Collective discontent bonds candidates

Three candidates running for the Maggie Valley town board with a similar message have buddied up in the campaign and chosen to run as a slate.

They claim the current town leaders discourage new ideas and fail to bring residents and business owners to the table to solve the town’s problems.

“This present regime has really closed out any other ideas other than their own,” said Ron DeSimone, a challenger for mayor. “They are not very open. They have allowed that podium to be used for vile personal attacks while limiting the voice of other people.”

DeSimone has joined forced on the ticket with town board candidates Phillip Wight and Phil Aldridge. They partnered by putting all three of their names on both yard signs and brochures.

“The main reason I am personally running is I think it is the people’s seat and I don’t think it has been represented properly over the years,” Wight said. “I really hope I can help solve problems and reach across the isle.”

Both Wight and DeSimone ran for town board two years ago unsuccessfully. Aldridge has been on the board for eight years, but is a self-described “odd man out.”

“I have been a lone voice on that board for many years,” Aldridge said. Aldridge said he hasn’t been able to bring about the change that he hoped.

“I had the same ideas then that I have now as far as trying to bring this Valley together,” Aldridge said. “We want to invite the public and business to share their ideas and bring them forward to us. That is not happening right now.”

That’s why he needed to run as a team with Wight and DeSimone.

Challenger Danny Mitchell is not part of the slate but shares some of the same views.

“My main concern is that everybody needs to get along and have professional meetings and not argue and fuss,” Mitchell said.

Two incumbents running for re-election — Mayor Roger McElroy and Alderwoman Danya Vanhook — disagree that there is widespread dissatisfaction. Critics have been a near constant element in Maggie’s small town politics, and the town has tried to reach out to them over the years but can never seem to satisfy them.

“I think a good majority of the people are pretty much happy with what is going on in town,” McElroy said, despite what he called “a faction in town that has felt differently for a long time.”

McElroy said despite his 30 years on the board, he is open minded to new ideas for the town.

“If an idea comes up you can’t say we tried that and it didn’t work because situations change. Something that didn’t work 10 years ago might work now, and I’m aware of that,” McElroy said.

Vanhook said being impartial and open-minded is her forte as a former judge. Vanhook joined the town board just six months ago. She was appointed after another an alderman who stepped down and left a vacancy.

At first, she didn’t apply because Maggie politics were known for being contentious but thought her skills may be of use on the town board.

“Someone who is a former judge, who can be fair, has an open mind, who hasn’t even involved in local politics before,” Vanhook said. “I was used to being very neutral and I thought that would serve Maggie Valley well, who would make decisions in the best interest of residents and businesses and didn’t have an ax to grind.”

Vanhook said she isn’t in one camp or the other.

“I certainly don’t vote in lock step with anyone,” Vanhook said.

Vanhook said Mayor Roger McElroy is in a tough spot as the moderator of town meetings. Maggie’s town meetings seem to have the best attendance per capita than any in the region. And, those interested enough to come often want to weigh in from their seats.

When McElroy calls on people in the audience, or lets people speak past their allotted time at the podium, people complain he isn’t keeping order and doesn’t know how to run a meeting. When he limits public input, he is accused of shutting them down, Vanhook said.

“I think he has always erred on the side of being inclusive,” Vanhook said. “I assure you every single person who comes to the meeting is heard.”

Vanhook said the town is better off for debating issues but wishes the debate was more cordial.

Until a few months ago, the town had public comment at the end of the meeting. The odd placement meant people were often commenting after the board had already come to a decision rather than before, so it was moved to the beginning as with other towns and counties.

 

Musical town board members

The election aside, the town has already seen two newcomers join the board this year. Two aldermen have resigned over the past six months. One alderman resigned after a political falling out with other board members. The second resigned because his motel business was struggling, and he decided to move elsewhere.

Two new board members were appointed to fill the seats.

One is Vanhook, who was appointed in March and now must formally run to keep her seat. The second is Michael Matthews, who was just appointed in September. His seat isn’t among those up for election.

Prior to being appointed, however, Matthews had signed up as a candidate in the fall election and his name will still appear on the ballot, even though he now already holds a seat on the board.

Matthews said he threw his name in the ring after witnessing a “huge disconnect” between the town leaders and the residents and business owners of town.

“I want to get everybody on the same page. I want everybody to start working together,” Matthews said.

While everyone seems to have good intentions — namely wanting the best for Maggie Valley — dueling personalities seem to get in the way, Matthews said.

Matthews considers himself neutral and says he isn’t aligned with either of the feuding camps that have marked Maggie Valley politics.

“People need to put the past in the past and start moving forward,” said Matthews, who works across the mountain at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

Maggie candidates want to rekindle tourism, but how?

Waning tourism in Maggie Valley and what to do about it is dominating the town’s election this fall.

Four people are running for two seats on the town board, and there is also a contested race for mayor.

A slate of three candidates — Phil Aldridge, Phillip Wight and Ron DeSimone — say the current town leadership is a rudderless ship without a plan to bring back tourism.

“The town has been run off the hip. It really hasn’t followed a business plan,” said Ron DeSimone, a challenger for mayor.

Aldridge agreed.

“There is no game plan,” Aldridge said. “We want to sit down with the business people and come up with a plan. I don’t have the answers, and I don’t think any one person does. I think the town needs to be more willing to listen.”

Wight, a motel owner, has experienced declining tourism in Maggie first-hand.

“We are obviously suffering,” Wight said. “There are some people with good ideas out there that are not being heard.”

Maggie Valley was a kingpin of tourism in the mountains in the 1960s and ‘70s but has fallen from its former glory in recent years. The decline is blamed largely on the shuttered Ghost Town amusement park, which drew tens of thousands of people to the valley in its heyday.

Meanwhile, the rise of quaint downtowns like Waynesville and Bryson City and the burgeoning casino resort in Cherokee have proved tough competition for the older strip of mom and pop motels and restaurants that line Maggie Valley.

Candidate Danny Mitchell learned the ropes of tourism the hard way: a trial by fire after buying a motel and moving to Maggie Valley from Georgia 13 years ago as a mid-life career move.

Tourism has been decreasing steadily since then, Mitchell said, with motels losing up to 50 percent of their business when Ghost Town closed. The answer?

“Somebody with a lot of money to put Dollywood or Six Flags back on the mountain,” Mitchell said. “Look at Pigeon Forge. The main reason it has grown is Dollywood.”

Short of that, Mitchell didn’t have many ideas for how to improve Maggie’s tourism prospects. He also wasn’t sure what role the town could play in getting “somebody” to put in an amusement park where Ghost Town once was.

“Good question,” Mitchell said. “The economy is so bad right now as far the banks loaning money, it would take someone with a lot of money to buy Ghost Town.”

He suggested the town could offer them free sewer if they would come.

Wight said some guests at his motel check out early and spend the rest of their vacation in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg after running out of things to do in Maggie Valley.

Motorcycle tourism has become a brisk market for Maggie Valley, with the region’s myriad scenic roads at Maggie’s doorstep. Wheels Thru Time, a world-renowned motorcycle museum, is the crown jewel of Maggie’s motorcycle tourism scene.

The town has seen an outgrowth of bars catering to motorcyclists, while restaurants and motels go out of their way to advertise themselves as biker-friendly on their signs out front.

Wight and Aldridge said the town could hurt establishments catering to bikers if it goes through with a plan to tighten the noise ordinance.

 

Balancing tourism and residents

Striking a balance between tourism and year-round residents is a tough challenge for Maggie Valley leaders who find themselves trying to serve two masters.

Business interests want the town to double as a promotional arm and take an active role — including spending tax dollars — to help tourism. Residents, however, don’t want to see too many of their tax dollars plowed into aiding the struggling motels, shops and restaurants.

“It’s a fine line,” Aldridge said. “You try to make both sides comfortable or happy. The big picture of it is if the businesses continue to fail, taxes are going to go up for everyone else.”

Alderwoman Danya Vanhook said the town’s interests aren’t mutually exclusive.

“There is a difference in philosophy over whether the town should promote business and tourism at a loss or whether we should be fiscally conservative and better stewards of the taxpayers’ money — that is a false dichotomy,” Vanhook said.

In its current budget, the town didn’t lay anyone off, gave employees a cost-of-living increase, and didn’t raise taxes, Vanhook said.

The town in its early days consisted almost solely of businesses, the town limits drawn like a snake along the strip of motels, shops and restaurants lining Soco Road. But the snake began bulging over time, taking in a neighborhood here, a subdivision there, until the town gradually grew from a few dozen business owners to a population of more than 1,000 residents today.

Much of that growth has occurred in just the past decade, with the town nearly doubling its population since 2000 by annexing new subdivisions into the town limits.

DeSimone is one of those new town residents after the town’s forced annexation of the subdivision in which he resides, Brannon Forest.

“I’ve always been of the opinion they were paying attention to the businesses and not the residents,” DeSimone said.

But since his first run for office two years ago, DeSimone said even business owners are having a hard time getting the attention of town hall.

“I was surprised even the business people feel disenfranchised,” DeSimone said.

DeSimone said the town does have a responsibility to promote a friendly business environment.

“Let’s face it, the majority of the town is around that strip. We can’t ignore that fact,” DeSimone said. “It is in the town’s best interest for that business district to be thriving and active.”

DeSimone, Aldridge and Wight have questioned the town’s budget, calling it large for a town of Maggie’s size and questioning if there are items in the budget — such as the size of the police force — that could be cut.

The town’s tax base is split almost evenly between residential communities and businesses. The town provides services for residents that businesses don’t get, such as garbage and brush pick-up, McElroy said. So the way he sees it, it’s OK to spend town resources to help promote business sometimes.

McElroy said there are positive economic signs in the Valley. Around 10 new businesses have opened this year. The majority are bars or restaurants — four are new bars as a matter of fact, adding to at least that many already in Maggie.

But the list also includes an archery range and antique shop, plus a couple businesses that clearly cater to locals, like a hair salon and bakery.

“I think it is a good combination,” McElroy said, adding that he would like to see even more. “For us to continue to draw people, we need good restaurants and activities.”

Aldridge, however, pointed to the oft-used tally of 47 closed, vacant, ‘for sale’ or ‘for rent’ businesses along the roadside from Soco Gap to the stop light at Jonathan Creek.

As for the newly opened businesses?

“It sounds significant, but who is going to be here next year? Who is going to survive the winter?” Aldridge said.

Vanhook wants to see more businesses catering to residents. She also thinks the town could take a role in improving the quality of life by leasing Carolina Nights or Eagle’s Nest — performance venues that closed this year — to show movies, something locals and tourists would enjoy.

McElroy touted a new town park in the works, Parham Park. It will feature a picnic pavilion, public restrooms and other amenities.

The town has also taken steps to improve its appearance, requiring a “mountain vernacular” architectural style for new businesses being built or those undergoing major remodeling.

“We want to try to make it look like a mountain place,” McElroy said.

 

Festival ground drama

The town-owned festival grounds has emerged as a lightning rod for controversy as town leaders debate the best way to bring tourists to Maggie.

The town has latched on to its festival grounds as its best asset in the fight to increase tourism, attempting to pack the calendar with car shows, carnivals, craft fairs and motorcycle rallies to lure warm bodies to the Valley.

“We’ve tried hard to fill in the gap somewhat with more festival activity,” said Mayor Roger McElroy. “Other than sight seeing and visiting the stores, there is not much else to do. If there is nothing for them to do, they won’t come back.”

While the town won’t stop waiting and hoping for someone to open a major amusement park to replace Ghost Town, in the meantime, recruiting more festivals to fill the void has become the town’s top strategy.

The town pays half the salary for a festival director, who is tasked with recruiting events and festivals to the Maggie venue. The other half is paid out of a room tax on overnight lodging. The town also spent big bucks putting on two of its own festivals this year.

Critics have blasted the town for the expenses and claim the festival director is going about her job all wrong.

“I think the two events were grossly overspent,” Wight said. The town took on the risk associated with throwing the festivals, paying bands and ride operators up front and then collecting proceeds off ticket sales.

The net loss on the two taxpayer-funded festivals was around $50,000. The town spent just over $89,000 to throw the four-day Red, White and Boom but took in only about $47,000. The town lost $13,000 on the Americana Roots and Beer festival in the spring.

“I think there is a way to promote the festival ground without the town losing tons of money to do it,” DeSimone said.

DeSimone questioned what benefits businesses saw for the $40,000 cost to taxpayers for the July Fourth carnival.

“The results have been ethereal at best,” DeSimone said. “There is no discernable way to measure results.”

McElroy and Vanhook see it as an investment rather than an expense however.

Vanhook said she has heard rave reviews from people who came to Red, White and Boom. More importantly, they plan to come back next year and make Maggie Valley their annual July Fourth tradition. Vanhook sees the inaugural year of the festival as an investment that will pay off down the road.

Wight said there are more effective ways for the town to get a bigger bang for its buck, however. Instead of plowing so much in to two festivals, the town should put the money in a kitty and pay bonuses for festival organizers who bring a target number of people through the gate.

Wight also thinks it is a waste of money to send the town’s festival director to trade shows in Texas and California, a strategy to convince event organizers to look at Maggie as their next venue.

Candidate Danny Mitchell doesn’t like the town spending so much on the festival grounds, regardless of the strategy for how to spend it.

The town has recently debated whether waive fees for the festival ground as a recruitment tool to get organizers to hold events there.

Wight put the drama in perspective at least.

“It is nice to have the festival grounds to fight over,” Wight said.

 

Alderman: pick two

Phil Aldridge, 55, current alderman

Former owner of Phil’s Grocery for 12 years

Danya Vanhook, 33, current alderwoman

Attorney

Danny Mitchell, 55

Owner of Laurel Park Inn and estimator for WNC Paving. Bought a motel and moved to Maggie Valley 13 years ago.

Phillip Wight, 42

Owner of Clarkton Motel

 

Mayor: pick one

Roger McElroy, 73, current mayor

General contractor and owner of Meadowlark Motel and Cottages.

Ron DeSimone, 58

General contractor.

Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks narrowly wins election on record of progress

Principal Chief Michell Hicks won Thursday’s election in Cherokee, becoming only the second chief ever to be elected to a third term.

All incumbents in Cherokee managed to hang on to their seats in the election, signaling that voters believe the tribe is on the right track and hesitant to upset that momentum with a change in leadership.

Hicks barely eked out a victory, however, besting challenger Patrick Lambert, by just 135 votes. But the gap was wider than the slim 13-vote margin Lambert lost by in 2007 when he took on Hicks for the first time.

Hicks believes it’s the advances he’s made and the continuity he provides that won over voters. They ultimately agree, he said, with the progressive track the tribe has been on and the advances it had made in the past eight years under his leadership.

“I think the real scare for people is they were afraid progress would not continue for the tribe and we would step backwards,” Hicks said. “I think that was one of the big decision makers.”

The tribe has built a state-of-the-art K-12 school, an emergency operations center, took over its own hospital, opened a movie theater, developed new parks and greenways, attempted a facelift for blighted commercial strips, and pushed a raft of green initiatives under Hicks’ tenure. It’s also focused on cultural renewal efforts, such as the Kituwah Academy, a school for children dedicated to keeping the Cherokee language alive.

There was no doubt the race would be close, with Lambert actually beating Hicks in the primary this summer. Though Hicks got more of the vote, he and Lambert split the six districts evenly.

In Yellowhill, Painttown and Big Y/Wolftown, Hicks carried the vote. In Big Cove, Birdtown and Cherokee County/Snowbird, the tally swung in favor of rival Lambert.

Stepping down to vice chief, Larry Blythe is back in for another term, beating opponent Teresa McCoy by a mere 76 votes. McCoy, who had 49 percent of voter favor, had challenged in 2007, but lost then as well.

McCoy’s bid for vice chief cost her a council seat. She currently sits on tribal council and couldn’t run for that seat and the vice chief position simultaneously.

Her vacant council spot hosts the only new face with a victory in this election. Bo Taylor will join incumbent Perry Shell in representing Big Cove at tribal council.

Elsewhere on the reservation, the other 11 sitting tribal council members held onto their posts, all with margins of at least 35 votes between the winner and the next closest challenger.

Turn out was average, with 62 percent of the 6,704 registered voters in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians coming out for the election.

During exit poll interviews, few were willing to hazard a guess as to the winner or share their personal leanings.

Many at the polls were tight lipped about who they voted for. One man in Painttown, Bryson Catolster, refused to divulge his choice before walking back to a car plastered in signs supporting Lambert.

In Big Cove, Carol Long cited professional concerns as the reason she wouldn’t open up about her preferred candidate. Long works with a drug and alcohol addiction program in tribal court and must keep good relationships with whomever is in power for her program to be a success.

Her concern is shared by others here, where so many rely on the tribe for jobs, whether it’s at Harrahs’ Cherokee Casino or in tribal government or the many programs it provides.

Margie Taylor would say she voted for Hicks in the Yellowhill community, but the woman who exited the polls just after wouldn’t give her name, even though she said she left the box for principal chief unchecked on her ballot.

With his win, Hicks is only the second chief to serve a 12-year term. He’ll now have to live up to his biggest campaign promise — eradicating tribal debt by 2014.

Hicks had said throughout the election season that he wanted to hold onto the seat to take care of the unfinished business of tribal debt, excluding the ongoing $633 million expansion at Harrah’s.

In addition to paying down the tribal debt, he listed better social services as another priority going into the next four years.

“I want to make sure the social services system is restructured so it truly takes care of Cherokee families,” Hicks said. The tribe currently relies on the Department of Social Services in Jackson and Swain counties to provide child welfare services, including intervening in cases of child abuse or neglect. After the death of a Cherokee child in Swain County earlier this year, Hicks is leading the charge to bring social services under the tribal umbrella.

Bringing tribal services in-house is a currently a theme in Hicks’ administration.

A new justice complex is also on the to-do list this term. Tribal members are now held in neighboring county jails, but the completion of the complex will allow them to stay in Cherokee and get drug and alcohol rehabilitation if they need it.

The center will also house the tribal court, where the tribe is working to get Tribal Prosecutor Jason Smith appointed as a federal prosecutor, too, so more Cherokee cases can stay in tribal hands.

“Our goal is to become self-sustaining and obviously we are well on our way to doing that in all areas,” Hicks said.

Meanwhile, Lambert, who wasn’t taking calls after the results came in, maintained throughout the campaign that spending and debt under Hicks were out of control and not accountable to the people.

“We can do better than we are doing, we can make the tribe a better place by paying down the debt, getting more resources going towards the families,” said Lambert in July.

Hicks wouldn’t say if he’s planning to run again in 2015, but did say he wanted to pass on a solidly positioned government to the next administration.

“In four years, by the time I leave, that is what I want to leave the next leaders is a foundation that is secure,” Hicks said.

The numbers aren’t yet official and probably won’t be until at least Friday.

Candidates have five business days to protest any voting irregularities and two business days to ask for a recount if the results showed less than 2 percent difference.

Only Teresa McCoy could ask for a recount this time. She lost to Blythe by just 1.83 percent. The other 0.17 percent went to the seven write-in votes for vice chief.

Hicks retained his place by a margin of 3.22 percent. There were 80 write-in votes for principal chief.

Yellowhill, Painttown and Big Y school board members were also chosen.

Official results are scheduled for presentation to tribal council on Oct. 5.

 

Election results

Winners in bold; top two vote-getters win council seats.

Principal Chief

• Michell Hicks: 2124

• Patrick Lambert: 1989

• Write-in: 80

Total: 4193


Vice Chief

• Larry Blythe: 2112

• Teresa McCoy: 2036

• Write-in: 7

Total: 4155


Yellowhill Council

• Alan ‘B’ Ensley: 289

• David Wolfe: 351

• Jimmy Bradley: 211

• John D. Long: 91


Big Cove Council

• Frankie Lee Bottchenbaugh: 190

• Bo Taylor: 230

• Perry Shell: 303

• Lori Taylor: 157

 

Birdtown Council

• Gene ‘Tunney” Crowe Jr.: 696

• Jim Owle: 691

• Terri Lee Taylor: 420

• Faye McCoy: 112

• Write-in: 1

 

Painttown Council

• Tommye Saunooke: 346

• Marie Junaluska: 241

• Yona Wade: 181

• Terri Henry: 280

• Write-in: 1

 

Big Y/Wolftown Council

• Dennis Edward (Bill) Taylor: 525

• Mike Parker: 531

• Dwayne “Tuff” Jackson: 354

• Kathy “Rock” Burgess: 363

 

Cherokee County/ Snowbird Council

• Diamond Brown: 266

• Adam Wachacha: 285

• Brenda Norville: 163

• Angela Rose Kephart: 211

Cherokee election rematch enters into final days

Election season is closing in Cherokee, where races for principal chief, vice chief, tribal council and school board members will culminate when voters hit the polls on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Incumbent chief Michell Hicks is trying to keep a grip on the position for a third term. If he’s successful, Hicks would be just the second chief to hold office for 12 years.

His challenger is Patrick Lambert, long-time attorney for the Tribal Gaming Commission, which regulates the tribe’s gaming operations.

This is the second round between Lambert and Hicks, who sparred in the 2007 election. That race had a contentious ending, with Hicks besting his opponent by only a handful of votes. Though Lambert challenged the outcome in the tribal court, the count stood and he was put off for another four years.

But unlike 2007, Lambert won the primary earlier in the summer, taking 46 percent of the vote. Hicks garnered 40 percent of the roughly 3,000 voters who turned out.

At the time, Hicks said he was confident in his voting base, especially given that only around half of registered voters cast ballots in the July primary.

In the vice chief race, it’s another rematch. Larry Blythe is running to maintain his seat, while current council member Teresa McCoy is trying to take his job after a loss to Blythe in 2007. She took the primary, with 39 percent of the vote. But Blythe wasn’t far behind, taking in 36 percent.

The issues that have defined this election centered around Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino, the tribe’s central money-making venture. Questions about the economy, fiscal responsibility, diversification and services to tribal members all eventually came back to the casino, and what it was doing for the tribes 13,500 members.

Per capita checks, the payouts given annually to tribal members from casino revenues, were down this year, and some questioned the wisdom of continuing to pin the tribe’s financial hopes on Harrah’s alone.

Whoever wins the post on Wednesday will deal not only with falling revenues and a still-unfinished casino expansion, but also the impending negotiations over live dealers.

Gamblers at Harrah’s currently don’t enjoy the casino experience that Las Vegas patrons do; the tribe’s contract with the state doesn’t allow table games such as craps and roulette or live dealers at poker and black jack tables.

Last week, two top Republican state senators travelled to Cherokee to discuss the idea of Vegas-style gaming there.

The General Assembly has already pledged to vote on the issue in the new legislative session that starts Sept. 12.

The new principal chief, however, would still have to navigate negotiations with Gov. Beverly Perdue, and such talks can at times be tricky.

The last attempt to bring live dealers to the casino stalled after negotiations between Chief Hicks and then-Gov. Mike Easley disintegrated. At various times throughout the campaign, Lambert has charged that Hicks mishandled the situation.

Polls open at 6 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, and close at 6 p.m. Registered voters who are in line at 6 p.m. will be allowed to vote.

What’s in their wallets? Salaries could be a factor in upcoming tribal election

Cherokee tribal elections are little more than a week away, and with the economy topping the list of major issues, the salaries of tribal officials are raising eyebrows and some ire on the reservation.

Both candidates for principal chief have stumped relentlessly on debt-reduction and spending-control platforms.

Whoever wins, however, will enjoy a sizable paycheck and a generous, lifelong pension, despite enrolled members seeing their per capita checks decline last year because casino profits were down.

Current Principal Chief Michell Hicks enjoys a base salary of $142,458, plus a car and an extra 30 percent of his base pay in fringe benefits, such as health care. That adds up to a total compensation package of about $185,000, not counting the car.

Vice Chief Larry Blythe is paid $129,896, plus given use of a car and 30 percent in fringe benefits, like the chief. Total, the vice chief earns nearly $169,000.

If challenger Patrick Lambert wins the top post, however, he’ll actually be leaving a much more lucrative position.

Lambert is executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission, which makes sure the tribe’s gambling operations, whether in the casino or tribal bingo, are on the up and up.

The TGC regulates gambling licenses, monitors casino payouts to ensure compliance with federal regulations and provides other oversight, such as background checks into managers and internal investigations.

Lambert’s base salary this year was $250,000, according to a gaming commission budget provided to The Smoky Mountain News. When you add in the fringe benefits, bonuses and vacation pay, the total comes to $446,355.

Lambert said that weighing his salary against the pay of public officials isn’t a fair comparison. Elected tribal leaders are public servants, while he is in the gaming industry, he said. It’s business versus government, and the two will never be equal, he argued.

“It’s no secret that I make a substantially larger amount than the chief does, and my salary is graded on a national comparison level with my years of experience and qualifications,” said Lambert.

Lambert believes his opponents are publicizing his pay as a tactic to divert public attention from what he considers the real issues of the campaign.

Lambert’s pay doesn’t come directly from the tribe like the principal and vice chief’s salaries.

The gaming commission gets its money from the businesses it’s regulating: it is funded by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, the management entity that oversees Harrah’s operations. To a lesser extent, the commission is also funded by the Tribal Bingo Enterprise and revenue generators such as background checks and license fees that it charges the gambling operations.

Indirectly, however, both salaries spring from the same fiscal headwaters: gaming revenues.

And both are significantly higher than the average in Cherokee.

In Jackson and Swain counties, which the reservation straddles, the median household income is $36,761. Statewide, it’s $43,754.

Principal Chief Hicks makes more than North Carolina’s governor. Lambert’s base pay surpasses that of the vice president of the United States.

Lambert’s compensation is based on the results of a tribal pay scale study done every few years by an outside firm, which looks at comparable jobs around the country and what people in those posts are paid.

The principal chief’s salary is decided by tribal council. Tribal council also vote on their own salaries ($70,000 a year each), and that of the vice chief.

It’s difficult to gauge whether Hicks’ or Lambert’s incomes match comparable positions elsewhere. Salaries in the private gaming sector aren’t public information, and a good many tribal governments don’t offer that information up, either.

A few tribes do have pay stats out there, mostly as a result of a public row over whether the pay is too high.

The principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma currently makes $122,444, but a committee suggested this spring that the number be raised to $170,697 over the next four years. The Sisseton–Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota pay their top guy $80,000, decreased from $100,000 just this year.

For Lambert’s position, it’s even harder to determine. He maintains that a fair comparison would pit him against people such as Darold Londo, general manager at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Londo’s salary isn’t public, and neither are those of many other top gaming officials, making the suggested comparisons impossible.

Recruiting firm Bristol Associates does an annual survey of gaming executives, and it reports that top spots in gaming can bring from $100,000 to $400,000 on average.

Lambert defended his pay, and said that if he won the chief’s seat, he wouldn’t keep his current job or the salary that comes with it.

“I’m a licensed attorney, I’ve got over 18 years of experience in this field, and we’ve been very successful. And the pay classification study proves that out,” said Lambert. “To me, if a man’s willing to take a cut in pay to do public service, to me I think that’s a good sign.”

Tribal council members also will have to defend their pay to voters. Their $70,000 annual payout far surpasses the $13,951 made yearly by North Carolina state legislators. In fact, only three states pay their lawmakers as much. However, it’s far below the $174,000 paid to members of the U.S. Congress.

Tribal council isn’t allowed to raise the pay of a sitting council; they can only decide what the next council should make. Usually, those raises are given in the October lame-duck council session.

Council Chairman Jim Owle wouldn’t speak directly to whether he thought the council members’ salaries were fair.

“The pay is what it is, it’s set by tribal council. It’s something that’s voted on in council, and if they think that’s what’s right, that’s what’s voted on,” said Owle, noting that any tribal member could bring a resolution to change it if they were unhappy with the pay.

 

Pensions for life

Salaries aren’t the only benefits afforded to tribal officials. Starting at age 50, all former chiefs, vice chiefs and tribal council members are afforded a pension that can be up to half of their in-office salary, depending on how long they served.

Tribal council in a split vote in 2009 made the decision to increase pension benefits, a controversial move in the midst of a recession.

Should Hicks lose the election and leave office, when he hits 50 in three years he’ll start getting a pension that’s worth half of his salary — or $71,229 a year for the rest of his life.

The chief’s spouses is also entitled to a lifelong pension if the chief dies, equal to a quarter of the chief’s last salary for two-term chiefs and an eighth for one-term chiefs.

The vice chief’s retirement plan follows the same rules as principal chief.

Tribal council members don’t get quite as much. When they hit 50, they’ll get between 12 and 75 percent of their salary depending on how many years they served.

Winners of principal and vice chief, the 12 tribal council seats and some school board positions will be decided during the Sept. 1 election.

Divulging Lambert’s salary a political tug-of-war

Principal chief candidate Patrick Lambert is calling foul after refusing to divulge his pay information to the tribe’s internal auditors. Lambert said they were trying to expose his personal information as a political smear.

The tribe’s internal audit office told Lambert it needed to know his salary at the Tribal Gaming Commission to prepare taxes for the Cherokee Youth Center/Boys & Girls Club. Lambert is a board member. The IRS, it claimed, needed the income paid to any board member of the Boys & Girls club by a related entity.

Both the Boys & Girls Club and gaming commission are tribal operations, so that means related, said the auditor.

Lambert, however, said “no.” Of all the people who sit on that board, why, he asked, was he being singled out?

“Nobody else was contacted to my knowledge,” said Lambert. “I refused to give my W2s. There’s often times people on these volunteer charity boards refuse to give these things, and the IRS accepts that fact if the organization has used reasonable effort.”

Auditor Sharon Blankenship, however, wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. She came to the office of the Tribal Gaming Commission, looking for the documents herself.

She was rebuffed there, as well, and asked to leave after Lambert’s staff put in a call to the Cherokee Police Department. Cherokee Code says that no one but a gaming commissioner can access gaming commission files.

Lambert charges that the effort to uncover his salary is politically motivated, an attempt by the current administration to use it as a smear campaign against him. Blankenship contends that she’s just trying to follow the rules set by the IRS.

The issue came up in a special session of tribal council last Wednesday, where Council Member Teresa McCoy asked why the audit office was going after the papers now.

“I was on that board in 2010 and nobody came to my house and said, ‘I want to look at your tax papers,’” said McCoy.

Blankenship, however, defended her actions. They did, she said, get in touch with everyone and the gaming commission is the only one that didn’t provide salary information.

In the end, Lambert’s attorney turned in an IRS form, but maintained that Lambert is in no way obligated to give out his W2s.

Democrats gearing up for election 2012

The race for the state’s 50th Senate District, a seat currently held by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, is shaping up as a potentially epic political battle next year in Western North Carolina.

The only question for Democrats is whether the party’s choice to try to dethrone Davis will be former Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, or former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.

Davis beat Snow in last year’s election; state political newcomer Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, ousted Queen. Hise now represents the 47th Senate District, which currently includes Avery, Haywood, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey counties.

Snow and Queen confirmed they each want to run, but the two friends said they would not compete directly against one another in a primary. Instead, it will be one man or the other, decided somehow in a yet-to-be-determined manner.

“That’s sort of the gist of it right now,” Queen said. “We are both willing to run, and are both available to run, but we have to come up with the best solution.”

Snow said he and Queen have agreed that “whichever way the decision is made, the other will help the other.”

Snow, however, a longtime judge whose district encompassed the exact political boundaries now comprising the 50th Senate District, is cautious about getting ahead of potential court challenges.

“Our district would be upheld without question, but if others are in contest, you won’t go forward on any of the changes,” Snow said. “It would revert us back to the old district. And that has happened before.”

In other words, the 2012 race could take place using current boundaries while court challenges play out.

Snow brightened when talking about the possibilities, however, of campaigning in this new Senate district.

“I think this does create a better district for me,” he said. “It is exactly the same district I held as a judge, and I’m familiar with the people.”

Waynesville voters not shy of options this fall

The contest to fill Waynesville’s town board has drawn a wide crowd this year, a mixture of incumbents, political newcomers and a couple of election veterans.

Seven candidates will vie for four seats in the November election. The town board hasn’t seen an upset in the last two elections.

Sitting Aldermen Gary Caldwell, J. Wells Greeley and Leroy Roberson are all coming back for another try, and given the track record of incumbents in Waynesville elections, the odds seem in their favor. But at least one seat is wide open, as Alderwoman Libba Feichter is not returning for re-election, likely fueling some of the competition entering the race.

The challengers represent a variety of views, some business owners, some retirees, some public servants, but nearly all named the economy and the replacement of retiring Town Manager Lee Galloway as top priorities in the coming term.

Only one, Sam Edwards, expressed open discontent with the current administration, with the rest either backing the board’s positions or staying mum on the issue.

Among the challengers for town board, none are returning from the 2007 contest, however, Mayor Gavin Brown will face competition from Hugh Phillips, assistant manger of Bi-Lo, who ran unsuccessfully against him four years ago.

The general election will be held on November 8. Voter registration closes on October 14.

 

Gary Caldwell

Age: 58

Occupation: Production manager at Cornerstone Printing in Waynesville.

Time in Waynesville: Caldwell is a lifelong Waynesville resident.

Political Experience: Currently a sitting board member, Caldwell has served four consecutive terms as a Waynesville alderman.

Why he is running: “I just enjoyed being in city government. I just really love it.”

Biggest challenge in the next term: “My challenge is completing the skate park. I’m halfway there. We’ve raised probably close to $160,000 of the $300,000 that we’re trying to raise to break ground on it, and that’s been my goal probably for the past 10 years. Finally we’ve got it really going on great.”

 

Sam Edwards

Age: 57

Occupation: Clergyman. Edwards spent two decades with the Episcopal church before becoming vicar at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Waynesville. He is now waiting to be received into the Catholic church.

Time in Waynesville: He lived in Waynesville through high school and returned in 2007.

Political Experience: Edwards unsuccessfully ran as a Republican against N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Why he is running: “I’d been concerned, with a bunch of other citizens, that the current administration in Waynesville is not providing a good climate for small businesses. I thought it was time to give the people a choice.”

What he’d bring to the new board: “Making do with less. We’re going to have to prioritize our budget and wisely spend the public’s money.”

 

Mary Ann Enloe

Age: 70

Occupation: Retired from Dayco after 37 years, most recently as the senior purchasing agent.

Time in Waynesville: Enloe is a lifelong Waynesville resident.

Political Experience: Enloe was the mayor of Hazelwood, a Haywood County commissioner for two terms and ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for N.C. House in 2000. She currently serves on the Haywood County Board of Equalization and Review and the Haywood County Fairgrounds Board. She has never run for office in Waynesville.

Why she is running: “It’s my love for this area. I live in the house I grew up in and I just have a real love for the area and a real understanding of how government has to work.”

Biggest challenge facing the new board: “I don’t know that it will be the biggest but it will certainly be at the top, will be hiring the new town manager.”

 

Julia Boyd Freeman

Age: 44

Occupation: Executive Director of REACH of Haywood County, a non-profit that deals with domestic violence.

Time in Waynesville: She is a lifelong resident.

Political Experience: Freeman has never run for public office, but sits on the Haywood County Department of Social Services Board and the North Carolina Domestic Violence Commission.

Why she is running: “For some time I’ve had an interest in public service and also in serving the community. I’ve got a vested interest in the community from a business standpoint, and there’s going to be a lot of changes in the town coming up in the next couple of years.”

Why she would make a good alderwoman: “I think I bring a youthful perspective, a younger generation connecting with the people. My desire to serve the community and work with diverse populations could make a big difference.”

 

Wells Greeley

Age: 59

Occupation: Owner of Wells Funeral Home, with locations in Waynesville and Canton.

Time in Waynesville: Greeley is a lifelong Haywood County resident, and has also lived in Canton.

Political Experience: Greeley is currently an alderman. He was appointed to fill the unexpired term of the late Kenneth Moore. He was also an alderman in Canton from 1981 to 1985.

Why he is running: “I did make the commitment when I accepted the appointment to run again, so I’m following through with my word.”

Biggest challenge of his previous term: “I knew it was going to be challenging and I have been pleasantly surprised with how well the town board works together.”

 

Ron Reid

Age: 55

Occupation: Owner of the Andon Reid Inn, a Waynesville bed-and-breakfast. Reid had a law enforcement career and was a health fitness consultant before becoming an inn-keeper in his retirement.

Time in Waynesville: He and his wife moved to Waynesville from the West Palm Beach, Fl., area in 2006.

Political Experience: This is his first run for public office, but has previously served on the board of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. He is currently on the board of directors at the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.

Why he is running: “I’ve got a vision for the community. I like what the town is doing, I like the direction it’s been going in. I wanted  to be a part of that team.”

His top priorities for the next term: “The main thing is the economics. How are we going to keep the young people here, what’s going to be attractive to new businesses? Along with keeping the mountain Appalachian heritage and history. I would hate to see Waynesville just become anytown USA. People come here for a reason. We have to be progressive, manage smartly, but not forget what made Waynesville what it is.”

 

Leroy Roberson

Age: 67

Occupation: Optometrist at Haywood Optometric Care in Waynesville.

Time in Waynesville: Roberson is a lifelong resident of Waynesville.

Political Experience: He is completing a four-year term on the board and was elected as an alderman once in the past.

Why he is running: “Basically, I enjoy doing it. I think there’s still some things that need to be done, and maybe touch up on the land development standards.”

Greatest success of the current term: “Considering the financial difficulties that have presented themselves, we’ve been able to maintain the services and the town, I think, is being run quite well.”


Charlie Burgin had registered as a candidate last week, but has since decided not to run.

Who’s running in town races so far

Candidates who want to run in town elections have until at 12 p.m. on Friday, July 15, to sign up, except in Franklin and Highlands where filing won’t begin until July 25.

As of press time Tuesday, here’s who had signed up to run:

 

Waynesville

J. Wells Greeley, Gary Caldwell and Leroy Roberson, all sitting aldermen, will run. Alderwoman Libba Feichter is not running again. No new challengers have entered the race yet. Gavin Brown is currently unopposed for mayor.

 

Canton

Current aldermen Jimmy Flynn, Kenneth Holland and Ed Underwood are running. Stanley Metcalf, Patrick Willis, Cecil Patton and Phil Smathers have also filed. No one is yet running for mayor.

 

Maggie Valley

Alderman Phil Aldridge is running for re-election, joined by Phillip Wight. Alderwoman Danya Vanhook is up for election but has not yet filed. Alderwoman Saralyn Price is running for mayor, along with challenger Ron DeSimone. Current Mayor Roger McElroy is not yet running.

 

Sylva

Ray Lewis, Chris Matheson and Harold Hensley have filed for re-election, along with challenger John Bubacz.

 

Forest Hills

Only Alan Begley has registered to run for mayor.

Chief and vice chief trail in primary, signaling tough campaign ahead in Cherokee

The race for the title of principal chief has tightened in Cherokee, where Chief Michell Hicks found himself in second place in last week’s primary election.

Challenger Patrick Lambert, who fought Hicks for the seat four years ago, won the primary with just over 46 percent of the vote. Hicks trailed with just over 40 percent of ballots on his side.

The incumbent vice chief, Larry Blythe, also lost to his challenger, reflecting possible dissatisfaction with the current administration.

The results were a coup for Lambert. Though he lost the general election by only 13 votes in 2007, he had not fared particularly well in the primary leading up to the final election that year. He garnered only 24 percent of the vote in the 2007 primary compared to 42 percent for Hicks.

“The large vote count was surprising,” said Lambert. “If you look back at where we’ve come from, I’ve increased my overall vote count from the first primary by almost 250 percent.”

Lambert emerged the victor in four of the six voting precincts, trailing Hicks in Yellowhill and Painttown.

For his part, Hicks said the second-place finish isn’t too distressing, especially given the voter turnout of just more than 50 percent.

“It’s a primary, a lot of people don’t concern themselves with the primary,” said Hicks. “I knew it was going to be close coming in. He’s got his base, and I’ve got mine. Now it’s just going to be a matter of who runs the fastest.”

Though turnout was high for a primary — slightly more than half of the tribe’s 6,704 registered voters — it still leaves more than 3,000 voters who could weigh in on either side.

Hicks, who is going for a third run as chief, doesn’t have the statistics of history on his side, however. If he wins in September, he would be only the second third-term chief.

Then there’s the 446 votes that were split among the three other chief candidates, who are now out of the race.

Which candidate will claim those votes come the general election could be anyone’s guess.

“The thing is with Cherokee elections and Cherokee politics, it’s a very personal campaign style that we have here,” said Lambert, pointing out that many vote because of a personal trust in the candidate, not a distrust of the incumbent.

While both candidates are staying tight-lipped about their courtship of the three former challengers, and their voters, it’s clear that they’re seeking to pull in the support.

Juanita Wilson, the next highest vote-getter, in the days after the primary said that she’d been contacted by both camps, but hadn’t yet decided which side to endorse.

“I have a lot of reflection [to do], because if I could’ve supported either, I wouldn’t have gone through the expense and trouble of putting a campaign together,” said Wilson. She said that, although nothing is final, she may choose to avoid endorsements altogether.

Meanwhile, both remaining contenders said their biggest challenge in the general election would be getting voters to hit the polls. Both are confident in their ability to pull off a win, if members will take the time to cast a ballot on Sept. 1.

 

Vice chief race equally heated

Jumping down a rung to the race for vice chief, the general election is going to be yet another repeat matchup between sitting vice chief Larry Blythe and challenger Teresa McCoy, currently a tribal council member.

McCoy has made it clear from the outset that she was in it to win against Blythe, and she got her chance, taking first place with about 39 percent of the vote. Incumbent Blythe pulled a close second with just under 36 percent.

McCoy won in four out of six communities, tying Blythe in Painttown and trailing in Snowbird.

But her margins weren’t large enough to call it a runaway — McCoy won by a single vote in one district — and the two vice chief challengers now out of the race showed more sizeable totals than those at the bottom of the ballot in the principal chief race. Blythe and McCoy have more at stake in courting those votes.

Looking toward the next two months of heavy campaigning, both remaining candidates for principal chief listed the tribe’s debt as the major issue that will define the general election.

With a new school complex and $683 million expansion at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the tribe’s central revenue source, they were, at one point, on the hook for close to one billion dollars in debt.

While tribal finance officials say they’ve paid down a significant chunk of those notes, they’re still likely paying on tens of millions, if not more.

In the run-up to the primary, eradicating the debt entirely and diversifying the tribe’s income streams were both hot topics. Each candidate proposed a different strategy for a more varied financial model, but all played to the public sentiment of moving away from a casino-centric mentality.

Throughout the pre-primary season, Hicks said he had a plan to eradicate the debt in the next four years. As a certified public accountant and the man at the helm for nearly a decade, Hicks said he’s the only man who can make that happen.

Lambert, though, now says that he’s got a plan for debt reduction, too. And what people want, he maintains, is a departure from the last eight years.

“I think everyone here is hungry for change,” said Lambert. “As I went out and visited homes and Cherokee families, that’s one of the primary messages I kept hearing.”

Hicks, though, is confident in his fiscal strategies and believes he can move past the change mentality his challenger described.

“I feel good and I’m confident,” said Hicks. “I think it’s more of an education of the people. We’ve definitely done our homework as it relates to the debt and how were managing it. We’re going to work hard and we’re going to be determined.”

The general election will be held on Sept. 1. Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will vote in a new principal chief and vice chief, as well as a new 12-member tribal council and school board.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.