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Lake Santeetlah back to business after election wins

Lake Santeetlah back to business after election wins

New town leadership is looking forward to getting things moving again in the tiny Graham County municipality of Lake Santeetlah, after a pair of incumbents and a pair of former Town Council members won resounding victories repudiating actions taken by the town’s elected leaders over the past two years. 

“We’ve got five new council members that get along great,” said Jim Hager, Lake Santeetlah’s former mayor. “We plan to maintain a positive and pleasant atmosphere.”

The results come after an unexpectedly chaotic municipal election in 2021, when a group of write-in candidates swept three incumbents — Roger Carlton, Kevin Haag and Keith Predmore — out of office, from out of nowhere.

Council members Hager and Diana Simon survived, but found themselves in the minority on Council as Tina Emerson, Constance Gross and Ralph Mitchell won seats on the board.

Lake Santeetlah’s Town Council elects its own mayor from among its ranks, and selected Gross over the opposition of Hager and Simon.

Allegations of voter fraud were subsequently leveled by Simon against eight voters Simon claimed did not reside at the lake and should not have been allowed to vote. The alleged fraud was substantial, because in the small community of Lake Santeetlah, 11 votes was enough to win a seat on the town council that year.

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Claims against six of the eight, all members of the Hutsell family, weren’t pursued after each of the six changed their registrations from Graham County to Buncombe County, where patriarch Dean Hutsell owns a sprawling home.

The Hutsells’ house in Lake Santeetlah burned to the ground in 2019 and did not have a certificate of occupancy when they registered and voted from there in 2021. The Hutsells voted in Buncombe County in 2022.

Recently, several members of the Hutsell family including Dean and wife Linda re-registered in Graham County, after the State Board of Elections failed to resolve the question  of their residency in time for this year’s election.

Records from the North Carolina State Board of Elections indicate six members of the Hutsell family voted in the 2023 election in Lake Santeetlah. Simon filed challenges against the Hutsells again this year, but ultimately withdrew them.

On Aug. 3, NCSBE General Counsel Paul Cox told The Smoky Mountain News that “the State Board can confirm that it considers the information … complaints of criminal violations. All complaints of criminal violations are reviewed and investigated by the State Board’s investigations division, as warranted by the evidence and the law.”

Although the NCSBE didn’t resolve the Hutsells’ residency issue in time for the 2023 election, Simon is hopeful they’ll do so prior to the 2025 election.

The other two people accused of fraudulent registration, Council member Emerson and her husband John, heard the Graham County Board of Elections find probable cause  in July 2022 to suspect that they’d registered fraudulently at Lake Santeetlah.

Three months later, the Emersons were cleared of wrongdoing after the Board declared that their “intent” to reside in a particular place was sufficient to establish residency, at least for the purposes of voting. Simon appealed the ruling to Superior Court, but the case hasn’t gone anywhere since then.

The Gross-Emerson-Mitchell faction then proceeded to take, or attempted to take, a number of actions opposed by the majority of voters.

“I felt that our previous Council before the 2021 election was a very effective Council,” Simon said. “We really initiated a lot of things, like updating water systems and locating water lines in the streets, but [they] undid a lot of things. The town’s counsel, which was experienced in municipal and zoning law, was quickly replaced with a firm better suited to their goals, but without experience representing municipalities.”

They also attempted to defund the town’s zoning administrator, who later resigned, and then attempted to repeal — not replace — the town’s zoning ordinance.

“The whole town rose up against repealing it,” Simon said.  

According to Simon, Emerson led the effort to defund the town’s Tourism Development Authority, which like many other municipalities in North Carolina collects a room occupancy tax on visitors.

At the time, Emerson owned, and still owns, a short-term rental at the lake, so her efforts would appear to be a blatant conflict of interest with a direct financial benefit to her.

Simon was, and is, the TDA’s chair.

While Emerson couldn’t dissolve the TDA, she was successful in changing the TDA’s tax rate from 3% to zero.

“We’ve been working without any revenue for two years,” Simon said.

Under normal circumstances, the lake’s TDA would collect around $25,000 per year, a tidy sum in light of the town’s current $385,000 budget.

Two-thirds of TDA revenue must be spent on marketing, but the other third is somewhat less encumbered; recently, the TDA funded $15,000 in improvements to the town’s front entrance — money that didn’t have to come out of the town’s general fund, or even from its residents.

Simon thinks the move cost the town even more, as visitation numbers in Western North Carolina exploded during the Coronavirus Pandemic, likely from remote workers and urbanites seeking to escape crowded big cities.

Issues aside, Town Council meetings were contentious, and Simon said Gross, Emerson and Mitchell kept them in the dark on many agenda items. They found out about town business, Simon said, like everyone else — when the agenda was published.

“The so-called transparent council of Gross … was not,” Simon said.

Making matters more complicated, the elderly Mitchell hasn’t been to a meeting in person in at least a year according to Hager, who said Mitchell now resides in an assisted living facility somewhere in Ohio. That left the board deadlocked on some matters, with Gross and Emerson countered by Simon and Hager.

Despite his absence, Mitchell still voted in the Nov. 7, 2023, municipal election by mail, presumably because of his continuing “intent” to reside at Lake Santeetlah at some undetermined point in the future.

This year, Haag led the ticket with 32 votes, although Graham County reported 53 write-ins. A majority of those votes, 30, went to Predmore. Simon tied Haag with 32 votes, followed by Hager and new Council member Ralph Strunk, both with 31. Far behind were incumbent Council member Tina Emerson and Mayor Connie Gross, with 23 votes each.

“It just shows how upset people were with the previous council,” Hager said.

Hager told The Smoky Mountain News that he would support electing Simon as mayor, with Haag as vice mayor, and that he’d like to serve as the town’s finance officer.

“Every council member is going to have a duty and a responsibility,” he said. “Not like [Mitchell].”

Simon said that in addition to finding a new town attorney and reinstating the room occupancy tax, likely back to 3%, she wanted to work on a nuisance ordinance and on zoning enforcement.

“These were items put on hold for two years, since the majority of council was anti-zoning,” she said.

But that era of Lake Santeetlah’s town government, brief as it was, is now over, says Simon.

“I’m looking forward to being a part of a Council that will work together towards our goals of continued improvements to infrastructure,” she said. “Other important goals are safety, security and property values. I’ll strive to keep the strong zoning ordinance and land use plan that is supported by a large majority of property owners. This Council, and our town, expects future development to be responsible.”

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