Scott McLeod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

•••

And now for a little politics.

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This time, WCU passes academic integrity test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This realization hit me after I received an email from Brent Martin. Brent is the Southern Appalachian Program Director for the Wilderness Society, and he’s based in Sylva. We published an article in last week’s edition by Martin that called attention to the Weeks Act, federal legislation approved 100 years ago on March 1 that authorized the creation of the our national forests (www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3359-nantahala-pisgah-national-forest-turns-100).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

 
The Golden Leaf as a golden egg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
N.C.’s own health care debate

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

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

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

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

 
In other General Assembly news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bill is currently in committee.

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did it get us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The permanence of print

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

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

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

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

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

 

The digital age is upon us

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

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

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

 

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except, it seems, a path to citizenship.

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

Comment

A bit of a stumble out of the gate can be forgiven among newcomers in any endeavor, but that stumble also means more intense scrutiny is likely to follow.

That’s exactly what happened with the new Jackson County commissioners, and voters are surely hoping there are better times to come.

A perfect storm of factors — bad economy, controversial county manager, and the pre-election Tea Party surge, among them — led voters to sweep every incumbent up for election out the door in the Jackson County commissioners race.

Citing those factors and others as a reason for the victory is not meant as a criticism of the new commissioners. The three  — Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody — obviously impressed a lot of voters they came into contact with. Americans have a near religious fervor regarding the will of the people, and that will expresses itself every time we hold an election. It’s winners take all, and that’s just the way it is.

No, critics of any newly elected leaders would be advised to wait until those leaders take office — or at least begin making decisions — to start finding fault. In Jackson County, that didn’t take very long.

First was the way the retirement of Ken Westmoreland was handled. There was little doubt Westmoreland and the new board would not see eye to eye, and that his tenure as county manager was, for all intents and purposes, over. And as Westmoreland himself told this newspaper, a new board “has every right, prerogative and the authority to put in their own management team …. I don’t understand why (Jack Debnam) felt the need to deny it, but it just didn’t come out that way, I guess.”

Westmoreland is referring to Debnam’s leak to the local media that Westmoreland had decided to retire, and Debnam saying the county manager had done so of his own volition. Westmoreland denies that it was his decision. He said Debnam put it to him like this: “He said, ‘the three of us have talked it over and we would like a change.’”

So one of the two men is dead wrong, which means someone is lying. Let’s just repeat the earlier assertion, that this wasn’t handled very cleanly.

There are also a couple of other issues with the early work of the new board. It changed the starting time of one of its monthly meetings to 2 p.m. That means any working folks are excluded. That doesn’t send a very good message.

The board also moved the public comment session of its meeting to the very end of the agenda. I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended hundreds of public meetings over the years, and they are, well, somewhat less than riveting. To make citizens who want to talk hang around until commissioners have finished their business is, well, a bit rude. Let the public have their say and then leave. They aren’t paid to be there, but commissioners are.

As I said early on, even elected officials deserve a bit of a pass on early mistakes. What citizens want is sound, thoughtful leadership. Only time will tell if this is what they got.

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

— Asheville Citizen-Times editorial, April 23

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was disappointing in this whole affair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

So what does it all mean?

•••

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

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

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

And, of course, the Internet.

•••

What about papers like ours?

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

 

Getting local

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

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

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

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

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

 

Talk-show mentality

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

“Cherokee has so much to offer, such as its beautiful mountains, museums, cultural and historical exhibits, Native American shops, friendly residents, and casino. The caged bears may have been a big attraction at one time but are now seen as an embarrassment to the community and should be permanently closed down.”

— Bob Barker, in a letter to Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks

 

The caged bears in Cherokee that a national animal rights group has recently launched a campaign against have long struck a nerve among many residents and visitors to the area. This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane treatment charges it has brought up.

According to PETA and others — this newspaper has received letters and phone calls from a half dozen visitors to Cherokee over the past 10 years — the bears kept at Santa’s Land, Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and the Cherokee Bear Zoo are “not being treated humanely.” The organization has garnered the support of popular game show host Bob Barker in the campaign. Barker was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and, according to his biography, is one-eighth Sioux. He has also spent many years as an animal rights activist.

The issue of treating animals humanely is an important one. At least two of the zoos in Cherokee — Santa’s Land and Chief Saunooke’s — have been cited for problems by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for regulating businesses that keep wild animals. PETA’s foray into Cherokee may lead to discussions by the Tribal Council and Hicks to enact tougher local regulations, which in the long run would likely benefit the businesses who keep bears.

Times are changing, and the very fact that 30 years ago many more businesses in Cherokee had bear displays is evidence that the “market” for this kind of “product” is disappearing. People don’t want to pay to see animals kept in enclosures that don’t mimic their natural habitat. In the end, that fact — that the business model for habitats deemed unethical is shrinking — is what will likely bring an end to these practices. And, conversely, places that go through the expense to keep captive bears in habitats that mimic the wild — like the WNC Nature Center in Asheville — earn kudos from most animal rights groups and get more visitors.

The ethical treatment of animals is a complicated issue, however, and sometimes campaigns like this by PETA don’t address the nuances. We won’t defend any mistreatment of animals, but shouldn’t we differentiate between bears born in captivity that are more like pets from those captured after their mother was perhaps killed by a car or hunters, or an animal wounded that couldn’t survive in the wild? Would PETA better serve the animals whose rights it is fighting for by providing grants to businesses to upgrade their habitats, rather than spending money mounting some of the campaigns that has tainted its reputation? And we won’t even go into the area of whether animals should be used in scientific research.

The real world is also nuanced. These Cherokee operations are legitimate businesses owned by families who are trying to make a living, providing jobs and surviving in this economic environment. That’s not to say it’s all right to treat animals inhumanely in the name of money, but remember there are regulators who do inspect and keep tabs on these businesses.

Cherokee would be better off by enacting stricter regulations, establishing itself as a leader in the field of captive animal welfare, and then helping businesses find a way to comply. That would go along way toward ending this lingering practice that, on its own, will likely die a slow death and likely continue to bring criticism to the Tribe.

Comment

Just tell the truth. That’s what we teach our children, it’s what we need from our loved ones, and it’s what we have to have from friends and co-workers. Without it, life’s a house of cards that won’t stand up.

During election season, though, truth gets twisted like a pretzel. What started as a fact becomes someone’s favorite sound bite, but the flavor has changed completely.

This is happening mightily right now in Jackson County. There are some folks who are working feverishly to oust incumbent county commissioners Brian McMahon, Tom Massie and William Shelton.

Anytime someone has been in office, opponents can certainly look at their record and come up with legitimate arguments for why they don’t want them to continue in that position. That is, they have a record of votes that opponents can stand against. That’s the democratic process, and it works.

But some of those writing letters to local papers and speaking up in public are twisting the facts. It’s not necessarily those running for office who are doing the damage. No, it’s mostly just average citizens who, in their zeal, may be just forgetful.

It’s tough enough to be an incumbent these days. According to the results of a Smoky Mountain News-WCU Public Policy Institute poll conducted in June, 46 percent of Jackson County voters have an unfavorable opinion of Jackson County government. The unfavorable ratings for the federal government among Jackson County voters is 62 percent.

First and foremost in the mistruths being bandied about in Jackson County is that the sitting commissioners have raised property taxes. They have not. The tax rate of 28 cents per $100 of valuation has not been raised, and in fact over the last decade as re-valuations have occurred, the actual tax rate has decreased.

Obviously, the amount of tax paid by individuals may have risen as their property values have gone up. No one is arguing that point. But counties are required by law to set property values at what is deemed a fair market value. There is a process for determining that value that is used throughout this state and pretty much the entire nation.

In other words, the value placed on someone’s property will be the same no matter who is in office. It’s not controlled by county commissioners, but by the market. Period. Anyone who can prove their home was valued otherwise will get a new valuation.

Another issue in which the facts are being twisted revolves around the temporary moratorium on subdivisions that was put in place for just over three months in 2007. Jackson County commissioners did not enact a building moratorium. Hundreds of subdivisions and thousands of lots already approved were not affected by this temporary measure. Private lots bought after the temporary moratorium were not affected.

The short-term moratorium on new subdivisions gave the county time to develop a subdivision ordinance that, as it turns out, is very reasonable.

And here is perhaps the accusation I find most ridiculous — that Jackson County commissioners are responsible for both the unemployment rate and the building slowdown in Jackson County. That is almost too crazy to even address.

The real estate and building industries are in a shambles in Jackson County, indeed. But it is the same in the entire state, the entire Southeast, the entire country, even most of the world. Banks are slowly crawling out of a credit crunch, and loans once easily available are simply gone. There is little building going on an anywhere. Hanging that on the Jackson commissioners just doesn’t stick.

The same with unemployment problem.

Editors like me are challenged to keep our facts straight. One of the most difficult arenas in which to do that is in our opinion pages. These pages are supposed to allow people to voice their own views, so editors take different approaches to editing submissions. I tend to lean toward letting people have their say.

But over the last few months, some of those writing have taken a few liberties with the truth. When that happens, sometimes it is just best to set the record straight. Call this an endorsement of truth. I always try to vote that way.

Comment

Haywood County’s 1930’s-era minimum-security prison was kept open for another year by our ever-diligent legislative delegation in Raleigh. They saved about 45 jobs and cheap labor for roadside cleaning by keeping the relic open. Meanwhile, Haywood County school supporters were forced to muscle a table through the parking lot in front of Wal-Mart — about a quarter mile as the crow flies from the old prison — because they needed to rattle the can for spare change to try to save teacher’s jobs.

The Haywood County effort to save school jobs is something being replicated, I’m sure, in other places throughout the state as school systems learned they were one of the big losers in this year’s state budget. In Haywood County, that loss was about 32 positions. In Macon County the total was about 14 and in Swain it was three jobs.

Business people have known for a long while that these are unprecedented times. Now local and state governments have finalized their first annual budgets since this recession wrapped its ugly arms around the country, and it’s a picture that is as confusing as it is frustrating. What is happening is this — taxes are being raised while at the same time costs (teaching jobs) are being cut.

So the conundrum is obvious. Should our legislators be fighting to keep open a little, inefficient prison at this time, when state studies have shown these little prisons to be more costly per inmate? It’s easy to juxtapose these two budget outcomes to argue that cutting wasteful government spending is very difficult, even in the face of what was a $4 billion state budget shortfall this year.

The point here is that it is almost impossible for lawmakers to vote for the greater good of the state in the face of pressure from constituents in their own district. The prison is a particular line item, and two similar prisons from the 1930s in Gates and Union counties are slated for closing after lawmakers finalized this year’s budget. Closing all three would have saved the state about $3.4 million a year, according to a state budget analyst quoted in several news stories.

School budgets for each county aren’t line-item expenditures. Lawmakers approve a huge dollar figure for public schools, and then it is doled out based on the number of students in each county.

Last week we editorialized that cutting funding for an after-school program for middle schools students — another of this year’s budget decisions — was a poor decision.

My friend John Sanderson, a former principal and teacher in Haywood County, makes the same arguments for cutting teaching assistants and increasing class sizes in the lower grades.

“I can say without a doubt when you increase class size, particularly at the elementary school level, it does have a negative impact on the classroom,” he told a reporter for this paper last week.

As citizens and as a society we have responsibilities that include paying for prisons and schools. And it is not as simple as an either-or equation, because lawmakers weren’t in Raleigh weighing whether it was better to keep school classroom sizes down or whether to keep a prison open. Unfortunately for all of us — and the lawmakers — it is not that simple.

But our choices are telling. As constituents, there has never been a more important time to get involved and let lawmakers know how you feel. At the local, state and federal level, changes are under way. When there is no money, then the spending choices become ever-more important.

And there seems to be more discussion about politics and spending, priorities and values, and those things important to our country. Liberal and conservative groups are getting together to discuss issues and get their opinions out. That’s all good.

On this one, though, the choice is easy for me. I’d take schools over prisons any day. Priorities, priorities.

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

Comment

Duke Energy’s rate hike request met strong opposition at a public hearing before members of the N.C. Utilities Commission in Franklin last week.

Duke claims the 12.6 percent hike is needed to pay for upgrades to power plants and infrastructure across its system, including construction of a controversial new coal plant near Marion. If approved, the request would bring the utility more than $496 million per year in additional revenues. Duke says the rate hike will help maintain its credit rating.

Speakers representing environmental groups, local businesses, and local governments — along with plenty of private citizens — were nearly unanimous in denouncing the proposal. The giant utility was criticized for continuing construction of unnecessary coal plants, for its failure to invest more in renewable energy, for the timing of its request during a recession and for its decision to sell power made in North Carolina out-of-state.

“It is unconscionable to force a rate hike in for an unnecessary power plant,” said David Bates, the executive director of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, referring to Duke’s new coal plant. “There’s no such thing as clean coal, just less dirty.”

Bates spoke during the hearing and at a rally held prior to it in front of the Macon County Courthouse. About 20 protestors listened in at the rally, which was organized by the Sylva-based clean air advocacy group the Canary Coalition.

Duke Nantahala District Manager Fred Alexander told the utilities commission, however, that continued construction of the new coal plant, known as Cliffside, is a “great environmental story.”

“Once we turn the new unit on, we can begin retiring 1,000 megawatts of old coal plants,” he said. The old plants are dirtier than the new coal plant, achieving a net gain to air quality.

The hearing was a formal affair, with speakers swearing on the Bible before offering their testimony. In addition to the hearing officer running the meeting, there were two opposing tables at the front of the room: one for a Duke Energy representative and one for the Public Staff of the N.C. Utilities Commission. The Public Staff acts as a guardian of the public’s interest against the regulated monopoly enjoyed by utilities.

The independent oversight body is against the rate hike, according to Dianna Downey, spokesperson of the Public Staff.

“We have a team of accountants and engineers to study the rate hike request. At this point we believe the rate hike request by Duke is not justified,” said Downing, adding that the findings are still preliminary.

The strongest support for Duke came from John Burton of Bryson City, who is the treasurer for the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which relies on Duke for whitewater releases to accommodate rafting. He urged regulators to keep an open mind when considering Duke’s request.

“Electricity and utility costs have gone up less than everything else. Also, the quality of transmission has dramatically improved,” Burton said. “Duke has succeeded in keeping rates down and in improving reliability.”

Others from the business community, however, criticized the timing of Duke’s rate hike request.

Dan Roland of Franklin is the operations manager for Jackson Paper in Sylva, one of Duke largest commercial customers in the region. He said the company recently decided to expand in Jackson County, and while it expected a rate hike, it was surprised at the size and the timing.

“We are opposed to the rate hike request. While we understand the request, we question the short notice and the size of the increase ... it is a tremendous shock,” said Roland.

 

What’s it paying for?

Part of the debate at the hearing was exactly what Duke’s proposed rate hike will pay for. Many of those speaking against the proposal said the new coal plant, known as Cliffside, is not necessary since the state’s energy usage is declining. Duke, however, says only 20 percent of the rate hike is to fund Cliffside, and it argues it has already spent about $1 billion. State law allows utilities to collect money for new power plants while they are under construction. So even if the construction was abandoned, Duke could still try to recover the money already spent.

In addition to Cliffside, Alexander said the request was to pay for “billions of dollars of investments we’ve already made to build a cleaner and more reliable system.”

But critics said Duke has done little to invest in cleaner energy production or more efficient use of the energy it already produces. Julie Mayfield, the executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, urged the utilities commission to deny Duke’s rate hike.

“While there continues to be debate about the percentage of this requested increase that covers infrastructure improvements, previously installed environmental controls and Cliffside, what is clear is this: part of the rate increase is for Cliffside; Duke recently received a 4.5 percent rate increase to cover the increasing costs of coal; and none of the requested increase will cover renewable energy projects or energy efficiency programs,” said Mayfield, reading from a prepared statement.

Avram Friedman, the executive director of the Canary Coalition, said Duke was being duplicitous on several fronts. He said Duke Energy claims the Cliffside plant is to meet growing energy demand in North Carolina, but actual usage in the state is down 2 percent, he said. He also criticized Duke’s recent decision to sell electricity to an energy cooperative in South Carolina and another attempt denied by the utilities commission to sell electricity to Orangeburg, S.C.

“There’s no reason to place this extra burden on electric ratepayers,” said Friedman. “More than 100 new coal plants have been cancelled around the country in the past three years and Cliffside isn’t needed either. It makes much more sense to implement energy policies that will save ratepayers money, by offering economic incentives to invest in energy efficiency in homes, businesses and industry.”

At least two local governments in WNC — Swain County and the Cherokee Tribal Council — have passed resolutions opposing the rate hike request.

The last in the series of public hearings on Duke’s request is scheduled for Oct. 19 in Raleigh.

Comment

This country must pass health care reform that accomplishes two major objectives: providing coverage for everyone and controlling skyrocketing costs. I believe that the bill must include a public option for those who are now uninsured. And just like automobile insurance, anyone who enters the workplace must be required to have health insurance, either from their employer, their own private plan, or from the public option.

Conservatives and liberals alike agree that our health care system is not sustainable in its present form. Employee-sponsored health care premiums doubled in the past nine years, rising three times faster than wages. American families spend more on health care than we do on food or housing. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if costs keep increasing at the current rate, 25 percent of the nation’s economy will be tied up in the health care industry by 2025.

The fundamental questions for those advocating reform is how can we cover those who now don’t have access to care while controlling costs in an industry where price has become irrelevant? When is the last time you asked your doctor how much a test, an operation or a drug was going to cost?

According to The Wall Street Journal, the current system of employer-provided benefits “has divorced the consumer — the patient — from the real cost of services. It encourages excess spending, runaway lawsuits, defensive medicine (doctors ordering unnecessary tests and procedures out of fear of being sued), and huge malpractice premiums.”

•••

This is a complex issue, and understanding it has become even more difficult amid the tidal wave of misinformation that is circulating. It’s unfortunate for those of us who believe health care reform is critical that this debate is occurring during an economic crisis that has forced unprecedented government intervention into private industry. Both the outgoing Republican administration and current Democratic administrations supported government taking new and expanded roles to stave off a long-term economic disaster. Intervention to rescue the banking and automobile industries, along with Obama’s stimulus package, have further fueled the long-running fear of too much government intrusion.

The health care problems, however, can’t be solved without government intervention. Government is already the major player in the industry through Medicaid and Medicare. But here’s the truth — Obama does not support a government takeover of our health care. That’s not even being discussed and is a complete distortion of reality.

What he does want is a public option for insuring the 45 million people who currently don’t have health insurance. That option is the best chance for controlling insurance premiums, which in turn will prompt the insurance industry to work with health care providers to keep costs down.

There are other major problems on the other end of the healthcare spectrum that must be resolved as part of reform. Many who have insurance are denied coverage or reach their caps when they face serious problems like cancer or heart problems. Also, changing jobs with a pre-existing condition can be devastating, often leading to a denial of coverage or skyrocketing premiums. A plan for affordable portability of coverage must be included in any reform measure that is passed, along with measures that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage just when it is needed most.

Although I think the public option is necessary, compromises can be found. Some are suggesting allowing the insurance companies to develop low-cost plans for those who currently can’t afford care. This plan includes a trigger for a government option to come into play only if the private companies can’t get the job done. The public option is better, but a compromise that earned some Republican support might be the best possible solution — and the only way to get a bill passed.

•••

One issue that hasn’t been discussed much as part of this health care overhaul is personal responsibility. We can’t cut our health care costs substantially if Americans continue to suffer from chronic conditions that are preventable.

Our children are suffering from an obesity epidemic. Many of us eat too much and exercise too little. Go to any middle school in the country and observe the children. It is a sad thing to see so many who are obviously on their way to a lifetime of battling obesity.

I don’t have a problem paying taxes to provide health care for a working mom who has a full-time job that pays just above minimum wage and doesn’t offer healthcare benefits. I do, however, have a problem paying for those who cause their own health problems by eating badly, not exercising, and perhaps smoking. I’m not sure how it can be done, but we must encourage lifestyle changes that could substantially reduce total healthcare costs.

•••

Healthcare reform has discussed by nearly every administration since World War II, and we have yet to make meaningful headway. Congress has made more progress in the last six months on this issue than ever before, and citizens need to encourage their lawmakers to finish the job.

Comment

It’s always a little embarrassing to look on another’s misfortune and discover that you may be the beneficiary of their problems, but it does happen.

And so I read a story about Florida’s economic woes and couldn’t help but see a bit of a silver lining for us in North Carolina and in the mountains.

Here are a few lines from that article:

“Already, (Florida’s) hold on retirees is weakening, with thousands of disenchanted ‘halfbacks’ moving to Georgia and the Carolinas in recent years ....

“Choked by a record level of foreclosures and unemployment, along with a helping of disillusionment, the state’s population declined by 58,000 people from April 2008 to April 2009, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Except for the years around World Wars I and II, it was the state’s first population loss since at least 1900.”

Now most of us who live in the mountains don’t want a huge influx of new retirees or even young families. In fact there are many who say there is nothing positive about our region becoming the “New Florida.”

The point is we don’t want to become the new Florida. This recent economic slowdown has provided time to re-assess the dangers of unchecked growth. Many of us, this newspaper included, are committed to fighting for progressive planning measures so that when growth comes we can protect the landscapes, mountain ridges, streams and small towns from losing those qualities that make this area so special. We don’t want the crime and sprawl that make it so easy for Floridians to run from.

That said, there is certainly the reality that our economy here in Western North Carolina has gone stagnant. Too many of our residents are worried about their jobs and their families.

So if Florida’s allure as “the” retirement and relocation spot in the East is fading, there’s little doubt the coastal areas of Georgia, South and North Carolina, along with the mountains of WNC, stand to take its place. There really is no other place in the eastern part of the country that has the amenities to fill that role. It won’t happen overnight, but I suspect the next 10 to 20 years will see change in this region that many of us could never have imagined. On the one hand, it is exciting to live in what promises to be a vibrant region for the next couple of decades, while on the other hand this prospect should put us on guard.

Those of us in the media have an obligation to our communities to keep the growth issues out in the public arena. Striking a balance between inevitable growth while nurturing and improving the wonderful lifestyle we now enjoy won’t be easy, but it can be done.

•••

I’ve been reading some essays by William F. Buckley Jr. — who died in 2008 and is generally regarded as the godfather of the modern American conservative movement — and was left bemoaning how political discourse has withered to such a state of pathetic, inane screeching and labeling.

It also left me pondering another more important question: is it possible to combine some of the tenets of conservatism and progressivism into one coherent political philosophy? That’s something I want to explore in some columns in a few upcoming issues.

Many of my liberal friends and many of my Republican friends are likely foaming at the mouth at such a proposition. But Buckley was a master of big ideas, not small labels, and therefore his conservatism has about as much in common with today’s Republican ideals as night has to day.

Many of the ideas I would associate with the progressive movement — which acknowledges the need to take steps to re-form government (and, therefore, society) in order to deal with today’s realities — can find a home in a school of thought that also cherishes the eternal verities of faith, truth and family, along with a love of country. Such a philosophy must exist without succumbing to the Fox News method of brandishing these verities as weapons against political opponents (especially those who hold dearly to the separation of church and state).

So I’m going to research some of the real-world outcomes that such a school of thought would lead to, and see where it comes out.

Most of those over 40 are probably very familiar with Buckley, though anyone who enjoys political philosophy would do well to read him. My mother-in-law, Lee Sullivan, passed along a memoir written by Buckley’s son about losing his mother and father. That led me to one of Buckley’s books of essays, Let Us Talk of Many Things. Years ago I read a couple of his books about sailing, another area in which he was quite accomplished.

Upon his death in 2008, The New York Times said this: “Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America.”

Aside from starting the influential conservative magazine the National Review and hosting “Firing Line,” an early talk TV show known for its great debate of ideas, he was a prolific writer. As someone who has personally answered the late-night phone calls from irate, sometimes inebriated, readers at the many newspapers I have worked at over the years, I can’t help but have an affinity for a guy who penned a 2007 book called Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription.

Comment

Haywood County elected officials may sometimes get fed up dealing with the incessant public record requests and the three-hour meetings that a new wave of public scrutiny is forcing upon them, but there’s no good alternative except to take the medicine no matter how distasteful. Even at the county commission level, elected officials have as a first obligation the task of remaining answerable to the public — even when the public becomes immensely irritating.

Over the last several months a group that is loosely associated with — or at least resembles — the 9-12 national movement has begun going public with comments on local issues. They’ve been attending nearly every commission meeting, taking extended turns at the microphone during the public comment session. The constituents are spending public money by extending the meetings taxpayers pay to videotape.

There has been obvious tension between elected officials and those who have come to dominate the public portion of the meetings. Those showing up have been making requests for documents, digital files and other information. On occasion, the requests have been made to several different departments for the same information, a frustrating example of how the county must do the public’s business but at a cost that is often wasteful and unnecessary. Some have even continued to complain, disagree and otherwise make demands long after explanations have been provided.

Perhaps most frustrating for elected officials and county workers, is this — some of these folks have been provided information or facts but then act as if they don’t know the why, what or how much. One county official said it was as bad as lying, to act as if something isn’t known when indeed it is.

So what now? Nothing.

There’s simply no way to muzzle public comment in a democracy, no way to stifle the voices of those who demand an audience with their elected officials. Despite the cumbersome, capricious nature of what’s going on in Haywood, commissioners are stuck with it.

In almost every case I’ve witnessed over the years of groups or individuals deciding to become involved in local government by showing up at meetings, the result has been positive. Whether it’s builders and pro land-use advocates clashing in Jackson County, North Shore road proponents speaking their mind in Bryson City, or this group now showing up in Haywood County, one can only believe that the public interest is better served when people are involved in local government.

We suspect most of those now appearing before elected officials in Haywood have honorable motives and honest problems. It is the bad apple that ends up spoiling the whole bunch. One or two people grandstanding or going overboard disrupts what, in my mind, is a time-honored process that makes local government the most accountable form of government we have.

The concept of the informed electorate is an important part of this issue. People who get involved and make their opinions known on important subjects are the bedrock of good decision-making by elected officials. But what if there are those who refuse to digest, who ask but don’t listen, whose real mission is not to gather information? How can our democracy function, for all its shortcomings, when some take advantage of the system?

And that’s really the problem. There’s a difference among those who have legitimate concerns and those who use county commission meetings as a platform to air their own views, whether partisan or not. But our system lets everyone have their say, without regard to their motives. As they say in sports, it is what it is.

Comment

A lot of ink has been spilled over the new $10.3 million crafts education building at Haywood Community College, and for good reason. The building’s cost and its environmentally friendly energy-saving features were both somewhat controversial.

I’m among those who are guilty of contributing to the ink spill. We’ve run several stories, and three weeks ago I wrote a column supporting the building’s construction. My contention then was that the building’s features and costs had been adequately debated, questioned and some features fine-tuned, so it was time to move on. And that is exactly what commissioners did when they approved the building’s construction last week.

While the main thrust of all the arguments about the building have been very tangible, there are a couple of intangibles that are very relevant. In fact, these intangibles might, in the long run, be what is most important about this debate.

I’m a huge sports fan. I can watch 8-year-old girls playing AYSO soccer and totally get into the game, gauging each participant’s athleticism, the coach’s work in preparing the teams, and the demeanor of the parents. On the other hand, I can also stay engrossed in an NFL game where the participants are overpaid and often way too full of themselves. Once the game starts, that stuff mostly goes away and it’s all about the physical contest.

I bring this point up only because I’m among those who moan when we — society, government, whomever you want to put into this category — skimp on monuments to learning while we build extravagant sports stadiums and pay athletes crazy salaries. I know this is an overworked argument and that it’s always been this way. One has only to see the ruins of the Coliseum in Rome to know that this infatuation with games is very much a part of our history.

But guess what? Those ancients also lavished attention and resources on the arts and learning. So while the Coliseum is grand, you can visit Roman and Greek ruins wherever they exist and see vestiges of grand libraries and theaters. I clearly remember walking the marble road in Ephesus (Turkey) and seeing the great library (or its ruins) to which it led.

Our society is neglecting education and the arts. We have politicized education, the most damning of fates for something so valuable. The crafts building at HCC is certainly not any kind of extravagant monument, but I’m glad we’ve decided to make this building the number one building priority for Haywood Community College.

Another important point is that Western North Carolina is a place that values small businesses and self-sufficiency. The crafts program at HCC is unique in that it mixes arts and entrepreneurship. I personally know a half dozen or so graduates of the program, and they have built some of the most well-known arts and craft businesses in this region. They are important parts of the civic and social fabric of WNC and investing in this program is simply a reflection of what is best about our mountain region.

This whole debate, at one level, is about how we value arts and education. By my estimation, neither is given its proper place in mainstream American society these days. That’s a situation we need to correct.

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

Comment

More and more these days, it seems those who follow the news have strong opinions on the tone of public debate, a topic that elicits as much discussion — perhaps more — than the actual news items we want to hear about.

Last week I wrote a column about a group of vocal citizens in Haywood County who have become regulars at the county commissioner meetings. Some have accused the group — or at least some of them — of being more interested in criticizing at all costs and giving their opinions rather than seeking information in hopes of bringing about positive change.

Agree or disagree with anything we’ve written about this particular group, but there’s little doubt that the tone of public discourse is a hot topic these days. Whether it’s TV’s talking heads or video footage of public meetings held in communities around the U.S., it seems traditional media, bloggers and everyone else is talking about the civility — or lack thereof — in our public discourse.

Remember Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during his nationally televised health care speech? That was in early September, and it capped off a summer of debate on health care that turned increasingly mean-spirited. Those public meetings made for good television. Watching the vitriol from some of these town hall meetings probably led to a windfall for all the television stations that broadcast them, but it would be hard to describe those events as reasonable public discourse.

Perhaps it’s our tame, ever-so-busy lives that make many appreciate the over-the-top political antics that are becoming so common. Or maybe it’s our ever-shrinking attention spans that lead many to appreciate feigned emotion and blustering rhetoric in the place of real intellectual debate or knowledge. Whatever the case, it’s a new era we are in.

Who knows where it will end. I suspect that if the traditional media that so many people love to hate — like newspapers, for example — become less and less as relevant sources for news, then the tone of debate will get increasingly negative and less knowledgeable. Say what you want, but most newspapers — and a few television broadcasters — work hard to maintain truth and integrity in their news reporting. We put opinions on the opinion page, and not in news stories. And we make our money by convincing readers that our stories correctly represent the issues we cover.

As more opinion and spin are passed off as news, our country and our society are headed for difficult times. Truth will get lost in the fog, and the number of people seeking the truth will diminish because they won’t know it when they see it.

Last week’s column did elicit many responses, including one in the Letters to the Editor section from the man who is challenging Sen. Joe Sam Queen. My favorite, though, came with these quotes, which address the issue at hand. Good stuff:

• “Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated,” from Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), British journalist, novelist and poet.

• “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” from Winston Churchill.

• And my favorite — “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously,” from Hubert Humphrey.

•••

For more than 30 years, since I graduated from high school and left the Fayetteville area, I’ve been following from afar the efforts by the Lumbee Indians to win federal recognition. Recently that effort got a big boost when a bill recognizing the Lumbee and six other tribes in Virginia passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee aren’t happy about it.

The Lumbee live in the area along Interstate 95 in Lumberton in Robeson County, which is in southeastern North Carolina. All around the small towns of Pembroke, Red Springs, St. Pauls, and Fairmont are communities of Native Americans who have fought for recognition for more than a hundred years. Their efforts have been stymied by several key factors, including that they don’t have a language and they don’t have anything resembling a rich cultural history (as the Cherokee do) that is tied to the region in which they live.

Many say the Lumbee are a mix of different ethnic groups and not actual Native Americans. One theory says they are the related to the English settlers who disappeared as part of the Lost Colony on the state’s coast.

Back in March, EBCI Chief Michell Hicks told a House committee that, “The House of Representatives should not pass a bill that allows persons of questionable at best Indian ancestry to be acknowledged as an Indian tribe.”

Now that the Lumbee have gotten this far, we can expect to see the intra-tribal squabbling to heat up.

Comment

In the news business, the interplay between the Internet, mobile devices, television and print is at a precipitous crossroads where everything is changing so fast no one truly knows what the future will hold. It’s both exciting and scary for those of us who make our living amidst all this back and forth, and I’m asked at least once daily where it’s all going and what it means for our business. All the lines are blurring, and what’s old school and what’s new and exciting are bumping into each other.

Take for instance a move by our regional daily newspaper, the Asheville Citizen-Times. This Sunday, the newspaper started a three-part series on Evergreen Packaging, formerly known as Blue Ridge Paper and prior to that Champion International. The story about the Canton mill is interesting enough, but no new ground is being plowed with the reporting.

What is most interesting is that the story ran as a “print exclusive.” That means the local daily and its owner, Gannett — the world’s largest newspaper company — decided to offer the story only to readers of the paper’s print edition.

Wow. That is news, especially if it represents a broader move by Gannett and, perhaps, other papers to take back their content. The Asheville paper, as with most newspapers in this country, has been giving away all its content on the Web for many years.

In the print newspaper business, there is an emerging consensus that we all committed a potentially fatal mistake around 10 years back. It seems longer ago now, but that was when there was an industry-wide move to put everything on the Internet and figure out later how to make money from it. Now, it’s a decade later and most newspapers still have not figured out how to turn a profit from Web sites, where the fruit of all of their news gathering is mostly given away, and the only money comes from a few banner ads and pop-ups.

A week ago, newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch — who owns The Wall Street Journal and the Fox networks, among dozens of other media outlets worldwide — wrote an op-ed piece in the WSJ that was excerpted from comments he made to the Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 1 about journalism and the Internet. Murdoch is often viewed among print journalists as a kind of Darth Vader, a man responsible for taking quality newspapers and sucking them dry because he demands huge profits while meddling in the newsroom.

But on one issue I am in complete lockstep with this aging media mogul — content providers like The Smoky Mountain News, the Asheville newspaper and the major national papers must, in some way, be compensated by those who read our stories online. Murdoch is searching frantically to figure out how to enact a pay system for those who read stories via the Internet. There are several models out there right now. Many newspaper Web sites have some content that must be purchased and some that can be accessed for free, while others sites are not available at all unless readers pay a subscription fee.

Murdoch’s enemies right now are those who lift — i.e., steal — stories from newspapers and put them on their own Web sites, thereby gaining valuable, credible news stories with very little investment. Here’s what he told the FCC about these so-called “aggregators:”

“Right now content creators bear all the costs, while aggregators enjoy many of the benefits. In the long term, this is untenable. We are open to different pay models. But the principle is clear: To paraphrase a famous economist, there’s no such thing as a free news story, and we are going to ensure that we get a fair but modest price for the value we provide.”

The jury is out on whether Murdoch is an aging entrepreneur with a nostalgic dream or a formidable businessman who will find a way to make money for those who invest in reporting and editing. But I’d like to think our economic system will reward those businesses that produce a product that people find useful.

Here’s Murdoch on that point, from the same column: “My second point follows from my first: Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.”

The Asheville Citizen-Times decided to make its print product more valuable — some stories will only be available to those who buy their printed newspaper. On the paper’s Web site, you can read an outline of the Evergreen story but not the details. If Gannett can make this work — and I hope it can — it adds value to its print product. I suspect that a lot of people in Haywood County who otherwise don’t purchase a Sunday and Monday newspaper did so this week.

I’d wager neither the ACT’s model to bolster its print product or that dream of Murdoch’s to get everyone who uses online content to pay are where the future lies, but it may be somewhere in between. Again, here’s Murdoch on the changes the news delivery business is facing, and why he thinks smart news companies will survive.

“To make informed decisions, free men and women require honest and reliable news about events affecting their countries and their lives. Whether the newspaper of the future is delivered with electrons or dead trees is ultimately not that important. What is most important is that the news industry remains free, independent — and competitive.”

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

Comment

Let’s just say it’s about time.

A state special deputy attorney general said in a Nov. 25 letter that alcohol sales could indeed take place on the gaming floor at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, clearing away the last barrier blocking patrons from legally mixing alcohol and gambling. According to officials, the casino could be selling alcohol on the casino floor within a few weeks.

That’s good news for the casino, for the Cherokee and for the region. It’s no secret that patrons have been sneaking alcohol into the casino, keeping it in their cars or drinking prior to arriving at the state’s most popular tourist destination. Now, that money will go to the Cherokee to help it fund the many programs the tribe has instituted to help members since the casino opened over a decade ago.

This news comes just about exactly six months after tribal members voted overwhelmingly to allow alcohol sales at casino restaurants.

This issue is not about whether one endorses alcohol or not, or how one feels about gambling. Those issues have already been decided. All this ruling does is allow the casino to be as successful as possible, and as long as the tribe continues to spend the profits wisely and the entire region benefits, we support that concept.

With alcohol now available to patrons, the only remaining barrier preventing Harrah’s Cherokee Casino from becoming a full-blown gambling center is the ban on live dealers. Negotiations with the state have been on again and off again over the last few years, but it seems that this domino will likely follow those that have preceded it. It’s a bad time for anyone to try to slow down Western North Carolina’s most successful economic juggernaut.

 

Canton’s future plans

As new town board members settle in to their jobs, this east Haywood County municipality is at a critical juncture as it seeks to re-define itself.

Mayor Pat Smathers and Alderman Eric Dills are joined by three first-term aldermen, making this the second time in two years that voters have voted in almost an entirely new board. That seems, if nothing else, like a mandate for change.

Canton’s potential is huge, as are its challenges. The town needs to take advantage of traffic off Interstate 40 and make sure its infrastructure can handle growth out there while also focusing on its unique neighborhoods and its downtown. Those neighborhoods and the downtown area, along with recreation amenities, are keys to attracting new families and attracting quality businesses.

Anyone who has followed the town’s politics knows Smathers and Dills are more often than not on opposite sides of many issues, but the dynamic can work well for Canton’s taxpayers. That differing philosophy should keep the communication lines open and give the local media plenty to write about. Lots of media attention and a few controversies usually help get citizens engaged in the political process.

We look forward to covering Canton’s progress over the next few years and watching the town finds its identity.

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

Comment

The Smoky Mountain News cover story last week about the troubles faced by returning National Guard soldiers after deployments in Irag and Afghanistan will hopefully open many people’s eyes to this issue.

Reporter Giles Morris wrote about the post-traumatic stress issues faced by Staff Sgt. Shane Trantham, but that story is likely shared by thousands of returning soldiers.

The meat of the issue is this: the National Guard soldiers don’t return home as full-time soldiers like their combat-duty comrades in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. They are citizen-soldiers, and when they come home they return to old jobs and try to resume their lives in small towns and communities.

The problem is that they don’t have the support system found at military bases. Full-time soldiers have military hospitals and counselors they can see for free, their spouses and families live next door to each other and share the war experience daily, and those soldiers don’t have to worry about what they’ll do for a job because most of them remain in the armed forces.

And here’s another reality: today’s soldiers — whether full-time or citizen-soldiers — face multiple deployments. In past wars when soldiers survived a stint on the front lines to return home, it was very unlikely they would be re-deployed to combat zones. That’s not the case with today’s leaner military force.

The Department of Defense is working to improve the services available to these returning vets — especially counseling services — but it still has a long way to go. As this country transforms its military to fewer full-time soldiers and more high-tech equipment, the National Guard has become a regular part of our combat force. The treatment of these part-time soldiers by the government, however, has not kept pace with the new role we’ve thrust them into. Spending more money to help transition these soldiers back into civilian life is a moral responsibility the U.S. government — and taxpayers — must embrace.

 

A good deal at Wal-Mart

Speaking of spending money ...

It’s not a very sexy story, that’s for sure, but Haywood County commissioners made a wise move last week by deciding to purchase the old Wal-Mart near Tuscola High School.

The current Department of Social Services and Haywood County Health Department buildings are, in a word, dumps. They date from the 1920s and the 1950s, and trying to renovate buildings that old to meet today’s standards is simply a losing proposition.

The DSS building ranks in the bottom 1 percent of social service facilities in the state. Maybe there’s another county with a DSS building this in need of repair, but I’d have to see it to believe it.

No, there’s little argument about the need for new facilities, so then comes the argument about whether the county can afford the old building. If it gets the federal stimulus loan it is applying for, the interest rate will be as good a deal as possible. So now is a good time. Despite the recession, Haywood and every other county has a responsibility to provide certain services to its residents. Some people don’t want any money spent on health care for the low income or social services for the poor and elderly, but that’s an argument for another forum. The county must provide these services and do so in an adequate facility or face the loss of state funding.

Finally, the hulking, empty retail space was a blight. By renovating the building, putting several hundred workers into it and then the accompanying client base, this move will effectively re-energize that area of the county. If the designers do a good job on the exterior and all the green building attributes make their way into the final architectural plan, this facility could become a showcase of sorts.

Haywood’s commissioners deserve praise for this move, not the heat they’re taking from some.

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

Comment

Religion and its place in local government have once again arisen as issues in North Carolina. This means that many Christians — especially those holding elected office — are having to search for a balance between their personal prayer practices and their public duty to uphold the state and federal constitutions.

The current controversy arose in Winston-Salem when two Forsyth County residents objected to the prayer used to start county board meetings. Past rulings have supported the right to pray but held that those prayers must be general in nature, that they couldn’t use words like “Christ” or “Jesus” but could reference “God” or the “Almighty.”

This is a complicated issue, but one that does need to be dealt with. Personally, I’ve always been more bemused than fired up about this controversy.

First, the case law on this is quite clear, as noted above. If you want to follow the letter of the law, prayer guidelines for public meetings are pretty clear. End of discussion.

On the other hand, I also wonder why people care about how others pray, whether in public or elsewhere. If some elected official somewhere wants to say a prayer that satisfies his own religious yearnings, my libertarian instincts say let that person have at it — as long as they aren’t using their elected position as a pulpit. I don’t care about other people’s religious beliefs, and I certainly don’t want to inhibit or influence those beliefs. Doesn’t interest me.

The problem gets more complicated when those who feel compelled to offer prayers that clearly violate court rulings begin talking about their belief that this is a Christian nation and that we are taking religion too far out of public life. These two issues — whether society is less moral than in the past and whether we allow Christianity to permeate public life — are not related.

Unfortunately, many don’t believe that. One county commissioner we interviewed for last week’s cover story on this issue said as much: “It’s just the way I was raised. We’re talking religion out of everything. It’s made a difference in the world as we see it today ... since they took it out of schools, our morals started going downhill,” said Macon County Commissioner Bob Simpson.

Here’s a true story from a few years ago, an example that many in Haywood County may remember.

A local citizen who was very active in civic affairs was Jewish. He was a member of a civic club that started each meeting with a prayer. Just like the Forsyth County case, that prayer almost always ended with something like “in Jesus’ name we pray,” or another reference to Christ.

This gentleman asked discretely that the prayer exclude references to Jesus. He wanted to remain active in the club and was uncomfortable with the prayer. In the end, he left the group because some members would not alter their prayer habits.

This was a civic group and not an official government body, but it’s that kind of intransigence that leads to many of the problems that arise over this issue. The lone Jewish member of the group wanted his beliefs respected, and he thought the club could do so and still respect their own religious beliefs. Some of the Christians in the group felt otherwise, and so a split occurred.

These heartfelt beliefs are why this issue is so controversial and why, more than 220 years after our Constitution was ratified, individuals in this country are still grappling with religion and its place in government and public life.

In other parts of the world, the difference of opinion that divided that community club could have led to bloodshed. That doesn’t happen very often here, and that speaks to the very American trait of taking a long time to let issues work themselves out through government, the courts and society. This allows some important issues to hang around too long (like legal racism), but it also gives people time to adjust to change as we accept new norms.

I suspect the Forsyth County case is going to put new pressures on elected officials to abide by the letter of the law, and that’s a good thing. As one county commissioner pointed out in last week’s story, the Constitution is clear. It was written so that minority viewpoints are protected. That is what has made this country the bastion of freedom it has become, and I for one am proud of that tradition.

This crux of the debate comes down to this: where is the proper place for religion? Is it necessary — or legal — to make religious declarations in the public arena, or is religion’s proper sphere in the home, in the church and in the heart?

Several county commissioners in our region, I think, hit it right on the mark. Two of those are Haywood County Commissioners Kevin Ensley and Kirk Kirkpatrick.

Ensley’s prayers to open board meetings, according to most court rulings, would not meet constitutional muster. Although he feels he should be able to pray, here’s his answer to any mandate about what he can and can’t say: “If you don’t want me to say that, don’t call on me to pray.” In other words, his religion is much more important to him than publicly uttering a prayer he doesn’t believe, so he’ll just keep his faith to himself and abide by the law.

Kirkpatrick had this to say: “I believe in my faith, but I am not going to use my position in government to impose it on other people.” That’s a very important part of this discussion, because government leaders should not be in the business of endorsing one religion over another. That’s not what the founders had in mind.

And finally, Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan summed up this issue very nicely, at least according to my ideas about religion and government. McMahan feels strongly that the two don’t mix, and Jackson is one of the few counties in Western North Carolina that doesn’t start their meetings with a prayer. However, McMahan is also a devout Southern Baptist who regularly attends church: “When I go to the commissioner meetings, we are there to conduct county business. That doesn’t mean I don’t pray. I do that on my own.”

Amen.

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

Comment

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

— From the Gospel of Matthew

 

Purveyors of religion have recently been touting the need for elected officials to make public proclamations of their faith, citing examples of martyrs, saints and Jesus himself proclaiming themselves Christians in the face of certain death. Truth be told, equating such life and death drama as being similar to whether a county commissioner makes a specific kind of prayer at a county board meeting is like comparing an earthquake to a hiccup.

For those who haven’t been following this controversy, a recent court ruling in North Carolina has reaffirmed longstanding case law that says praying to Jesus — thereby referring to a specific religion — to open a county board meeting does not pass constitutional muster. Forsythe County commissioners who want to get a better interpretation of what they can and can’t do are challenging the court ruling allowing only a prayer to a generic god. That lawsuit will sort things out, which is a good thing as leaders in many of our western counties are caught in the crosshairs and trying to figure out how to handle this divisive issue.

Perhaps I’ve lost some of my youthful hellfire, but personally I don’t particularly care what kind of prayer opens a public meeting. I wouldn’t care if a Hindu commissioner gave some prayer that satisfied his own spiritual yearning. I don’t care if Christians do the same. As long as the leaders are carrying out their official duties in an ethical, honest and straightforward manner, let them pray to whatever god leads them down that path.

But my personal feelings, and the personal feelings of those giving elected officials a hard time, are irrelevant. More importantly, what happened at a recent Haywood County board meeting points out exactly why we need laws to govern this issue. Here’s what one citizen said: “If the majority of people want public prayer in the name of Jesus, we ought to have it.”

No, we shouldn’t, and that’s exactly the problem. The majority who wants the prayer is a mostly benign group of local citizens who want nothing else than for their leaders to proclaim their faith and pass laws accordingly. As has been pointed out many times, though, we are a religious nation governed by law, not a lawful nation governed by religion.

In Haywood County, Commissioner Mark Swanger has been a school board chairman, a county board chairman and is now a county commissioner. Swanger has very earnest and intelligent views when it comes to the interplay between the public and public servants. He recognizes the danger when the majority believes it can pass any measures that the majority supports, despite what courts — the check and balance on our legislators and our executive branch — have ruled.

“I am very uneasy with anyone telling a commissioner or anyone else what the content of a prayer should be. That’s what the Taliban does,” Swanger told The Asheville Citizen-Times.

 

In your heart, not on your sleeve

I was sitting in church on Ash Wednesday last week when the priest said something that caught me completely off guard. Next to Easter, Ash Wednesday is the best attended of all masses, he said. He didn’t say it outright, but the inference was that some come to get the sign of the cross on their forehead with ashes and then go out into the world for all to see.

The hypocrites — Matthew’s words (see the beginning of this column), not mine — were also at work at the recent county board meeting. No, I’m not questioning the religious beliefs of those who spoke, for it seemed very clear that they had very strong feelings about faith.

What is hypocritical is for anyone to put themselves at the gates of Christiandom and declare that they know what is right when it comes to prayer. Can anyone take seriously those who proclaim that a county official who refuses to pray like they want him or her to pray is somehow not a real Christian?

This prayer controversy is not akin to abortion or the death penalty or providing government aid to the poor. In debating issues like those, one’s personal faith does cross into the public sphere, and we seek out leaders who have the same beliefs as us. That is how our system works.

But let’s not judge our elected officials — or anyone, for that matter — based on an interpretation of what constitutes proper prayer. Doing so belittles the personal covenant of faith and vainly attempts to elevate ourselves as judges in a sphere where mere mortals don’t have standing. As the familiar boyhood taunt goes, who died and made them god?

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

Comment

The cash settlement now signed and sealed for Swain County in lieu of building the North Shore Road is a good thing, right?

Well, it’s a good thing only if the entire $52 million comes through, and that’s something that this newspaper, the rest of the media in this region, and the leaders who have put their names on this document need to make sure happens.

I’m in the camp of those who have been saying for years that the settlement was among the best of the available options. A real road along the north shore of Fontana Lake just doesn’t make sense, not today. When that promise was made, the idea of protecting wilderness areas was just taking root. The recent Ken Burns documentary about the national parks explained in detail how the national park movement started, fermented, then took off.

Now, six decades later, this area on the lake’s shore is touted by many as the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. There is no way anyone besides the relatives of those forcibly moved from the land could want this road built.

For what it’s worth, I personally favored another, more expensive option. I think the park service should have extended the road by a mile or so and then built a visitor center at its terminus explaining the history of the former logging and mining villages in the area, the promises made to those who left, and how the controversy ended. This, along with $52 million for Swain County, would have been a better outcome.

But this is settlement is what we have, and there is more than a little irony in the new agreement. Once again Swain County residents are given a promise — $52 million — and are asked to trust in the federal government that it will be fulfilled. I’m more than just a little worried, especially given the nation’s budget woes, the capriciousness of political leaders everywhere, and the strong current of partisan warfare that now engulfs Washington. What Rep. Heath Shuler and President Obama’s minions promise may mean nothing to the next set of elected officials who take office.

There is another “catch” in this agreement that doesn’t involve the federal government. The state is going to hold the money in a trust account so the principal can’t be touched, and Swain will get the interest. Again, another government entity that was part of the original agreement is going to be in line ahead of Swain to actually control the money. When the budget gets tight, those dollars are going to look more like filet mignon than a sacred cow. North Carolina, indeed, has a recent history of withholding money from counties and towns that, by its own statutes, didn’t belong to the state.

Right now, Swain is to get $12.8 million. The rest is to come in over the next 10 years, at the rate of about $4 million a year.

I’m confident that Swain County is going to get this money, but I’m also confident that there will be some greedy hands trying to grab some of it in the coming decade. It never hurts to prepare for battle.

•••

There is no more deserving Main Street Champion than former Waynesville Mayor Henry Foy, who was honored with this award during the recent Main Street North Carolina banquet.

Foy, who served as mayor of Waynesville until 2008, was for decades the face of a town that underwent a dramatic revival under his leadership. Waynesville’s downtown is often held up as a model, and Foy is one of those responsible for its success.

For years, he supported efforts to revitalize the downtown area and never missed an important event that would bring publicity or development. Foy, who still lives a little more than a block from Main Street, was an elected official for 26 years and mayor for 16.

A well-deserved award if ever there was one.

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

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Writing about the weather is usually about as exciting as a yawn. For 12 months, though, we in the mountains have been taking it on the chin time and again, and it’s got me wishing for a bit of a reprieve.

The mudslide that tore down Rich Cove in Maggie Valley Friday night is a solemn reminder of just how powerful the forces of nature can be — especially after we have come in and changed the original lay of the land. We’ll leave it to the attorneys to find out if any entity is liable for this slide and its damage, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting that there are almost certainly more slides in our future over the next few months. When we have snow and rain like we have in the last 12 months, disturbed mountaintops with cuts and roads and houses won’t hold.

What makes this recent slide so disturbing, though, is the damage it could have caused. At least four or five houses are deemed too dangerous for residents to return to, and a couple of dozen others were very close. That no lives were lost is a minor miracle.

It also came on the heels of so many other large slides. One in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is being cleaned up now; another huge slide in October on Interstate 40 is stopping tourists from coming our way and it was followed by a smaller rockslide close to Harmon Den on the interstate; and several other smaller slides are disrupting lives throughout our region. Over the last few years, lives have been lost in Peeks Creek in Macon County and in Maggie Valley due to slides destroying homes.

I recall about 15 years ago when I was the editor of The Mountaineer and tourism officials started touting the fact that Haywood County was the most mountainous county east of the Rockies. Depending on who claims some of the mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are at least 14 peaks in Haywood over 6,000 feet. The mountainous slogan bodes well for attracting tourists, but we have to live with the destructive reality of the terrain in this place we call home. For many there’s probably a feeling of helplessness creeping in. Where, and how bad, will the next one be?

There’s little doubt that the rockslides are related to this wet, cold winter. I’ve lived in these mountains 17 consecutive winters, and prior to that spent another five winters in the Boone-Blowing Rock area. I’ve not seen the kind of snow we’ve had this year in all 23 of those winters. We’ve had bigger snowfalls in previous years, but at my house we’ve had snow on the ground since Dec. 18, barring two days when I could see all the grass in my yard. Even if you live on a north face at over 3,000 feet, this is just craziness for the southern mountains.

And they’re calling for more. I fondly remember the jokes about how many times Bob Caldwell, the former well-known weatherman for WLOS, said it was going to snow and it didn’t. So far this year, when they say snow, they mean it.

This crazy winter didn’t come out of nowhere. Since last winter, the rain has been coming down. All spring and summer, my son couldn’t stop equating the constant rains with the potential for a snowy winter and lots of great snowboarding and canceled school. Looks like he was right.

But the rains were welcome. We had been in a severe drought and aquifers were drying up. Just like the landslides, some said it wasn’t just the lack of rain contributing to the groundwater shortages in the mountains. Many said all the wells we were sinking into the mountainsides, coupled with the drought, were setting us up for a severe water shortage. And back during the 2004 floods, many said the prevalence of paved surfaces where the water could not drain multiplied the destructive power of the flood and rain waters.

The rains came so fast and so hard this year that we were out of the drought by summer. The wet weather has carried on, both rain and snow. And so we have the most recent disaster at Rich Cove, with many worried about more of the same. It’s not quite man vs. nature, but the two working out of sync with each other in these mountains make for a volatile, sometimes frightening, mix.

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

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If you believe people usually get what they deserve, then the recent conviction of a Jackson County man on elder abuse charges was welcome news. Best of all, it could open the door for similar charges against others taking advantage of the elderly.

Mark Hawk pled guilty to a felony charge of elder abuse and four counts of embezzlement. According to the charges and testimony from family members, Hawk duped his elderly aunt out of nearly $60,000 after gaining a power of attorney. He was sentenced to just five days in jail but was also ordered to pay restitution of nearly $54,000.

The winner in this case, however, isn’t just this victim — Earla Mac Cowan — and her family. It’s the thousands of other seniors in our region who could potentially suffer from the same fate. As many as 10 percent of all seniors who rely on family members for care are victims of some kind of abuse, and for every instance of abuse reported another five go unreported.

These cases present a particular quandary for law enforcement and the judicial system. Most of the time it occurs among family members, making it that much more difficult to prosecute. When is a gift of a large sum of money theft versus just that, a gift? Worse, who wants to publicize internal family issues that are often embarrassing and painful? This case is the first ever conviction on an elder abuse charge in the seven western counties that comprise the 30th judicial district.

Michael Rich, Elder SAFE project coordinator for the 30th District Alliance, found out about Cowan’s case and became an advocate for the family members who sought prosecution. He says the challenges faced by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in the past had left them wary of taking on cases like these. To be found guilty under the elder abuse statutes, the victim must be elderly and disabled. In many cases it was easier to just convict abusers without the more stringent penalties included in the elder abuse statute.

Rich, however, says the Jackson County case may help in many ways. “Once it’s known in the community that the law has some teeth, then it’s easy to get people to come forward ... Law enforcement and I are in agreement that however we can get someone, that’s how we’ll get them. But we do know that in certain cases the elder abuse statute is a more serious felony,” he said.

What can we learn from this case?

Well, family members of this particular victim are encouraging those who suspect that abuse has taken place to be strong in seeking prosecution: “... people just have to know there will be doors slammed in their faces, and they have to keep on knocking loud and be ready to go through,” said Ann Buchanan, the niece of the Jackson County victim.

Second, law enforcement in this region is gaining experience in fighting these crimes, so that should reassure those who suspect abuse is taking place. Sybil Mann, who is head of 30 Judicial District Alliance for Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault and over the SAFE program, has been promoting awareness of elder abuse issues in the seven western counties among service providers, law enforcement and the judicial system. Rich, who is program director for SAFE, is doing work on the ground to help those who suspect abuse is taking place.

As our population continues to age, we should be acutely aware of family members and friends who could become susceptible dependant on others for care. And we can be thankful that SAFE is out there, helping those who harbor suspicions that terrible things are happening.

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

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Mix a strong environmental ethos, economic realism and strong community pride all together in the same brain (mine, in this case), and in almost any environmental controversy or issue, there’s an outcome that fits nicely into my world view.

Logging in national forests? It’s fine, but do away with large clearcuts and don’t make taxpayers subsidize road building. Coal-fired power plant air pollution? Despite the threat of higher electricity rates, make them install the most up-to-date pollution controls on every coal-fired plant in the country. Buffers on mountain streams? Laws should be stringently enforced and fines for violators should be large. I could go on and on.

When it comes to Evergreen Packaging (the Canton paper mill owner) and its wastewater discharges into the Pigeon River, however, it’s far more complicated.

And now, as the EPA says the state is being too lenient on the mill and threatens to take over the permitting process for its wastewater discharges, I’m more than a little worried about the future of this huge east Haywood plant and the smaller packaging facility in Waynesville.

In the name of full disclosure, however, readers should know a few things. First, I’ve had informal ties to what was formerly Champion International for more than two decades. When I was editor of the paper in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, I was friends with management and rank and file employees. My daughter’s babysitter was the wife of a Champion engineer. I broke bread and tossed back beers with those workers.

As a journalist in Western North Carolina since 1992, I’ve watched as Champion morphed into Blue Ridge Paper Products and then was purchased by Evergreen. Here in the mountains I’ve known dozens of employees, guys I’ve played basketball with, people whose children I’ve coached in soccer, and people I’ve gotten to know because of their involvement in civic groups or who have been elected officials in the region.

Finally, Evergreen just recently became a major sponsor of Folkmoot USA, an international dance festival I’ve been involved with as a volunteer for the past decade. The company didn’t give a huge amount of money, but it did make a commitment that will help Folkmoot quite a bit. Over the last 100 years I would dare say that the owners of the Canton mill have made it the most philanthropic private company in the region.

So there you go.

But wait, if I’m going to be completely honest about how Evergreen affects me, there’s more. The businesses I own, including Smoky Mountain News, will have a better profit and loss statement this year if Evergreen remains viable, keeps providing jobs for 1,400 people, keeps pumping money into the economy, and keeps helping the businesses that purchase advertising from us. I’d venture to say that the list of businesses in Haywood County and the region who could make similar statements is very, very long.

I have a feeling that the disclosures mentioned above don’t really set me apart from most of my acquaintances in Haywood County and this part of the state. The truth is that almost everyone who lives here, and especially those active in community and civic affairs, are in the same position. The paper mill’s employees are our friends who help form the backbone of this place we call home. In addition, the $70 million annual payroll and its $58,000 per year average wage have a profound impact.

I’ll tell you another reason I want Evergreen to emerge from this permitting process still profitable. Call it nostalgia, but there’s a place deep in my soul for people and companies that make something tangible. This feeling led me as a young college graduate to spend nearly 10 years on building sites as a carpenter. These days, we are outsourcing everything. What was once an idealistic disdain for polluting factories has turned into a deep respect for American companies that are able to pay people a good wage while making a profit by building or making things, whether it’s tires, cars, electronics or paper.

We all want the color of the Pigeon River as clear as the water in the Nantahala and Tuckasegee rivers. Absolutely, no doubt about it. It hurts every time I go by that river and see its tea-brown color. Those downriver who don’t benefit from Evergreen have valid arguments about lowered property values. Yes, it’s a huge mill on a little river that would never get a permit today.

Here’s the bottom line: I expect state and federal regulators to demand as much improvement from the mill as is possible without forcing it out of business. I’m no scientist, so in this instance I have to rely on those who know about these things.

But here’s what I do know: I don’t want those friends of mine jobless. I don’t want the town of Canton bankrupt or Haywood County to suffer the loss of its largest taxpayer, negatively affecting schools, law enforcement, health services, the community college and much more.

This is the real world, the place we live in every day. I’m an environmentalist and want Evergreen held to the strictest standards it can meet while remaining open and continuing to be an integral part of this community.

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

Comment

Now that the health care debate is over, here’s what we have: a very middle-of-the-road health insurance reform package. Most on the left wanted much more (the public option), while those on the right admitted they’d like to control health insurance and medical costs but spent all their energy fighting the left as opposed to producing their own proposal.

Time to move on. On the next major domestic issue identified by the Obama administration — immigration reform — we can’t do middle of the road. We need bold immigration reform, a way to bottle the allure of America that will attract the 21st century’s top recruits from around the world while at same time enacting laws that will discourage mass waves of illegal immigration.

This is a complicated issue. Reform should not focus so much on punishing those who are already here illegally — especially the kids and young adults who had no choice in the matter — as it should on controlling future problems. We’ve got to provide paths to citizenship for those already here. It’s just ridiculous for our country to spend energy and resources packing up young men in their 20s and sending them back to countries they know nothing about. Did anyone read the story in the Asheville paper last week about the bust where one of the arrested was in his 20s, had been here illegally since age 2, and immigration authorities were going to ship him back to the Latin American country of his birth that he hasn’t visited since leaving? It makes no sense.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote last week (see excerpt) about a dinner he went to honoring the best young scientific minds in American high schools. The honorees read like a phone book from China, Pakistan, India, Vietnam and other parts of the world.

No one is saying that the American kids we all rhapsodize about — the Caucasians playing sports and hanging out at the mall — aren’t just as smart. They’re just different. Our kids usually tend to mature later, get serious about life and school later, and that’s OK. But we need to keep the doors open to those problem-solving immigrants who push their children into science careers.

And then we have the immigrants mostly from points south who have are getting here way too quickly for some but who, obviously, are much more willing to do blue collar work for wages that allow business owners — farmers, contractors, restaurant owners — to earn a profit. When I was 12, the tobacco and vegetable fields provided summer work for Southern suburban kids one generation off the farm who needed a job; today, those same jobs are held almost exclusively by immigrants, legal and illegal.

It’s seems pretty obvious that the future success of the U.S. economy is dependent on rolling out the welcome mat to diversity. Immigration reform needs to slow the flow of illegal immigration from the south while providing reasonable access to those who want to work — whether it’s in the fields or in the labs — and those who want to attend our universities and colleges. The country that leaves the door open will rule the 21st century, and I’m afraid that we are leaning more toward an irrational fear of immigrants. If that sentiment takes roots, we’ll all suffer the consequences.

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

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The primary election is over now, but even before the vote tallies made winners and losers out of so many candidates, this election season seemed to be sweeping in a tide of activism in the mountains.

The truth of this struck home the night of April 22. I had just moderated a political forum in Swain County, which was a first for me. More importantly, it was the first time many in Swain remembered a political forum being held during the primary election.

The turnout from the public wasn’t as good as it could have been, but that’s to be expected. Most people are content to read about the issues in the papers or vote for friends or friends of friends, and go on about their business. I’ve had an opportunity to attend dozens of local forums over the years, and more often than not organizers end up disappointed with the attendance. At the Swain County Center for the Arts at Swain County High School, about 75 folks showed up.

But not everyone is content to sit at home and read about it. As former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neil is credited with saying, “All politics is local.” County commissioners are about as local as it gets, and their decisions affect our lives in everything from the quality of our schools to public safety.

This truism manifested itself in two ways. One, the number of candidates running for county commission and sheriff in Swain County was, in a word, staggering. For the most part the candidates were well meaning people with a desire to give back to their communities. With 13 candidates running for commissioner and eight running for sheriff in Swain County, the election was somewhat of a free for all.

In Haywood County, a total of 11 candidates ran for three open seats on the county board. I can’t remember a time when so many local elections had so many viable candidates running for office.

The second point that hit home after the Swain forum was about the organizers. Neither Vicki Crews or Robin Hamilton are lifelong residents of Swain. Both moved here as adults, and neither come from a background of political activism. They simply wanted to get all the candidates together and allow the public — and themselves — the opportunity to gather some information prior to the May 4 primary.

Their goal wasn’t high-minded and it wasn’t devious. Instead, they were driven by a desire to make educated decisions at the ballot box. Plain, simple, and critical to the proper functioning of our system of government.

There’s a lot of anger about government right now, and polls show that Americans have as little trust in their political leader as at any time in our republic’s history. I think the reasons for that are two-fold: one, some particularly controversial issues, like health care and immigration, are fueling passions; and two, the digital age of media gives those who are mad and unhappy more power than ever. Any observer of government knows that anger is the best tool for galvanizing an audience.

But all’s not bad. The very fact that so many people are taking part in local politics, holding meetings, organizing forums and running for office provides ample evidence that the public is engaged, and that the pendulum is swinging. By November, perhaps, we’ll know which way.

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

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Western North Carolina is a patchwork of small communities, close-knit groups operating independently to make their own town or area thrive. Whether it’s in the Nantahala Gorge, up the plateau in Cashiers or in downtown Canton, there are real people busting their butts each day who hold the well-being of their own “neighborhood” as a sort of higher calling. Personal success is intimately linked to the success of the community.

The latest — and in all likelihood, the final — effort to salvage the Ghost Town theme park that helped transform Maggie Valley into a unique kind of tourist town is a story that stretches across the mountains into several of these small communities. How this story finally unfolds will help define the future for those who call these places home.

Because our communities are small, those with lots of money have lots of power, the “big fish in a small pond” scenario. Al Harper, a successful entrepreneur whose holdings include the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, is one of these folks.

According to a story in this week’s Smoky Mountain News (page 6), Harper is close to securing a loan for $15 million. He plans to use about half the money to pay off a portion of the theme park’s $13 million in debt. A bankruptcy court has decided the rest of the debt will be wiped away, leaving about 200 businesses large and small to write off what in some cases is a substantial debt (in the interest of full disclosure, the theme park owed some money to this newspaper for advertising costs that will never be collected).

That decision also leaves many investors, some local and some from far away, with huge losses. Those running the park since its re-opening in 2006 have cost a lot of people a lot of money.

It’s the little guys in the small towns that make this story interesting. Among those is Ghost Town employee Randy Bryan. He cashed out $200,000 in his 401K to invest in Ghost Town. He’s lost every penny.

“If I was ever going to give up on something, this would have been it. But I refuse to quit, I refuse to lose. I believe too much in it,” said Bryan.

Maggie Valley resident Alaska Pressley also invested substantially in the park.

“Any price is worth it to help this area,” she told a reporter last week.

There is that community spirit, that willingness to risk a life’s work for a community and — if it had worked out — some financial reward.

This Ghost Town tale is now part of the story of Bryson City. In order to get the loan, Harper is putting up his railroad as collateral. That means if the park does indeed go belly up, which many believe it will, a portion of Bryson City’s tourism lifeblood may disappear with it. In its worst year, Harper says the railroad attracts 150,000 customers. That’s a lot of people spending money in a lot of stores and restaurants in Bryson City. Those people disapper, and Bryson is City hurts.

We haven’t had the opportunity to interview business leaders in Bryson City about this new scenario, about how their future is now directly tied to Maggie Valley and Ghost Town. I suspect those who have dedicated their lives to Bryson will be there, willing to step up and fill the void if the need arises.

Tourism is a unique business. It’s not high-speed fiber-optic stuff, it’s not about connectivity or e-commerce. Sure, marketing these properties will rely on some of that. But when it comes down to it, it’s about selling an experience. Harper’s business model at the railroad and, we suspect, at Ghost Town is about creating memories, tugging at the nostalgic fiber that runs through all of us.

I’m certainly no judge of his chances for success, but I will bet on the resiliency of these communities regardless of whether this final gamble pays off.

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

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