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Wednesday, 10 May 2006 00:00

Reflections on May 2 – what’s really going on?

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By Lee Shelton

Those who stated that Haywood County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger, who lost in last week’s primary election, was “over managing” or interfering are wrong. He was just doing the job that he was elected to do by the public and the majority of the board.

Further, Mark was overtly a change agent. He first ran for commissioners as a change agent back in 2002, and was overwhelmingly elected on this platform.

The Political Action Committee known as the Good Governance Legion spent considerable time and attention focusing on Mark’s role chairing the school board from 1996 to 2002. The voters had that information at the time Mark first was elected commissioner. It was not an issue then, and besides, the allegations made do not hold up to scrutiny.

Also, one might consider the metrics — test and SAT scores — that increased significantly after the change in superintendents following Mark’s election to the school board in 1996. You can’t have it both ways.

Swanger accomplished much during his nearly four years on the county commission for which the public-at-large are the beneficiaries. Mark sent out and published his platform — on which he was elected — with a status report on what had been accomplished. He had done a lot of what he said he would.

Thus, the election results must have been due to other factors, namely the county manager situation and negative and verbal — and smear — attacks by self-interest groups. Given the apparent indifference among the voters, it was not difficult for a small faction to take over the election, which is what happened. Most folks that I spoke with who did not vote just believed that Mark would move on to the general election. Yes, it was indeed a surprising upset — shock — to many.

The Horton factor

The opposition’s top complaint was Mark’s firing of the county manager, Jack Horton, back in January. But the county manager, under Chapter 153A, is to serve at the pleasure of the board of commissioners.

One would question the motives of the previous board of commissioners, who in 2000 granted Horton a employment contract that automatically renewed every year. Under that roll-over contract, if the board terminated the manager he would receive four times his salary among other provisions. How can one serve at the pleasure of the board and yet have this sort of deal which would cost the county nearly half a million to accomplish? It clearly negates the intent of “at the pleasure” provision in the state statute.

It is interesting how this contract unfolded. The proponents said that it was protection (for the benefit of the county) to keep the manager from being lured away by other counties. However, through the other end of the prism, it might appear that it was a means for a board — which may get voted out— and their cronies to lock their person in as manager, making it nearly impossible for a future board in power to get rid of him because of the cost.

With residual appreciation to those who provided this contract, the manager in turn would be in a position to help them out, as circumstances dictate. It smells of a quid pro quo deal. There are more and more accounts surfacing of how contracts to do work for the county were doled out without bids.

The Political Action Committee seemed to ignore the other side of the street. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is most likely a duck.

Horton’s roll-over contract obviously spanned beyond the tenure of the board who inked it. I can’t believe that such a contract could have been legal. I have found no evidence of any similar contracts in other North Carolina counties — although I did not check all of them — or in South Carolina. One long time county manager to whom I posed this question was speechless. It was a duck and below-the-table politics, regardless of how you dress it up.

Mark Swanger led the initiative to rewrite the county manager’s job description in April 2005. If you just review the job description, you will be hard pressed to find anything therein that is unreasonable. But, then, go back and re-read and consider why certain items were included. The point being is that there were problems with the county manager — what he was doing, and equally what he was not doing.

Mark Swanger also led an initiative to pare down the severance provisions of the county manager’s contract, namely by doing away with the automatic roll-over provision. A number of letters to the editor complained about the size of the buyout of the county manager — how much it cost.

They need to reflect on three things: It would have been considerably higher if it hadn’t been for Mark Swanger — to the extent that he had ended the roll-over provision — and the county manager’s buyout was a lump sum. There will be no one in that position for a period of five or so months until the new manager is selected. Thus, the actual cost incurred to the county is about half of the amount cited. This dog won’t hunt. Swanger actually saved the county money in the long run.

Further, look at the process that the board of commissioners is undertaking to fill this position. There will be a broad-based citizen involvement in reviewing applications, interviewing candidates, and in the final selection. Further, before the process even began, there was a forum for the public and various organizations to participate in determining the qualifications, characteristics of a desired candidate, and the approach to take for the search and ultimate decision-making. Consider how such a selection may have occurred pre-Mark Swanger.

There was a considerable and growing list of items of concern about the county manager. This vacancy provides the county an opportunity to look to the future and jettison a lot of baggage of the past, and the way things were done back then. Some folks, because of their personal interests, want a more closed government. They don’t want things in the open, and they certainly don’t want to be questioned or challenged. But, are they really concerned about the well being of the county at large and the public at large, or just their self interests?

Thus, it may be of benefit to drill down and attempt to determine the motives of those who were committed to ousting Mark Swanger. There are a lot of personal tire tracks on Swanger’s back. Mark could have slung mud back, but he wouldn’t stoop to that level. He served at the pleasure of the voters, and accepted the decision — even though the majority of the voters did not even vote, but rather defaulted to a small group out to get him defeated. This small group mobilized the vote, while the majority of the registered Democrats and those undeclared sat by.

Thus, the outcome of the election should not give any credence to the enumerated points made by the Political Action Committee, which are baseless — based on independent research, as chronicled in the media. Unfortunately, most readers probably did not read these articles to the end, and by just reviewing the title and the first four to six paragraphs, they may have taken away the opposite perspective.

Mark Swanger’s platform

Mark ran for county commission with a defined platform. He spelled out what he wanted to accomplish. He wanted a more open and accountable government. He wanted a more inclusive process in decision-making, and accountability. He did not want a continuation of quid pro quo — you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours — form of government.

He didn’t want decisions made behind closed doors without minutes of such meetings. He understands that to make good decisions — or at least put yourself in the position to increase the prospects of making good ones — you have to do research, homework and listen to people.

You also have to have good decision-making tools. A carpenter is limited without his tools. A dentist who just has a hammer as a tool is also just as ineffective. In this latter analogy, the absence of the right tools — or the presence of the wrong tools — can actually be dangerous.

Mark’s extensive background with the FBI in a management position taught him to be methodical, thorough and not just rely on his gut. He has run very organized meetings, and addressed those things that he had on his platform — completing many. He received a state award last year from the North Carolina Press Association for his commitment to openness in government.

Mark does not have any business interests or dealings that would compromise his decision-making. There is no account — by anyone, including his detractors — that he has done a favor for a crony, or has asked for one. There is no account — by anyone, including his detractors — that Mark has ever been untruthful or not forthright. One problem for Mark is that he was not playing the game. He wanted to run on his platform, his accomplishments, his vision, his qualifications, and his demonstrated commitment.

The EDC issue

At the time Mark was running for the county commission and once he was elected, the local economy was a major concern. There had been considerable job losses. Mark realized that the Economic Development Commission as configured was ineffective.

Thus, after he was elected chairperson in 2004, he orchestrated a broad-based ad hoc task force to address the situation. There were more than 30 folks involved from all industry categories, community leaders, county and town leaders, educators, as well as from the state. The outcome was a restructuring of the Economic Development Commission, which led to the current head being replaced.

Incidentally, this individual reported directly to the county manager who seemed uninterested and uninvolved in this important task, which was another consideration when evaluating the county manager.

The prior head of the EDC surfaced as a principal member of the Political Action Commission seeking Swanger’s ouster. Breaking up the EDC — a network of a small group that focused on self-interests — is bound to make them angry. Mark wanted it more open, responsive and responsible. He believed the public would want that, too. Unfortunately the majority of the voters eligible to vote in the primary did not weigh in.

Mark also realized that the small business incubator was not working. A small business incubator is designed to provide sub-market rent and service costs in order to help a start-up or small business to grow over a prescribed period of time. But, nothing was perking out of it. The companies just stayed in the incubator enjoying the low rent. The county manager, who was a member of the board overseeing the incubator, apparently thought this situation was fine.

Mark had growing concerns about the Council for Aging. He repeatedly instructed the county manager to pursue current financial statements with the council, but to no avail. The council continued to receive support from the county manager for their requests for more money. Mark continued to push back. Perhaps the support by the county manager and others was just due to laziness, but Mark did not want to pour any more money into their pot until he had answers and they met their obligations for reporting. Mark’s concerns, unfortunately, turned out to be valid.

Who’s behind it?

It is interesting that a developer who splits his time between Houston and Waynesville is a driving force behind the Political Action Committee to oust Mark Swanger. As an article in The Mountaineer chronicled, Mark Swanger asked some probing questions concerning a land deal involving this developer — namely the purchase of property from Haywood Advancement Foundation, a private economic development group, for a warehouse. Mark questioned whether a warehouse would do much create jobs. Although you had to wait until the end of the article, it was revealed that others involved believed that Mark’s concerns and questions were founded and in the best interest of the community — a community that Mark pledged to serve. The media, upon research, noted no credence whatsoever to the points that the Political Action Committee raised, and so reported.

The former head of the Economic Development Commission had approved the sale of the land to the developer before leaving his post, and after leaving his post was hired by the developer to coordinate and finalize the deal. Thus, without much probing, one can see that Mark’s opposition stemmed from personal matters — not about the good of the whole.

Thus, you have the disgruntled former head of the EDC, an out-of-town developer and friends of the former county manager launching a campaign to oust Mark Swanger. The televised ads simply said “don’t vote for Mark Swanger.” They were endorsing candidates — not because of their credentials — but because they were not Mark Swanger.

Skeeter Curtis stated that he “tried to distance himself from the negative ads ...,” and thus the Political Action Committee formed solely to defeat Mark Swanger rather than support candidates on their own merits. Their only criteria was to “not be Mark Swanger” or someone who might support him.

Give me a break. Apparently neither Noland or Kirkpatrick asked that they not be included in the (negative) ads, and not be endorsed by this PAC. Kirkpatrick should have distanced himself from this group. Is this the sort of endorsement he wants?

The Political Action Committee has said that they aren’t sure if they will be involved in the general election. But their intended work is not done. There are five commission seats — three of which are up for re-election. One of the five commissioners will emerge as the new chairperson of the county board — voted on by the other commissioners.

Also at stake is the three-person majority it takes for the board to get things done. Thus, they have to defeat Bill Upton — who they did not support in the primary — and Kevin Ensley, who they perceive as not in their camp.

Their specific concerns — and thus why Mark Swanger must go — under scrutiny did not hold any water. I believe they had more personal, closer-to-their-home issues rather than the good of the county.

The PAC said that they wanted to elect some members “who will think for themselves.” Well, Mark certainly thought for himself. Thus, the PAC actually wanted members to the contrary — those who will think like they do. Those who won’t ask probing questions and will just let the various power circles continue to function, to live with the deals to be hatched in such an environment. The question is, do you want to go back or go forward? This will be a very big election come November.

References were made to the “gang of three” on the board — Swanger, Mary Ann Enloe and Ensley — but, as reported in the press, Ensley voted in opposition against Swanger more times than Kirkpatrick did. Consider only a couple of 3-2 votes under Swanger, versus the (very) large numbers of split votes during the preceding boards.

Thus, the general election will be significant for the future of the county. If you want to go back to an earlier time, then don’t support Bill Upton and Kevin Ensley. I would recommend Kirkpatrick, Upton and Ensley for the three to elect come November. If you want a more open government, where decisions are not made in closed circles and not based on who you are and who you know — or what each can do for the other — then, you might want to give the situation some careful thought.

Then do something different and get out and vote. Because the issue is far greater than one person. Yes, Mark has been voted off the island, but the outcome, as it relates to the ongoing government, is still undecided. Mark Swanger could be back in 2008. Let’s hope so.

Further, there are rumblings that they, in some form or fashion, will attempt to influence the Waynesville town elections, under the guise of the watershed. But, it won’t be about the watershed decision, but most likely about matters close to their home and interests. Thus, this is a heads-up to the Waynesville Town Board.

It is believed that the matter involving the termination of the county manager is what did Mark in, along with the negative ads (again, whose premise was patently false). Mark stated that he wasn’t going to reciprocate and become part of the problem. Thus, those who voted to oust Mark Swanger, in essence threw the baby out with the bath water.

In today’s complex world, tough decisions have to be made for the well being of the county and the greater good. Unfortunately, doing so also tends to make one unpopular with some, especially if you start hitting them in the pocket book or breaking up power bases — as opposed to playing it safe and not doing anything that will put your re-election in jeopardy.

Mark was ideally suited for the time and situation. He was a well-educated and trained professional who is still young. He was devoting considerable time (30 to 35 hours a week) to the job. He was beyond reproach in terms of integrity and openness. He has good skills and tools for decision-making, relying on fact rather than emotion and personal interests. He included the ideas and suggestions of others, which is why the votes, under Mark’s leadership, were almost always unanimous. This by observation, even with the diversity of the members, has been one of the most harmonious boards in a very long time.

So, as a community we ultimately get what we deserve — by not voting or by believing negative ads and comments that, with any research at all, one can expose as false. If someone tries to sell you something by negative means — rather than presenting the characteristics and qualifications of those they endorse — you might want to consider their motives. Do we really want to elect officials in this manner?

You will get another opportunity to vote in November. Mark the date on your calendar. It will be a very significant election. Be there. Given the poor turnout in prior elections, your vote will most certainly matter. Don’t let others make these decisions for you, your future, and your children’s future. That is your privilege and obligation. Don’t let others — for their own personal agendas and self-interests — take the government from you. Here’s to record crowds at the polls in November.

(Lee Shelton lives in Maggie Valley and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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