A few days before the election, a mailer went out from the North Carolina Republican Party that said he was willing to give a convicted child murderer “another chance.” Snow was upset, saying the ad relied on race-based fear tactics, showing the African-American convicted of the crime in a menacing pose.

His opponent decried the attack ad but said the information was factually correct. Snow supported a law that would allow judges to commute death sentences to life without parole if it was proven that racial bias was used in sentencing.

Now, some of those reading this probably know John Snow. If the former judge and prosecutor is soft on criminals and, as the ad claims, “too liberal,” well, grass ain’t green and the sky isn’t blue. The ad is just a load of bull.


Getting local

Let’s call it slime creep. We’ve watched for years as presidential and congressional advertising campaigns turned nasty, negative and dirty. Now our state campaigns — at least those that are close — are exactly the same, just a slew of negative spaghetti thrown against the wall to see what sticks. And it’s coming from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

I fear what is coming next. If you look through our newspaper and the rest of the community papers around the region, you’ll see political advertising for county commission and school board seats that is, by comparison, quaint: “Running on my record, not away from it,” says one ad; “This is the reason I stand for a limited government with low taxes,” says another.

These are people who stand for something, and are asking voters to support them because of their position. The ad attacking Snow, on the other hand, tries to raise doubts and fear in the voter that a bad guy might win. It’s the politics of the 21st century.

My fear is that in the next election cycle, these very same negative tactics will slip down to the most local of campaigns. We saw winds of it this year in Jackson County, where sitting commissioners were set up as the reason for everything that’s wrong with this country. It didn’t escalate to the out-of-control level, but there was some relatively nasty stuff being thrown around.

Bare-knuckled politics is fine. Most of us prefer elected leaders who possess a certain degree of toughness and who will stand up to adversaries. Tough but fair is fine, but it requires a large dose of integrity to fight fairly. Once you wade into a brawl, it is very tempting to step over the line and start throwing sucker punches or doing whatever it takes to win.


Talk-show mentality

A football coach I grudgingly admire uses the same comeback when reporters ask questions he doesn’t like: “It is what it is.” It’s also an apt point to keep in mind when assessing today’s political climate.

The evening network news shows and most newspapers — subtly biased, but factual — have been replaced as news sources for the masses by TV and radio talk show hosts and the web. Those programs and blogs might provide good information, but it has to be consumed with a more discerning filter. Whether you prefer Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post, you just have to know the difference between news, analysis, opinion and straight-up bias.

But that’s what we have. And so it is OK to rip someone to shreds over something that is marginally true or something that is completely irrelevant. It’s OK to falsely accuse a politician, as long as it keeps your ratings high or gets you elected to that same office. Or, as happened with Sen. Snow, for the opposing political party to send out a mailer that a retired judge and prosecutor wants to give another chance to a convicted child rapist and murderer.

I too am glad this election is over, but I’ve got a feeling the next may be even more tawdry. And, I fear that it all is running downhill to the local elections. I hope I’m wrong on this one.

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


When Haywood county commissioners decided a few weeks ago to adopt new rules guiding public comment at their meetings, some cried foul. I wondered what took them so long.

The Smoky Mountain News and most of our brethren in the print news business in this region take very seriously our role as local government watchdogs. The very fact that there are so many newspapers in the mountains that retain what some might regard as an old-school attitude about this fourth estate tradition only means good things for readers and citizens. It’s rare that public officials in the mountains can stray from accepted rules of behavior and not get called out by someone, either in a news story, an editorial or column, or a letter to the editor from an irate constituent.

In my world order, that is just as it should be.

Treating as sacred the process of open government does not, however, mean that elected officials have to conduct their business amid a backdrop of incessant, often irrelevant, time-consuming complaints from their constituents. A true democracy can indeed be very messy, so it has to adopt rules to keep things both civil and efficient.

Of course elected officials, county commissioners included, have to listen to the public — especially when the public is pissed off about something they have done. It comes with the territory. If these new rules were in any way written so that it was obvious that the intent was to squelch public debate, then we’d be raising more hell than anyone.

In Haywood County, though, some meetings have been opened with up to two hours of comment on a wide variety of issues, some relevant and some very irrelevant. County employees, those with business before the board, and commissioners themselves have their time wasted. Often the public comment session is more about grandstanding than trying to get a word in with election officials about an important issue.

We will always be the first in line to stand up for the public’s right to open government, including access to elected officials. But we still have to go by rules that let government be as efficient as possible. The guidelines adopted by commissioners will at least keep the meetings moving along more smoothly.

And those with a beef can always take the time to meet privately with their elected officials. Truth be told, those one-on-one meetings will usually accomplish more than a few minutes at a podium during a commissioner meeting.


It’s one of those seemingly contradictory ideas, but one that is wise: logging at the Waynesville watershed will provide environmental benefits.

The Waynesville watershed contains some of the purest water in the state, and the town has locked up nearly 8,000 acres in a conservation easement to protect its drinking water source. But that easement contained language that allows limited logging, and it was a controversial plan when it was approved in a 2005 by a 3-2 vote of aldermen.

Now the rubber is hitting the road, so to speak, as a plan to cut white pines on about 50 acres of the watershed is up for consideration by town leaders. Despite the worries of some that the logging will do more damage than good, the wise management of this watershed — including some logging — should make the forest healthier.

Yes, the town stands to reap some money from the logging. However, the agreement put in place five years ago does not allow town leaders to consider potential profit from logging as a factor in their management decisions.

Modern forestry and the old logging of bygone years are as different as night and day. This is a plan to make the forest healthier and thereby increase chances that the water in the reservoir will remain clean and viable as a drinking water source. It’s just a good idea.

(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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