Politicians would be wise to read the Tea leaves

By Bruce Gardner • Guest Columnist

The Tea Party movement is sweeping the nation and has found its way through the media and into almost everyone’s living room. It is not a political party; it is a frame of mind. It is a grassroots organization unlike anything in our lifetime.

Quoting Richard Viguerie in his editorial in the Investor’s Business daily: “The Tea Party Movement not only brings millions of new people to the political process, it also brings more energy, enthusiasm and excitement to politics than we’ve seen in the last 100 years. I have been working and waiting 50 years for this populist, principled and constitutional groundswell against big government and the quasi-socialistic, crony capitalistic establishment institutions that have been abusing power and trust at the expense of hard-working Americans, their children and their grandchildren. In just one year, the Tea Party has become the fastest growing political movement perhaps in history.”

TEA stands for Taxed Enough Already. It represents the historical dumping of the tea into Boston Harbor in protest of the Stamp Act of 1765. Basically this was a revolution against taxation without representation imposed by the British monarchy of the time. This movement is uniquely American.

Today, people in America are upset with both political parties. They are outraged at the massive spending, oppressive debt, self-serving, arrogant behavior of Congress as well as the current and previous administrations. The Tea Party brings focus to these issues.

Professional politicians in both parties have created careers for themselves by mortgaging future generations to finance their own reelection campaigns through earmarks, closed door dealings and “selling” their votes to party leaders in exchange for re-election campaign funding.

Taxpaying, working Americans are fed up and are now demanding that elected representatives listen to the voices of the people who are paying the bills.

What do the Tea Partiers want? It’s easy to see what political issues they are against, but what are they for? They are for smaller government, substantially lower taxes, term limits, rot reform, individual liberty restoration, less intrusion by government, a fair tax code for everyone, transparency and accountability in government, respect for the Constitution, elimination of earmarks, a balanced budget, a strong defense, elimination of waste and fraud in government, state’s rights as defined by the Constitution, social programs that create independence rather than dependence on the system, and a no nonsense criminal justice system that favors the victim.

At first, the mainstream media ignored the Tea Parties. Now, the national media would have the public believe that this is a radical right wing movement. Look at the list above and ask yourself if anything on that list seems radical to you. The Tea Party is made up of folks that live in every hometown. They are Middle America — not extremists.

The Constitution was written to protect our individual liberties and order the structure of the federal government. The federal government was to be empowered by the states to provide for the states those things that were needed in common such as national defense. Over the years the federal government has expanded its role, enslaving the states through mandates in almost every area of our lives. The expansion of government and the unconscionable spending of the last 10 years have financially crippled our children and all future generations. This expansion has led to the near bankruptcy of our country and the degradation of our dollar around the world. The legacy we are leaving for future generations is the direct result of political greed and a total disconnect from and disregard for the American public.

Much of the strength of the Tea Party movement is in the fact that it is totally decentralized. There is no national leader or common set of talking points. Each group concentrates much of its efforts on local and state issues. These groups are challenging candidates for every elected office that affects their area. It’s all about policy and philosophy. Political party affiliation is of no consequence.

Every area seems to have a different organization with a variety of names. The common thread is the mindset found in the Tea Party movement. In Haywood County, the Tea Party movement is represented by the 9/12 Project. This nonpartisan group has grown tremendously in the past year and is extremely active through monthly meetings, Saturday morning coffee gatherings and events featuring speakers and candidates for office. Contrary to anti-Tea Party sound bites repeated by the national media, the Haywood 9/12 Project is made up of Democrats, Republicans and Independents who feel that government is out of control.

The Haywood 9/12 Project will be announcing an initiative to inform the voting public which candidates best represent the ideals of the Tea Party Movement at all levels: local, state and national. Any candidate for any office belonging to any party will be invited to participate. Watch for additional details or get involved with the 9/12 Project to learn more.

For information about the 9/12 Project and the Tea Party movement in Haywood County, visit the Web site at www.912wnc.com or call 828.506.5007 for meeting information or for ways to get involved.

(Bruce Gardner lives in Haywood County and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The nuts and bolts of the bench

The starting salary for a judge is $109,000, but can climb much higher for judges with a long tenure thanks to cost of living raises plus a bump in pay for every five years spent on the bench.

Judge Steve Bryant now makes $132,000 a year.

“There are certainly lawyers making more than that and certainly lawyers making less than that,” Bryant said.

These days, however, with the recession taking its toll on the legal profession, there are far more lawyers below that figure than there used to be. Candidates have to plunk down $1,094 to run — 1 percent of the salary.

The job isn’t a cakewalk. While attorneys who labor 10 hours a day envy the judge that strolls up to the bench at 9:30 a.m. to start court, breaks for lunch between 12:30 and 2, then knocks off at 5, it’s not what it appears.

“I think people have the perception that everything you do takes place on the bench,” Bryant said.

But Bryant regularly takes work home to research case files and legal precedent, working nights and weekends.

And that doesn’t count the driving time. In a judicial district that spans seven counties — a more than two-hour drive from tip to tip — judges travel from courthouse to courthouse wherever they are needed.

“You can’t just decide to take a day off because there are 400 people waiting on you,” Judge Danny Davis said.

The district was so large and unwieldy — and had grown so much in case volume — that an additional judge’s seat was added four years ago, bringing the total to six seats.

Judicial candidates

There are three district court judge seats up for election this year. Candidates must designate which seat they are running for. The race is non-partisan. Two candidates for each seat will advance past the May primary to the general election in November.

 

Seat 1

• Danya Vanhook, 31, Waynesville*

• Donna Forga, 46, Waynesville

 

Seat 2

• Caleb Rogers, 29, Waynesville

• Kris Earwood, 32, Sylva

• David Sutton, 34, Waynesville

• Justin Greene, 30, Bryson City

• Greg Boyer, 60, Franklin

 

Seat 3

• Steve Ellis, 60, Waynesville

• Roy Wijewickrama, 34, Waynesville

 

*Vanhook currently holds this seat after being appointed to a vacancy last year.

Bench holds tradition of balanced temperament

Steve Bryant was fresh out of law school and just learning his way around the courtroom when the judge hearing his case one day threatened to throw him in jail.

The judge had announced a recess, and Bryant seized the opportunity to pass a file to a clerk. But when the clerk in turn passed the file to the judge, Bryant was blamed for interrupting the judge’s break — a sin apparently justifying jail time.

“I thought he was dead serious,” Bryant said. Distraught, he called the partners at his Bryson City law firm and gave them the bad news that his legal career was over.

But it turned out Judge Robert Leatherwood was infamous for such admonitions and old-fashioned tongue lashings during his reign in the 1970s and ‘80s. For the lawyers and clients on the receiving end, they spent their days in court navigating an invisible minefield for fear a misstep would invoke Leatherwood’s ire.

“People were afraid of him, and the lawyers were afraid of him,” said John Snow, a judge for 28 years and now a state senator. “When I became a judge, that was one of the things I made a conscious effort to do, to make people feel comfortable in the courtroom.”

Nine years after Bryant’s embarrassing day in court, he became a District Court judge himself. Leatherwood committed suicide in the parking lot of Moody Funeral Home in Bryson City in the mid-1980s, and Bryant was appointed to fill the vacant seat. Like Snow, Bryant didn’t want to the run the kind of courtroom that Leatherwood had.

“I was conscious of the fact that the courtroom under the volatile circumstances of my predecessor made for an unnecessarily uncomfortable workplace,” Bryant said.

Lawyers constantly feared a clash with Leatherwood would land their clients harsher sentences with no apparent reason other than a moody day on the bench. Bryant instead strove for a “degree of predictability.”

“If you are an even-keel person, and day in and day out you handle your interactions with lawyers on the same basic plane, it makes it easier for the lawyers to advise their clients of a likely outcome,” Bryant said. “I don’t think you can worry about if they like you or don’t like you or think you are smart or an idiot, but it is important that everybody who comes to the table has their day in court.”

Judge Danny Davis came on the bench about the same time as Bryant, and likewise had experienced the Leatherwood courtroom.

“I think we both lived through that in our early days practicing law and understood the downside of that,” Bryant said.

Over the next two decades, Snow, Davis and Bryant conveyed a courtroom demeanor that was ultimately institutionalized as standard operating procedure within the 30th Judicial District, a court circuit spanning the seven western counties from Waynesville to Murphy.

“Everybody that came to practice after that, they realized they were going to get a fair shake and be treated with respect,” Snow said.

As a result, the 30th Judicial District is the envy of lawyers elsewhere in the state.

“We’ve had such a good set of judges for so long, lawyers that practice in other counties like to come here and do cases because they know they and their people will be treated fairly and courteously,” said Steve Ellis, a Waynesville attorney running for judge. “Even if they ruled against you, you knew they had made a thoughtful decision, and it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction.”

Bob Clark, a Waynesville attorney who has practiced in other districts, said the judges here are simply the best.

“Most of that is a consistency in temperament,” Clark said. “The judge won’t be in one mood one day and a different mood another day. Court runs well when you have judges who are clear in their rulings and dealings with others so you don’t have a tense situation of wondering what is going to happen next.”

That temperament is appreciated across the legal community.

“Judges should allow attorneys to try their cases without walking on eggshells,” said Roy Wijiwickrama, an attorney who lives in Waynesville and serves as prosecutor for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

What’s known as “judge shopping” — when lawyers jockey for a slot on the schedule to have their cases heard by the better judges — happens little in District Court here. Attorneys for the most part can roll into court without stressing about which judge they get.

“It’s something that is not so certain going forward given the amount of change we are facing,” Ellis said.

After two decades of relative stability, the 30th Judicial District is in major flux. Of six District Court judges now in office, three are new to the bench in the past five years. With the retirement of Davis and Bryant, two more seats will change hands. In all, five of the six District Court judges will be new since 2004 — with their combined experience being fewer years than any of their predecessors claimed alone.

Davis said demeanor is perhaps the most important quality voters should size up when picking from the daunting list of District Court judge hopefuls on the ballot this election year.

“The demeanor of who is on the bench is important. I think the main thing is to be courteous to people and to be fair to them and have patience, which is tested from time to time,” Davis said. “You can read about the law and listen to the evidence, but temperament and demeanor are sometimes hard to teach and hard to learn.”

The demeanor promulgated by tenured District Court judges and coveted by the legal community isn’t lost on candidates posturing for the open seats.

“We have been extremely fortunate here to have judges with a great judicial temperament that are fair and objective. We need to take care to ensure that continues,” said David Sutton, a Waynesville attorney running for one of the seats.

“It is the best bench in the state and always has been,” said Justin Greene, a Bryson City attorney running for judge. “They are not unapproachable. They are not bullies. If you need help, they will help you. They will work with you. They are all professional in their jobs. I would take a lot of pride in being part of that.”

Despite candidates’ pledges to carry on the tradition, this election can’t help but “change the flavor of the bench,” said Greg Boyer, a Franklin attorney running for judge.

“They are big shoes to fill,” Boyer said.

Those appearing in District Court come from all walks of life. But despite their socio-economic status or the crime they’re charged with, Davis said everyone in court deserves dignity.

“I still say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No ma’am’ to folks in court. Even if you are getting ready to sentence them, they deserve a certain amount of respect,” Davis said.

It doesn’t go unnoticed by practicing attorneys.

“They look at people no matter what their station in life as individuals,” said Donna Forga, a Waynesville attorney running for judge. “They treat people with respect.”

The attitude is infectious throughout the court system.

“The key thing I have seen is a caring about people in the court system,” said Greg Boyer, a Franklin attorney who practiced in Florida prior to moving to the mountains. “They aren’t just a number or a cog in the wheel. The judges and the lawyers still see individuals. They see people.”

Another hallmark of the 30th Judicial District is the absence of an ivory-tower philosophy.

“One thing I always wanted to avoid as a judge is being enamored with my position, thinking that just because I am a judge, I am a special person,” Snow said. “You don’t want to be thought of as acting that way.”

The behavior of those appearing in court has gotten more raucous over the years, however, and doesn’t always make the judge’s job easy. Davis often finds himself telling people: “This is not Judge Judy’s court.”

“Some of these court TV shows are not realistic, but people think that they are,” Davis said.

Davis said the nature and volume of cases has changed for the worst.

“You have a front row seat for a lot of ills of society,” Davis said. “It is hard work. It is also emotionally draining. From time to time you will see things you don’t want to see. It is not the same job it was in 1984.”

There has been one improvement. Judges have their own office in the courthouse now, unlike in Davis’ early years.

“People would drive out to my house to get orders signed,” Davis said.

Fresh faces will lead Canton

As with the election two years ago, Canton will once again see three new faces on the board.

Voters had a deep bench of candidates to chose from: 10 running for four seats on the board. The only two returning board members are Alderman Eric Dills and Mayor Pat Smathers.

Town politics in Canton have been marked by division the past two years, and the vast majority of candidates running this time claimed they would rise above the fray and bring an end to opposing camps.

The two town leaders most at odds — Smathers and Dills — are the only two returning to the board, leaving it up to the three new board members to forge a new direction.

“I think we will sit around that table and come up with some good ideas and discuss them and come to a consensus hopefully a lot quicker than what was done in the past,” said Ed Underwood, one of the new candidates winning election to the board.

Candidate Jimmy Flynn agreed.

“I just feel like the three new people need to concentrate on bringing everybody together,” Flynn said.

Flynn said personality conflicts need to be put aside to do what’s best for the town.

“They have to concentrate on listening to each other more than talking,” Flynn said.

Two years ago, voters ousted three long-time board members and ushered in a slate of new faces for the first time in years. A power struggle between Smathers and Dills rooted in philosophical differences bogged down progress, according to both candidates and voters.

One voter interviewed for an exit poll, Paul Moore, said he went for a “complete change” when casting his ballot. Moore had supported a change on the board two years ago but was disappointed in what they had accomplished.

“Nothing,” he said.

Luckily for Moore, all the seats on the Canton board are up for election every two years, so he didn’t have to wait long to vote for another clean sweep.

Dills has been among the first to admit that the change promised by candidates two years ago hasn’t come to fruition but says progress was stymied by hold-overs in the town leadership who resisted the change.

“People haven’t been satisfied with the progress that has been made, but I know I will continue to stand in there with their best interest,” Dills said.

 

Coming to consensus

A hot topic in the race was forging a new place for the historic, blue-collar mill town in the 21st century economy.

“I think everybody in Canton wants Canton to be a vibrant community again,” said Randy Burrell, a voter interviewed on his way out of the polls. “I think all the candidates have that in mind. It is the main issue. Canton has a little niche somewhere and once we find it, we’ll be back.”

Indeed, most candidates made revitalization a central issue — but they differ on how to best target the town’s efforts. Some want the top focus to be on the core downtown. Others want to upgrade water and sewer around the Interstate 40 interchange to lay the groundwork for commercial development. Yet others believe Canton’s strength lies in its neighborhoods and want to clean them up.

Underwood said it is crucial they agree on some priorities, or they won’t be any better than the last board, which was chastised for getting nothing done.

“You hear presidential elections with a mandate. The mandate here was get down there and work together,” Underwood said. “I think if you didn’t hear that message, you got a problem.”

Mayor Pat Smathers published an op-ed piece in a local paper listing 17 priorities he wants to see the town tackle and challenged voters to elect candidates who would follow his lead on them.

Dills said he is going to come up with his own list to put before the board. He said the board should commit to priorities on paper rather than a piecemeal approach that is hard to track.

“We have to come to some concensus and figure out what we want to accomplish the next two years, put it on paper and let’s go do it,” Dills said.

Troy Mann, a current board member who lost re-election, wished the new board good luck.

“If they can fulfill Mayor Smathers’ list of 17 projects, they have their work cut out for them,” Mann said.

Smathers was running unopposed, and nearly a third of the voters chose not to vote at all in the mayor’s race and instead marked no name at all. Another 88 voters wrote in a candidate for mayor, but the names were not available as of press time.

Barry Mull, a worker at the mill, was among those who chose not to vote at all, rather than vote for Smathers.

“I think it’s time for him to slide out of there,” said Mull.

Most voters wouldn’t say who they voted for to avoid hurt feelings in a small community. For Cassie Erwin, 22, members of her own family were split over who to vote for and therefore she wouldn’t share her picks.

Flynn, a safety manager for Buckeye Construction, was the top vote-getter. He chalks it up to his experience working for the town for 30 years in a variety of jobs from the police department to recreation department to streets. He also served as town clerk and assistant manager.

“I think people were looking for experience,” Flynn said.

 

Canton
Mayor

Pat Smathers (I)    448

 

Town board

Seats up for election:    4

Total seats on board:    4

Jimmy Flynn    364

Ed Underwood    337

Eric Dills (I)    288

Kenneth Holland    257

Carole Edwards    246

Patrick Willis    229

Charlie Crawford    216

Troy Mann (I)    214

Angela Jenkins    195

Gene Monson    171

Registered voters:    2,880

Voter turn-out: 648 (24%)

Franklin voters stick with familiar faces

Not one face is changing in Franklin’s local government despite close contests for mayor and aldermen.

In a neck-and-neck race, Franklin Mayor Joe Collins beat out Alderman Bob Scott by only 14 votes to reclaim the office for another two years.

All three incumbents, Jerry Evans, Billy Mashburn, and Sissy Pattillo, held on to their seats for the next four years, edging out challengers Ron Winecoff and Angela Moore. Scott retains his board seat.

Collins and Pattillo interpreted the election results as a vote of confidence by Franklin residents.

“We have a board that in the last two years has done more toward the future of Franklin than any board has in any two-year period I can remember,” said Collins. “The town can expect we’ll move further ahead.”

“It was the quietest election I’ve even seen,” Pattillo said. “Usually when an election is quiet we’ve done something right.”

Meanwhile, Scott, whose campaign sounded the call for a more open and participatory government, said he would make the most of his two years left on the board.

“The mayor certainly didn’t get a landslide,” said Scott. “The voters have spoken, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to quiet down. I’ve got two more years and I’m going to give it my all.”

Collins acknowledged that Scott spent a lot of time and energy in his campaign, effectively using the Internet to reach voters.

“It was a close race, closer than a lot of people thought it would be,” said Collins. “Bob worked very hard.”

With an alderman and a mayor in stiff competition, tensions might carry over into Collins’ next term. During his campaign, Scott accused Collins of not always being forthcoming as mayor specifically by leaving him out of the loop on decisions like a three-year contract with CGI Communications to produce a series of streaming online videos about Franklin.

Collins retorted that communication is a two-way street and not every decision requires board approval now that the position of town manager has been created.

Moving forward, the board will have to decide what to do with the 13-acre Whitmire property on the east side of town and plans for a public park commemorating the historic Nikwasi mound.

While Collins said he favors a mixed-use development that will rush the Whitmire property back into the town’s tax base, Scott said he’d rather see the town hold on to the property to develop a museum, civic center, or a park.

Collins acknowledged that the pieces haven’t fallem into place on the Nikwasi park development but added that the project still had broad support.

“I think everybody in the end would love to see a park,” said Collins.

Meanwhile, Scott said the town should take a step back, do a feasibility study, and make sure the committee spearheading the project is inclusive and transparent throughout the planning process.

After Scott’s two years are up, he says he’ll officially retire his political career and return to his roots as a newspaper writer.

“I’ll be 71 years old,” said Scott. “I’ve learned a lot. I just don’t think politics are for me. I’ll go back to writing some commentary ... probably something scathing.”

 

Franklin
Mayor

Joe Collins (I)    255

Bob Scott    241

 

Town board

Seats up for election:    3

Total seats on board:    6

Billy Mashburn (I)    350

Sissy Pattillo (I)    313

Jerry Evans (I)    241

Ron Winecoff    234

Angela Moore    225

Registered voters:    2,651

Regional election results

Clyde


Town board

Seats up for election:    2

Total seats on board:    4

Carroll Mease (I)    103

Jim Trantham (I)    95

Alan Trantham    42

Registered voters:    780

Voter turnout:    127 (16%)

Village of Forest Hills


Mayor

James Wallace (I)    49

(running as write-in)

Mark Teague    22

Town board

Seats up for election:    2

Total seats on board:    4

Clark Corwin    56

Carl Hooper    55

Registered voters:    344

Voter turnout:    72 (21%)

Bryson City


Town board

Seats up for election:    2

Total seats on board:    4

Stephanie Treadway (I)    28

Tom Reidmiller (I)    28

Registered voters:    1,046

Voter turnout:    30 (2.87%)

Highlands


Mayor, four-year term

David Wilkes    376

Don Mullen (I)    104

Town board

Seats up for election:    2

Total seats on board:    5

Gary E. Drake    330

Amy Patterson (I)    229

Hank Ross (I)    186

Registered voters:    893

Voter turnout:    429 (48%)

Price and Pauley ride easily into office in quiet Maggie race

After a feel-good race lacking much controversy, Maggie Valley voters have re-elected Saralyn Price to her second term on the town board, sending with her a fresh face, motel owner Scott Pauley.

Both Price and Pauley ran on campaigns that promised to bring a balance between business and residential interests. With about 140 votes each, the duo solidly beat out candidates Ron DeSimone and Phillip Wight.

After results were called on election night, Pauley said he’d already printed out business cards with his home and cell phone numbers and was ready to hear what constituents have to say.

“I’m going to be all ears and eyes and feet moving as fast as I can,” said Pauley, who added that he was humbled by his win.

Price and Pauley said they are ready to get moving on promoting the festival grounds to attract tourism to the town. They also said they had reservations about the proposed design standards that would regulate the look of new construction and major renovations.

“Maybe this concept would be better received when we get out of this difficult time,” said Pauley.

“I don’t think anything can be done overnight,” said Price. “Even with new construction, it costs a whole lot more to change appearances.”

On Tuesday, all four candidates lined the front lawn of Maggie Valley’s town hall, greeting voters before they went inside to cast their ballots. Some, like Wight and Pauley, arrived in the early dawn. Wight and Price offered constituents doughnuts and coffee, while Price even threw in some Maggie Valley keychains.

Maggie Valley resident Jeremy Case, 30, said he voted for Price because she provided a “good voice” for Maggie Valley. The message Case wanted to send to the town board is to put tourism second on their priority list.

“Help the local people first,” said Case.

Meanwhile, Deb and John Schaefer came out specifically to cast a vote against Price, who voted to annex their subdivision, Campbell Woods, into the town limits.

“The good thing about annexation is that you can vote,” said Deb.

John, 60, said he voted for DeSimone and Pauley because of their professional backgrounds.

“One is a motel owner, and one is a realtor,” said John. “That’s what needs to be represented here because that’s what the town is.”

 

Maggie Valley
Town board

Seats up for election:    2

Total seats on board:    4

Saralyn Price (I)    141

Scott Pauley    140

Phillip Wight    82

Ron DeSimone    45

Registered voters:    1,027

Voter turnout:    224 (22%)

Allen joins Knotts on Sylva board

Danny Allen, a former Sylva town commissioner who has been off the board for two years, will reclaim his seat after being the top vote-getter in the town election.

Commissioner Stacy Knotts followed closely on his heels, while Harold Hensley narrowly lost re-election. Hensley said he is not too disappointed, however.

“I will have a lot less headaches,” Hensley joked.

Hensley and Allen shared a similar platform, being closely aligned on most issues, making it unusual that Allen won while Hensley, a sitting town board member, did not.

The chance to serve with Allen again “was the only reason I would have cared to go back on,” Hensley said. Hensley has been in the minority on several split votes defining town board dynamics the past two years.

Two years ago, Allen tied for third place with Town Commissioner Ray Lewis, but rather than holding a run-off election Allen stepped down. Allen was fighting cancer at the time.

Knotts said she was pleased to go back on the board.

“I am excited that I get to work four more years for the town,” said Knotts, a stay-at-home mom.

One of the first decisions facing the town board will be appointing a new member to its ranks. Town Commissioner Maurice Moody will be vacating his seat on the board to become mayor. The other board members will appoint his replacement.

Board members were uncommitted on whether they would appoint the next highest voter-getter in the election to the vacancy.

Hensley said it would make sense to appoint the next highest vote-getter to the vacant seat, which would place him back on the board. Allen and Lewis would likely support such a move since they historically have been in the same camp as Hensley.

But the other two board members — Knotts and Commissioner Sarah Graham — have been on the opposite side of many issues.

While the mayor only votes in the case of a tie, Moody could find himself as the deciding vote in appointing a new board member, who in turn will hold a swing vote on what could otherwise be a split board.

Knotts and Graham have a more progressive platform, while Allen and Lewis have more conservative views. They opposed town funding for the Downtown Sylva Association and the use of tax dollars for the construction of the downtown Bridge Park concert pavilion — two things Knotts and Graham supported.

Sylva had poor voter turnout of only 14 percent of registered voters.

“I was really surprised the turnout was so low,” Knotts said.

But voter Minnie Casey, 83, wasn’t among those who stayed home.

“I just knew I was supposed to vote,” Casey said.

Jim Moffett, 50, also felt it was his civic duty.

“I believe in voting. If you don’t vote, don’t complain. I think we need some new blood in this little town so it doesn’t become stagnant,” said Moffett.

Moffett said controlling development and protecting the environment were the issues that brought him to the polls.

 

Sylva
Mayor

Maurice Moody    174

 

Town board

Seats up for election:    2

Total seats on board:    5

Danny Allen    119

Stacy Knotts (I)    117

Harold Hensley    109

David Kelley    79

Ellerna Bryson Forney    46

Registered voters:    1,684

Voter turnout:    242 (14%)

Canton’s future pivots on heated board race

When voters head to the polls in Canton next week, they will face a daunting and even unwieldy list to choose from: 10 candidates for four seats on the board.

Town politics in Canton have been marked by division the past two years, and the vast majority of candidates claim they will rise above the fray and bring an end to the stalemate that has stalled progress on some important issues.

Much is at stake as the historic mill town struggles to find its place in the 21st century economy. Canton is one of the last blue-collar, working towns in the region, where smoke dominates the landscape and the mill whistle still trumpets across town. But the mom-and-pop shops that once anchored Main Street have gone the way of suburban sprawl. Unlike other mountain towns that filled the void by catering to tourists, that model wasn’t in Canton’s cards.

Candidates running for town board say they want to help forge a new path for Canton, but to do so means ending the power struggles that have consumed the town’s agenda.

“I feel like the lack of cohesiveness on this board the past two years has kept them from making a lot of progress,” said Carole Edwards, one of the candidates.

“It’s like we are standing still, waiting to move forward,” said Angela Jenkins, another challenger on the ticket.

The mantra for change resonating through this election is not new. Two years ago, voters ousted three long-time board members and ushered in a slate of new faces for the first time in years.

“I think people were looking for some good positive change,” said Patrick Willis, who supported the turnover two years ago but is now running himself. “I think people were hoping for improvement the last election, but I didn’t see much improvement, so I think that’s why so many people are running now.”

Indeed, many candidates share Willis’ assessment of town politics.

“Two years ago, I was happy there was a change made,” said Gene Monson, another candidate. “It was time for some fresh faces. However, as a board, I don’t think they accomplished what they wanted to accomplish over the past two years — or accomplish what most of the citizens were hoping for.”

Those who swept into office two years ago admit they haven’t been as effective as they hoped.

“There was resistance to the improvements and initiatives we brought,” said Alderman Eric Dills, who seems to be at permanent loggerheads with Mayor Pat Smathers. “If the town has not progressed in the past two years, the mayor has to bear his share and can’t keep pointing his finger at the board and saying it is all our fault.”

While challengers are quick to criticize the current board for not getting along, few were willing to ascribe blame.

“I don’t know whose fault that is. That is very controversial, and I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” Edwards said. “You can’t place blame on any one person.”

Jenkins said the blame lies on both sides.

“I think it has been uncooperative all the way around. People went in there and picked a team,” Jenkins said. “It was us versus them.”

Kenneth Holland, another candidate, said he wouldn’t “point the finger at anybody.” That’s not what matters, he said.

“The net result is not a whole lot is being accomplished,” Holland said.

Candidates scrambled to fend off labels that would lump them into one of the existing camps on the board.

“I think the idea of a Pat Smathers’ camp and an Eric Dills’ camp is more in the mind of Pat and Eric than the minds of the citizens,” Monson said. “I think the citizens are saying ‘I agree with part of what one says and part of what the other says.’”

While campaigning to voters, however, Monson has been asked point-blank if he was on one side or the other. His answer?

“If elected, I am not in either camp,” Monson said.

Underwood said he wouldn’t “take sides” between Dills and Smathers. Candidates would lose votes from people on the other side if they openly testified to being in a camp, Underwood said.

Only Jenkins admitted to being in any particular camp: the people’s camp.

“I feel like I would be for the side that was for the people,” Jenkins said. “I think you should be able to voice your opinion but also be able to listen to other people’s opinion.”

That’s precisely what hasn’t been happening amidst the power struggle on the board, according to candidates staking out the middle ground.

“I hope I have the intelligence and humility to consider every idea on its merits and not based on whose idea it is,” Monson said. “I am more concerned about getting it right than being right.”

Willis said a difference of opinion on the board could be a positive thing if they listened to each other.

“I am all for putting out 200 ideas,” Willis said. “I don’t want the board members not to listen to an idea just because they don’t like who it came from.”

 

Quagmire

Dills said the new board members faced pushback on initiatives they tried to bring to the table over the past two years. Dills said those in charge at town hall tried to block the change.

One example involved installing swings at the town playground, which had been part of Dills’ campaign platform in 2007.

“I told people, ‘If I get elected, I am going to get you those swings,’” Dills said.

Shortly after taking office, Dills and the other new board members expressed their desire for swings. But Town Manager Al Matthews said the town’s insurance would go sky-high with the addition of swings, according to Dills. They continued to push the issue, however, and directed Matthews to research insurance rates. It turned out the town’s insurance rates wouldn’t “go up one cent,” Dills said.

“It was like pulling teeth to get the swings,” Dills said.

Dills recounted a similar resistance when he proposed extending the season for the outdoor pool by remaining open two additional weekends through the end of August.

“Mr. Matthews said it could not be done. He said it was impossible,” Dills said.

According to Dills, Matthews said it would be a problem getting lifeguards to work. But when Dills took his proposal directly to the town recreation committee, they said there was no problem getting lifeguards for two additional weekends. The extended season was a success this year, Dills said.

A top example of the quagmire on current board point is how long it took to hire a permanent town manager. Long-time Town Manager Bill Stamey retired shortly after the new guard was elected in fall 2007. Town Clerk Al Matthews stepped in as interim town manager, a post he held for another 16 months — which is how long it took the board to choose him to take Stamey’s place.

“We were in a state of flux during that time,” Edwards said. “It is a very important role for a town, especially a town this small.”

As the process drug out, Smathers publicly expressed his frustration. But Dills claims it was the mayor’s fault, not his.

“He kept blaming us for taking so long to hire the manager when he was delaying the entire process,” Dills said.

Smathers wanted to promote Matthews to town manager, while Dills supported an outside candidate. Dills was ultimately the only board member who voted against Matthews appointment to the post.

“I felt we needed a new manager for things to change,” Dills said.

 

Tax hike

While the majority of candidates say the turnover on the board two years ago reflected voters desire for change, Charlie Crawford, one of the aldermen voted off the board at the time, paints a different picture. He claims it was mostly backlash over a 5-cent property tax increase.

Crawford said the town had depleted its reserves on flood recovery, a catastrophe dating back to 2004 when a swollen Pigeon River consumed much of downtown Canton. The town had to rebuild the depleted reserves, he said.

“It absolutely had to be done,” Crawford said.

Crawford points to the failure of the current board to lower property taxes as proof there was no alternative.

“That says to me they knew absolutely nothing about what they were talking about before the election,” Crawford said of his ousters two years ago.

Not only did the newcomers not lower taxes, but they raised fees for town services like trash pick-up and water and sewer.

Jimmy Flynn, a long-time town employee now running for office, agrees discontent over the tax increase drove the election results two years ago.

“I think that tax increase was not thoroughly explained to the public,” Flynn said, adding that an incremental increase would have been more tactful.

Alderman Troy Mann, who is running for election, made the property tax hike his main campaign platform two years ago.

“Most people were upset about that,” Mann said. “We needed folks on that board who would look out for the expenditure of their tax revenue.”

But Ed Underwood, another candidate, questioned a governing philosophy that avoids raising taxes at all costs.

“They don’t care what happens to anybody else as long as their taxes don’t go up,” Underwood said. “If you’ve got that mindset, you are being a little selfish. They don’t want the town to progress. Other people are out there saying, ‘I wish we had things for our kids to do.’”

Underwood said he was not among those seeking wholesale change in leadership two years ago.

“I liked a lot of the board members who were there at the time. I supported some of the board members who were there,” Underwood said.

 

A big plan

Mayor Pat Smathers, who has held office since 2000, has aggressively pursued a new image for Canton over the past decade. The current board has stalled that vision, Crawford said.

Flynn agreed and said if elected, he would support the “mayor’s train,” borrowing directly from an analogy Smathers has used over the years to describe his initiatives.

“Even if it is moving very slowly, it still needs to be moving,” Flynn said of the train. “I think over the past two years, it has not went forward at all.”

While Smathers is running unopposed for mayor, he has not stayed out of the race. He wrote an op-ed column in The Mountaineer two weeks ago laying out a 17-point plan for the town. He directly challenged candidates to get on board with his vision and called on voters to pin candidates down on whether they would support him.

“My aim is to make the following items election-year issues so that I and whoever is elected can begin working on an implementation plan soon after the election,” Smathers wrote in the op-ed.

Many were careful to couch their support, however. They said they would support Smathers’ ideas on their merits, but not merely because Smathers wants them to.

“I will do what is in the best interest of the town,” Monson said. “As far as it being Pat’s platform, I am running to work for the citizens of Canton. I am not running to work for Pat.”

Willis said the members of the town board should also craft their own lists. The board should compare and contrast their lists, then rank the projects by priority.

“I don’t think all the ideas (on Pat’s list) are as important as Pat thinks they are. Some are. We just need to look at those,” Willis said.

Residents should be brought into the fold as well, according to Willis.

“In a perfect world there would be a number of residents who have input on what those goals should be,” Willis said.

Underwood said there’s not much Smathers left off the list.

“Pat listed a lot of things,” Underwood said. “I think anybody in that position who knew the town like Pat does would probably list the same things.”

Nonetheless, Underwood thinks there’s room for more input.

“Pat has put this list out there. Everybody else needs to put their list out there and come up with a consensus on how we need to attack what Canton needs,” Underwood said.

Underwood pointed out that Dills has not put out a similar list of his ideas.

Dills countered that not all of his ideas are tangible projects. One of his initiatives would be ending a long-standing practice of nepotism in town hiring. Another would be reducing the number of town employees who are issued unmarked town vehicles to drive back and forth to work.

 

What to tackle

The sheer volume of items on Smathers’ list left few stones unturned. The list called for installing lights on town sports fields, creating a craft and farmer’s market, hiring a town recreation coordinator and extending the town’s greenway. It included an upgrade of town water and sewer lines around Interstate 40, where the capacity has been maxed out preventing new businesses from hooking on. Smathers also wants to annex new territory into the town limits.

Nearly every candidate said they supported the items on the list in theory, although they had different ideas of which are most important and should be tackled first.

Holland said Smathers has been an excellent visionary for the town.

“He hits the nail on the head,” Holland said. “The problem is he can’t get everybody to go along with him on it. Some board members may have opposed it just because Pat proposed it.”

Dills said it would be hard not to support items on the mayor’s list.

“Who could be against those things? We all want outdoor lights at the international sports complex, but it costs $425,000 and the town absolutely doesn’t have it,” Dills said.

Alderman Troy Mann also questioned the usefulness of the list when there was no way to pay for it all.

“It would be foolish to go out and advocate spending $450,000 on a project without the necessary cash flow to pay for it,” Mann said.

Mann said he has tried to keep the reins on town spending during his term, even though it’s labeled as not progressive.

“I wasn’t bursting forth with a lot of ideas that would create a lot of tax requirements,” Mann said. “There are times in your own family budget that you put back those things you think you can do without.”

Mann said no board should fall in lockstep behind one person’s initiatives, which is one difference between the current board and previous board.

“It is not a given that if it is brought to the table it is going to be approved,” Mann said. “There is more discussion, more oversight. We are more engaged. Every issue is given more consideration.”

Crawford said just because the previous board got along doesn’t mean they rolled over.

“I had a number of disagreements with the mayor when I was on the board serving under Pat. They just weren’t worked out in public. They were worked out behind the scenes,” Crawford said. “You don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”

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