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Wednesday, 08 September 2010 12:39

Sylva board rift over police chief reveals larger power play afoot

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Sylva Commissioner Christina Matheson surfaced as peacemaker last week for a town board that, among other matters, has shown signs of fracturing over the best method of hiring a new police chief.

Commissioner Harold Hensley bucked up at a meeting in August after learning about Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower’s plan to use outside help in deciding who would replace Police Chief Jeff Jamison, who retires Oct. 1. Isenhower had informed the board she intended to form a panel made up of herself, two Western Carolina University employees, and the town of Maggie Valley’s police chief.

At that meeting, commissioners Danny Allen and Ray Lewis echoed Hensley’s reluctance to allow Isenhower the full hiring power the town’s charter apparently stipulates. Often, town boards hire their manager, and the manager is in charge of hiring all other positions.

But no one seems entirely sure what the correct legal procedure is for Sylva because a town ordinance has confused the issue. The ordinance states commissioners shall select the police chief.

Hensley, Lewis and Allen emerged as a voting and speaking-in-one-voice bloc after Hensley was appointed in July to fill a board vacancy. This changed the constitution of the board. The minority is now the majority, and Commissioner Stacey Knotts has become the odd woman out after voting “no” to Hensley’s appointment.

Allen, who nominated Hensley for the board seat, upped tensions by sending a letter to The Sylva Herald demanding Isenhower and Mayor Maurice Moody consider resigning if they didn’t “work with us not against us.”

This, after commissioners’ summoned Isenhower behind closed doors for a time following last month’s dustup.

Against this backdrop of internecine warfare, Matheson attempted to throw oil on the water, at times even leaning back in her chair to directly negotiate with Hensley in a semi-private but still legally public manner.

Hensley sits on the other side of the mayor, as do Allen and Lewis, in a tidy but accidental alignment of what actually takes place in the boardroom. So the negotiations were literally, if not figuratively, going on behind Moody’s back.

“My suggestion is, to avoid confusion … we need to get a resolution of our charter, first,” Matheson said.

Matheson, a former assistant district attorney, outlined the following: Respect the autonomy of the manager, but have a board member present when candidates for high-level town positions are interviewed. In the vacancy for police chief, for instance, the number of applicants would be reduced to three by the manager, with the assistance of this special commissioner.

“Narrow the field to the extent the manager could (then) make the decision,” Matheson said.

“I think that’s a wonderful proposal,” Hensley said, as Lewis and Allen nodded in agreement.

Knotts, however, temporarily stymied the prospect of board unity by demanding a larger panel be formed.

“I don’t think one board member should be weeding all the applications down to three,” she said.

Hensley responded the size of the panel didn’t matter to him. He did warn that if too many board members got involved, the necessity of abiding by the state’s open-meetings law would come into play.

Ultimately, commissioners agreed one of them would volunteer for the panel, as originally proposed by Matheson. Additionally, at Hensley’s suggestion and with Knott’s agreement, a local businessperson who is also a town citizen will serve as a third body on the panel. Nominations for this post will be considered at the next meeting.

Isenhower, 27, was hired as town manager in March 2009 by a 3-2 vote of the board. Knotts voted for her, Hensley and Lewis against her. Allen wasn’t yet on the town board. The vote followed the board’s firing of former Town Manager Jay Denton in a controversial and split vote.

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