After a decades-long battle to get it, the first interest payments on Swain County’s North Shore Road settlement are finally starting to trickle in.
Now to figure out what to do with it.
Of the $52 million payout, given to the county by the federal government as a consolation prize for a road that was promised in the 1940s but never built, $12.8 million is already in the bank. There’s another $4 million that’s promised this year — it’s in President Obama’s budget, anyway — although it could be a while until it finally makes its way into the county’s hands.
But after the long and arduous negotiations that led to the settlement, and speculation from all sides over what should be done with the money, there is, as yet, no plan for the interest that’s accruing on the settlement cash that’s already in the bank.
When an agreement was reached last summer, the idea of a steering committee peopled by community members was bandied about, with the intent of directing the county on the best use of the money. County Manager Kevin King said it’s a concept that has been mentioned in the intervening year by a few commissioners and community members, but no one’s formally proposed it in the commissioners’ twice-monthly meetings, so the cash is still sitting there. No committee has been formed, either.
But, said King, there’s not much money to spend yet, anyway. He estimates the fund will make around $200,000 in interest this fiscal year, which will be paid out at the end of June.
“Of course right now, with the economy, it's not drawing a lot of money,” said King. “It'll take a while to increase to the point at where they could do something with it.”
The funds are held in trust for the county by the North Carolina Department of the Treasurer, with only the interest remitted to the county each year. This year the interest has averaged less than 2 percent.
“If it was making more interest, it would probably be further on the front burner,” said Leonard Winchester.
Winchester is the chair of a group called Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, and he’s been instrumental in getting the money secured for the county and wants to see citizen input on how it is spent.
“I am in favor of a committee doing it. It's just that there's not that much interest there to be dealt with and so it's not been a hot topic,” Winchester said.
Commissioner Robert White concurs. He’s one of the commissioners in favor of a citizens group.
“We haven't accrued enough yet, but I assure you what I would love to see would be a citizen committee to look at this particular situation,” said White.
His vision is that the money would be used for special projects in the county, things that could never be done otherwise.
“My vision for that North Shore money is once we get enough accumulated, I want to see things that are going to improve Swain County in whatever manner that it may take. You also really have to look and see about things that could really step the county up another level,” said White.
A small portion of the interest money has already been spent, going to erect five commemorative granite pedestals in front of the county’s administration building, one detailing the North Shore Road saga. The project cost around $20,000, with $7,500 covered by a National Heritage Area grant and the rest of the bill footed by the interest money.
Nothing bigger, however, has been proffered as a potential project. King said he’s in no hurry to rush a decision on the funds, especially in this economy.
“At this point, we're just trying to let this grow,” said King. “And with the economy like it is, it's almost impossible to bank on any investments right now.”
Hypothermia is a possible cause of death for Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old Cherokee baby who died in January, according to a state autopsy report released last week.
The autopsy also showed indications of multiple bruises to the head and a broken arm.
Relatives had repeatedly warned Swain County Department of Social Services of suspected abuse and neglect by the baby’s caretaker, but DSS failed to take action. Swain DSS is now under investigation for an alleged cover-up, including falsifying records to hide any negligence on their part.
Aubrey had been living in a trailer with of her great aunt, Lady Bird Powell, 38. Relatives say there was no heat in the trailer. When Aubrey was brought to the Cherokee Indian Hospital the night she died, she was dressed in only a T-shirt. Her core body temperature was only 84 degrees and she was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
The doctor performing the autopsy could not decisively pinpoint a cause of death and officially deemed it “undetermined.”
“The cause of death certainly wasn’t obvious,” said Dr. Donald Jason, a pathologist at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
However, hypothermia remains a possible cause of death.
“We certainly have not ruled out hypothermia,” Jason said.
Hypothermia is difficult to confirm unequivocally through an autopsy and requires “a thorough scene investigation to support a cause of death as hypothermia,” Jason wrote in his report.
It will ultimately take “really good police work” to figure out what happened, Jason said.
“Just like in all science, one has a hypothesis that can be formed from what people say happened or reasonable guesses. The autopsy is one test,” Jason said.
Law enforcement failed to take the temperature inside the trailer. Their reports merely reflect that it was “cold,” Jason said.
Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said the investigation has not been called off just because the autopsy came back with an undetermined cause of death.
“We are still investigating. When the investigation is concluded, we’ll sit down with the District Attorney’s office and determine what if any charges will be coming out of this,” Cochran said.
While the autopsy did not confirm homicide, it likewise did not confirm death from natural causes.
“Questions have been raised. I don’t think they are answered by the autopsy alone,” Jason said.
The autopsy showed multiple bruises to the head that seem to have occurred within a day prior to death. It would not have been possible to receive all the bruises from a single fall, Jason said. However, whatever struck the child’s head was not severe enough to be linked to the cause of death or to the brain swelling.
It also revealed that both bones in Aubrey’s forearm had previously been broken. The break was consistent with a blow to the forearm, rather than a fall, Jason said. Jason said the injury would have been quite noticeable, however, Aubrey was never taken to the hospital or a doctor for it, according to law enforcement records.
In addition to claims by family members who say DSS had reason to suspect abuse and neglect but failed to act, court papers involving other children in Powell’s care reveal that Swain County social workers had reports of physical abuse of Aubrey months before her death.
Additional evidence has surfaced indicating Swain County social workers failed to act on reports of alleged abuse and neglect of a Cherokee baby who later died.
Court papers reveal that Swain County social workers had reports of physical abuse of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn by her caregiver, Ladybird Powell, months before she died in January.
The papers were filed by the Jackson County Department of Social Services in a custody case involving another child in Powell’s care.
Powell’s treatment of Aubrey and her still unexplained death weighed heavily in a petition filed by Jackson DSS to have an 8-year-old boy removed from Powell’s custody.
Although Powell lives in Cherokee, the tribe does not have its own agency to handle child abuse and neglect cases. Instead, the child welfare divisions of Jackson and Swain DSS manage cases on tribal land. Previously, Powell lived on the Swain County side of the reservation, so the case fell to Swain DSS.
But Powell has moved, as has the 8-year-old boy, who now lives on the Jackson County side of the reservation, giving Jackson DSS jurisdiction.
The petition filed by Jackson County DSS reveals the following:
• Swain DSS initiated an investigation into suspected child abuse and neglect involving Aubrey in November 2010. (This was the second such investigation in three months. Until now, however, only the first had been made public.)
• The report of abuse made to Swain DSS in November claimed that Powell “smacked Aubrey in the mouth when she cried and jerked Aubrey around,” and “knocked Aubrey off a bed intentionally.”
• Swain County social workers visited Powell’s home three days after the report came in. They had Powell sign a statement saying, “Ladybird will not physically punish Aubrey.” Aubrey was 13 months old at the time.
The first investigation of abuse and neglect by Swain DSS was in September. In that case, Powell claimed bruises on Aubrey were the result of a fall down the stairs.
A DSS worker deemed the report of abuse “unsubstantiated” after one visit to the home. While he told Powell to take Aubrey to the doctor and have her injuries examined, he never followed up to see what the doctor found — or whether the doctor’s visit even took place. He later fabricated a report claiming Aubrey had been seen by a doctor when in fact she never had, according to law enforcement records.
Swain County DSS is under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation for an alleged cover-up. An interim director has been brought in, and three DSS board members have been replaced.
Ruth McCoy, one of Aubrey’s great-aunts, said there were other complaints from relatives ignored by Swain DSS — one of which she observed firsthand.
In November, McCoy heard from a relative that DSS had shown up at Powell’s trailer to take away a 10-year-old boy who was living there at the time. McCoy drove over to the trailer and implored the DSS workers to remove Aubrey as well. There was no heat in the trailer, and it was obvious to the social workers, McCoy said.
“The social workers were sitting there on the couch with their hands clasped between their legs to keep warm,” McCoy said.
One of them was Swain DSS Program Manager T.L. Jones, second in command at the agency. Jones even went out to his vehicle to get a jacket, McCoy said. Meanwhile, Aubrey was dressed in a jacket and toboggan inside the trailer. McCoy asked if Jones was going to take Aubrey, too.
“I said ‘What about her?’ and he said, ‘That’s another case.’ They were removing a 10-year-old and there was no heat but they didn’t take her,” McCoy said.
The night of Jan. 10 when Aubrey died, emergency room doctors at Cherokee Indian Hospital recorded her core body temperature as only 84 degrees, according to law enforcement records.
The reason for removing the 10-year-old was documented as drug and/or alcohol use by the caregiver, according to a Swain DSS report. The caregiver listed on the report was the boy’s biological mother, Mel Toinetta, who was living at the trailer with Powell.
The 10-year-old was placed in the care of McCoy.
Doctors at Cherokee Indian Hospital the night Aubrey died suspected drugs may have been in the baby’s system and contributed to her death, according to the Jackson DSS petition.
No charges have been filed against Powell in connection with Aubrey’s death. An autopsy report, including a toxicology report, is still pending. The autopsy and toxicology report have been completed, but have not yet been reviewed and cleared for public release. The Smoky Mountain News has filed a request to receive a copy of the report when it is made public.
It appears Swain DSS was waiting for the results — which should clarify a cause of death — before deciding what to do about Powell’s custody of the 8-year-old boy.
The day after Aubrey’s death, a Swain DSS worker visited Powell’s trailer to check on the boy. Powell had legal custody of the child since he was 2. Recently, he had been living with Powell on and off, but seemed to be spending more time lately at the home of Powell’s ex-husband.
That must have seemed preferable to the case worker, as she wrote in her report that the boy should live with Powell’s ex-husband rather than Powell “until notified by DSS.” But that was crossed out and replaced with “until the toxicology report is in.”
Powell made derogatory and threatening comments to Swain social workers over the pending toxicology report, including that she would make them “eat the results when they come back negative,” according to the court petition.
The boy’s school expressed concern over the informal arrangement that placed the boy with Powell’s ex-husband. Since Powell still had legal custody, the school had nothing on file to prevent her from picking the boy up.
Jackson DSS apparently does not approve either, deeming the temporary placement with Powell’s ex-husband an inappropriate child-care arrangement, according to the petition filed by Jackson DSS alleging neglect of the boy.
The petition states that the boy “lives in an environment injurious to the juvenile’s welfare.”
A county commissioner got financial aid from the Swain County Department of Services last year while his niece was serving as the DSS director, prompting the development of a new conflict of interest policy.
The new policy prohibits the DSS director from approving benefits for family members. At least three family members of DSS Director Tammy Cagle got financial payments from the agency — including her uncle, County Commissioner Steve Moon.
Cagle’s role in approving the benefits was questioned by the DSS board last October but they found no wrongdoing, according to board members.
“The board met and we reviewed each instance, and we found no illegalities concerning either state or federal policies. We reviewed it very carefully, but everything was above board,” said Bob Thomas, a former DSS board member. “It was maybe a question of judgment, but there was nothing illegal about anything that was done.”
Moon received financial assistance from DSS after his house burned down last year. Moon said he does not know whether Cagle personally signed off on the aid. His wife made the application, he said. Moon owns a tire store and his wife has a job with the school system.
Cagle was recently suspended with pay due to an unrelated investigation of the agency by the State Bureau of Investigation. DSS workers have been accused of a cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby in an attempt hide potential negligence on their part.
Moon was the lone county commissioner who believed Cagle should remain in her post during the SBI investigation. County commissioners voted 4 to 1 to call on the DSS board to put Cagle on administrative leave after she was named in a search warrant. Moon did not recuse himself from the vote even though Cagle is his niece.
The names of Cagle’s other family members who received benefits, and the amount they received is not public record.
Cagle’s home phone number is not listed. Attempts to contact her through DSS’ attorney were unsuccessful.
Minutes of a DSS board meeting last October show the board discussed the issue in closed session, citing confidential personnel matters as the reason for closing the meeting.
Upon coming out of closed session, however, the board announced that Cagle had done nothing wrong. The board passed a resolution affirming support for Cagle.
“The Swain County DSS board fully supports the director in performing the duties as required by the county, state and federal guidelines,” the resolution stated.
Cagle then “expressed her appreciation of the board’s support,” according to the minutes of the meeting.
The following month, however, the board passed a conflict of interest policy that prohibits the director from approving assistance for family members or signing their benefit checks.
“At no time will the Director be involved with the decision making process of determining eligibility for any program,” the new policy states.
Family members of the director must apply through the same outlets as the public would — namely with the supervisor over the specific aid program they are applying for, whether its food stamps or one-time emergency rent assistance. In addition, the program manager, who serves as second in command for the agency, must approve the benefits and sign checks made out to the director’s family members.
The purpose of the policy was to prevent Cagle from being in a situation where she would have to explain or justify herself, according to Jim Gribble, a DSS board member at the time.
“We just wanted to remove any suspicion toward her for approving anything for her family,” Gribble said.
The conflict of interest policy was approved by the board in November and devised with input from a state DSS liaison.
Thomas said the same protocol should extend to any DSS worker.
“Anything involving any employee’s family needed to be served by someone other than a family member,” Thomas said.
Thomas and Gribble said the issue was first raised by the county manager or county commissioners, who expressed concerns about benefits being paid out to Cagle’s family members.
“There were a couple questions raised by commissioners as to whether assistance given was legal or not,” Thomas said.
Gribble said the questions were raised by the county manager.
While the DSS board cleared Cagle, it does not appear the DSS board independently verified whether the particular family members qualified for the benefits.
When asked if they were eligible, Gribble said “I assume so,” but added that, “The board doesn’t do eligibility.”
Since the specific benefits are not public record, it is not certain what aid program Moon tapped after his house burned down.
Moon said it was emergency assistance. However, he would not be eligible for that program according to the guidelines. Emergency assistance provides money “for families in short-term financial crisis due to unusual circumstances,” but the household must have a child under the age of 18 and be living below the poverty level, according to the eligibility guidelines.
An interim director is now at the helm of the Swain County Department of Social Services, bringing to the table an impressive resume with a focus on child welfare.
“That was real important to us,” said Georgianna Carson, a newly appointed DSS board member.
Jerry Smith served as a DSS director for 25 years in three different counties, including a year as president of the North Carolina Social Services Association. He also worked as the director of a children’s home after retiring from DSS and has written two books about foster homes and orphanages.
Smith’s background in child welfare is notable given the controversy surrounding the embattled agency. He is stepping in for former director Tammy Cagle, who was put on administrative leave with pay during an investigation into the death of a Cherokee baby. DSS failed to remove the baby from her caretaker and later conspired to cover up their own negligence, according to law enforcement records.
Four of the five DSS board members are new following resignations of former board members in the wake of the controversy.
Smith’s past experience as a DSS director is also critical. He knows the intricacies of the agency — with its maze of state and federal funding formulas and stacks of manuals that prescribe state and federal laws and policies.
“He is going to be a real asset for Swain County,” Carson said.
Smith was brought on board just two days after Cagle was put on leave. County leaders already had been in contact with the state Department of Health and Human Services to help identify a candidate to take over the agency.
The DSS board can’t say when, or if, Cagle might return to her post, or how long Smith will remain in place.
“He is going to be here as long as we need for him to be. I feel for sure it will be several months,” Carson said.
The agency is conducting its own internal investigation independently of the SBI, according to Justin Greene, the attorney for Swain DSS. That internal investigation will presumably determine whether any employees should be disciplined or terminated.
For now the county is having to pay Smith’s salary on top of Cagle’s, who is only on administrative leave. The county has a contract with an executive staffing firm for Smith’s services at the rate of $60 an hour, a portion of which the firm likely keeps as commission. That translates to an annual salary of $124,000.
As for the SBI investigation, no one knows when it will end.
“There is no way for us to speculate how long the investigation may take,” said Jennifer Canada, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Justice. “Once it is complete, the SBI will turn over a report of its finding to the local district attorney for review. The DA will determine whether to file any charges.”
Carson said the death of the baby in January is a tragedy and needs a thorough and unbiased investigation, but it should not define DSS.
“Justice has got to be served, but at the same time we have got to mend fences,” Carson said. “I think people have gotten so focused on this one issue they have forgotten that this agency does so many things for the people of Swain County. We have so many good employees.”
Meanwhile, the chain of command for DSS Attorney Justin Greene will be altered. He will answer directly to the DSS board rather than the director. The SBI investigation and the turmoil leading up to Cagle’s suspension revealed the potential for conflicts of interest if Greene is under the director’s command.
The DSS board meets the last Monday of the month at 5:30 p.m. The old DSS board would only allow members of the public to speak if they requested to do so in writing two weeks prior to the meeting, and even then they could be turned down if their topic wasn’t considered fitting. While county commissioners and town boards are required by law to have public comment periods, appointed bodies like the DSS board are not.
Nonetheless, the new board has changed the policy and will allow anyone to speak up to five minutes.
“We know we are not elected officials, but at the same time we are there to serve the people of Swain County and we didn’t want to seem like we were being aloof or unable to be contacted if need be,” said Carson.
Jerry Smith has his masters in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill, considered among the best in the field nationally. From 1973 to 1997 he served as a DSS director in Washington and Wilson counties in North Carolina and Tazewell County in Virginia. He served as president of the N.C. Social Services Association in 1990. After retiring from DSS work, he was the director for two years at Holston Methodist Home for Children in Knoxville, Tenn., and has continued to provide services there as a trainer. He is the author of two books about foster homes and orphanages.
The director of Swain County Department of Social Services has been put on leave with pay following a nearly clean sweep of the DSS board.
A newly constituted DSS board placed Director Tammy Cagle on “nondisciplinary investigative status to investigate allegations of performance or conduct deficiencies” following a unanimous vote of the DSS board Monday (March 28).
DSS plans to hire an interim director by the week’s end, according to Robert White, a Swain County commissioner and new member of the DSS board. The DSS board will meet Wednesday to consider a person for the post.
White, a former school superintendent, said the entire situation has been very difficult, in fact the most difficult he has ever faced. White said he hopes it can be resolved sooner rather than later.
Swain DSS is under investigation for an alleged cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby, Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn. Relatives had repeatedly warned DSS of suspected abuse and neglect by the baby’s caretaker, but DSS failed to take action and later doctored records to hide any negligence on their part, according to the law enforcement investigation.
So far, no charges have been filed against Aubrey’s caregiver in connection with her death, nor have charges been filed in the obstruction of justice investigation into DSS.
Despite public demands that those employees named in the investigation — including the director — be put on leave with pay pending the outcome, the former DSS board reached an impasse on whether to do so.
Swain County commissioners condemned the former board for failing to take action and called for them to resign.
Four of the five DSS board members are now brand-new through a combination of local and state appointments: Georgeanna Carson, Tom Decker, Sarah Wachacha and White. Only Frela Beck remains from the previous board.
The DSS board only has hiring and firing authority over the director. However, an interim director once appointed could put the remaining employees named in the investigation on leave.
Family members of Aubrey thanked the new DSS board for taking the allegations seriously.
“I know it is just the first step to getting where we need to be, but it takes a lot off our shoulders to know somebody is taking this seriously,” said Leighann McCoy, one of Aubrey’s family members who attended the meeting of the new DSS board this week.
Ruth McCoy, Aubrey’s great-aunt, feared the SBI probe would be hampered if those in positions of authority named in investigation remained in their job.
“Now maybe people will step forward and start speaking,” McCoy said.
The fight between Swain and Graham counties is growing ever deeper in a dispute marked by lawsuits, counter suits and pleas to the General Assembly over who is entitled to a greater share of payments off the Fontana Dam.
The stakes are high — hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the table — for the two small, rural counties. The row centers over payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT, the money that counties get when federal land holdings erode the property tax base.
Swain and Graham have gotten PILT funds monthly from Tennessee Valley Authority since the Fontana Dam was erected in the early ‘40s.
The formula for calculating how much each county is entitled to was thrown into dispute last year, however. The N.C. Department of Revenue ruled that Graham should get a bigger share since more of the generators were housed on Graham County’s side.
The ruling in Graham’s favor will cost Swain more than $200,000 a year.
But that wasn’t quite enough. Graham also wanted six decades of back payments they felt they were owed — up to $15 million. So in January, they filed suit to get it.
Swain County, of course, disagrees. They’ve filed a countersuit, decrying Graham’s claims on a multitude of different grounds, hoping that one will stick. Too many years have passed, Swain argued, and if Graham wanted the money, well, they should have spoken up sooner.
But they didn’t stop there. Swain County has countersued claiming that if anyone was slighted their fair share from TVA and was entitled to a back payments, it should be Swain.
While the latest state formula for calculating PILT payments is based on TVA’s property holdings in each county, that’s not always been the case.
Until 2009, state law said that each county was supposed to get PILT money based on the percentage of lost tax revenue. Since Swain gave up more land when the lake was created — 16 percent of the county, as opposed to Graham’s 2.5 percent — it lost far more tax revenue, and thus should have been getting a greater share of TVA’s PILT money all those years.
“If the Department of Revenue had properly calculated the percentage of lost tax revenue to each county and distributed the PILT revenue accordingly, Swain County would have received substantially more PILT revenue than Graham County received,” said the countersuit.
Concerned, though, that the counterclaim wasn’t quite enough to solidify their position, Swain County commissioners got together to formulate other tactics.
To add firepower to their arsenal, Swain Commissioners are seeking special legislation from the General Assembly.
Swain wants to change the way PILT payments are calculated. Instead of awarding PILT money based on the value of TVA’s assets — such a which county the generators sit in — it should be based on the value of the land removed from the property tax roles by the lake as a whole.
While Graham’s got more of the hydropower equipment on its side of the county line, Swain has a good deal more land under water than Graham does. Swain stands to benefit substantially.
Swain’s proposed formula for calculating TVA payments is consistent with the PILT formula for national forest service land. Each county gets PILT money based on the acres of land that lie in the national forest and thus have been removed from the tax roles.
Swain also wants the property line between the two counties redrawn. The historical property line was the center of the river channel, but that’s not the boundary currently recognized currently by the state — instead the latest boundary line awards more land to Graham. Swain wants the historical boundary be reinstated, since the more land Swain can claim its lost when the lake was flooded, the more it could get in PILT payments.
Currently, Swain doesn’t have anyone to sponsor the legislation in either the Senate or House so face, and could be a tough sell.
In the House, Swain is represented by Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. If Haire chose to take up the cause, he could likely face opposition from Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, who represents Graham.
In the Senate, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, may opt to steer clear, as he represents both counties.
None have yet weighed in, and Swain commissioners were reluctant to address the matter, saying they had a maneuver in the works it was best not to comment on.
Graham officials are similarly tight-lipped, though they declined to speak because the issue is pending litigation.
“We have approached people in the General Assembly, but we haven’t done anything one way or the other,” said Swain Commissioner David Monteith.
For Graham’s part, their attorney Charles Meeker, who is also the mayor of Raleigh, said the county has rejected all of Swain’s claims outright.
“We don’t believe that they are factually accurate,” said Meeker, and that, he said, was that.
The suits are scheduled to come before the Graham County Superior Court in early April, though Swain has applied for a change of venue. There is, as yet, no timeline for if or when the resolutions will see the General Assembly floor.
In the sunny, windowed front room of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, a group of people are gathered around a table littered with maps, the light from the windows filtering through more maps and photos and wishlists that have been taped there. They’re a conglomeration of planners, business-owners and residents and they’re here to discuss the future of Bryson City.
In another corner on a cluster of leather couches and wooden chairs, more locals sit with team members from HandMade in America, who are assessing the town’s needs and wants, and will ultimately make recommendations on how to get there.
This is the second assessment Bryson City’s done with HandMade in America, a regional nonprofit that promotes crafts and cultural heritage as an avenue to economic development.
The town has been part of the group’s small towns program for nearly 15 years now, but their last assessment was in 1999. And, needless to say, a lot has changed since then.
So HandMade leaders decided it was time to bring pretty much everyone back to the table — business owners, the outdoor community, non-profits, churches, artists, residents, business organizations, even students — and ask them what they want their own town to become.
Luke Perry with the Asheville Design Center, who is helping with the project, spent the morning stationed in front of various maps of the town, sketching people’s ideas and wishes onto sheets of overlayed tracing paper. The idea, he says, is to find patterns or connections between what people want and how it can be achieved, connections that might not always be obvious.
Take the Tuckasegee River, a concept that kept resurfacing as people drifted in and out of the brainstorming session, looking at the aerial views of the town’s streets and postulating what could make them better.
“How can we activate the river?” That, Perry says, is a key question the community has been asking for years but never solved.
Everyone kept mentioning how inaccessible the river is — apart from Island Park, the best you can do is admire the waterway from the bridge and hope you don’t get sideswiped by the traffic flying by. And that leads to another problem: by car is how most to get to Island Park — there’s no dedicated sidewalk — and many other places outside the small downtown district.
So that led Perry and his colleagues to start sketching out how, exactly, the town could be more bike-and-pedestrian friendly, while giving residents and visitors better access to the river at the same time.
“One of the biggest things we’re doing here is telling stories,” says Perry. “How do you tell the story of Bryson City?”
Judi Jetson is at the head of the effort. She’s the director of the small towns program at HandMade in America, and it’s her job to get those stories, going around asking people what makes their community great and what could make it better.
For her, assessments like these are about creating the intersection between idea and implementation.
“This is not a pie-in-the-sky group,” she says. “It’s easy to have ideas, but if you never find out how to implement [your plan], it just sits on the shelf and nothing gets done with it.”
Perry echoes those sentiments. “We don’t want something that’s going to be a great plan and published with pretty pictures, but it’s never used,” he says.
So the ideal end-product of the exercise will be an action plan handed over to town officials, listing out 40 to 60 real — and feasible — suggestions for improvements, complete with recommendations on how to make them work.
For Bryson City, a lot of what Jeston et al. heard from residents wasn’t just about improved pedestrian access, but more amenities for the community.
“This county needs a recreation center,” said Megan Cookston, who works with Yellow Rose Realty. “That’s the one thing I miss about living in Jackson County.”
Others repeated the general sentiment, noting that while there is a surfeit of stuff for tourists to do, activities and events geared towards locals are relatively few and far between.
It’s insider knowledge like this that Jetson says is vital to making a helpful, useful plan for a town. That nugget, for example, is something that she says she’d never have known without getting in-depth local feedback.
But appraisals like these aren’t just about slating towns, enumerating everything they don’t have to offer. There’s a reason people move to and stay in Bryson City, and it isn’t just the pretty scenery. So looking at what works, and why, is a good place to start when seeking to ferret out improvements.
Jeston and her team did interviews with a number of groups throughout the day, but in this particular idea session, many identified the small town’s smallness as its best asset, topped off by its naturally appealing locale.
“Well, just look around,” exclaimed Cookston, when Jetson asked the assembled crowd how they would pitch the place to outsiders. “And you can be in the National Park in three minutes.”
Diane Jones, who runs the Rocky Face Mountain development, said the chance to get out of the rat race is what makes the town so attractive. “That’s why I moved here,” says Jones. “There are people coming out of Atlanta to get away from the neon and get to the old-time Mayberry.”
Pulling against that slightly, though, is the truth that this is, after all, the 21st century, the digital age. Old-time and slow-paced are both valuable, but on the other side of the coin is the real need for connection, a struggle in the area.
High-speed internet and wi-fi were both sources of considerable ire for some locals, who made the insightful point that the idyllic atmosphere is only desirable long-term or even, increasingly, short-term inasmuch as it is connected to the wider, less-idyllic world.
That’s a problem that will probably be closer to the large-scale end on the recommendation continuum.
But Jetson says that’s the point. Yes, everything they suggest will be doable, but some things are more quickly completed than others.
“It’s going to be little things, like cleaning up a piece of property that’s really an eyesore, to more ambitious things,” she says. And with this visit, her team is taking the first steps toward helping the town work, in big and small ways, to make it a better, more vibrant place for locals and tourists alike.
Swain County social workers and supervisors named in a State Bureau of Investigation probe are no longer welcome to work child welfare cases on tribal land.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians asked the Swain County Department of Social Services last week to send other workers instead when dealing with cases on the Qualla Boundary.
Swain DSS is under investigation for an alleged cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby. Relatives had repeatedly warned DSS of suspected abuse and neglect by the baby’s caretaker, but DSS failed to take action and later doctored records to hide any negligence on their part, according to the law enforcement investigation.
An SBI search warrant named five employees, including the DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones. Despite public demands that those employees be put on leave with pay pending the outcome of the investigation, only one has been suspended.
The rest remain in their jobs, which include duties on the reservation — from caseworkers investigating alleged cases of abuse to Cagle attending child welfare committee meetings with tribal officials. That has created a source of tension in Cherokee.
“I think while we are in this investigative period we should ask these guys to step aside in their responsibilities until we can figure things out,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks. “This is a high profile issue and in light of everything that has occurred, I think it is in the best interest of all related parties.”
The request came from the chief’s office and was run past the Division of Health and Human Services in Raleigh. The state umbrella agency claimed it didn’t have jurisdiction over the job duties and case assignments of Swain County social workers.
“Any decision regarding this request would be made by Swain County DSS management,” according to Lori Walston, a spokesperson for the state agency.
Swain DSS Attorney Justin Greene, who has served as a de facto spokesperson for the agency during the tragedy, said Swain DSS would honor the tribe’s request. The social workers named will no longer work on the reservation in any capacity, even testifying in tribal court in ongoing cases they were assigned to.
“Swain County DSS employees not involved in the investigation will replace those five DSS employees in all matters occurring on the Qualla Boundary so that the delivery of social services to the enrolled members of the Tribe continues unimpeded,” according to a statement by Annette Tarnawsky, the tribe’s Attorney General.
Swain County DSS has an agreement with the tribe to perform child welfare services on the reservation. Swain DSS is reimbursed for all the services it provides on the reservation.
Over half its total child welfare caseload — and therefore half the budget — is tied to cases involving enrolled members, according to DSS reports.
Cherokee is pursuing the creation of its own child welfare team, which would handle cases involving enrolled members rather than using on Swain County DSS, according to discussions at a tribal council meeting this month. Swain DSS stands to lose considerable funding if such a plan goes through.
Relatives of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn have been calling for the suspension of the social workers for four weeks, as have the majority of Swain County commissioners. Commissioners said their request has nothing to do with whether all employees named are guilty of wrongdoing, but is merely a matter of protocol to protect the integrity of the investigation.
But the DSS board, which holds the final say, reached an impasse on whether to suspend the employees. Commissioners were perturbed the DSS board failed to reach a decision and called for the board to resign. Three of the five indeed resigned, but commissioners then found themselves on the receiving end of public backlash from friends and family of the DSS board.
Two members remaining on the DSS board are Frela Beck, an enrolled member of the tribe, and County Commissioner Robert White.
Of the three vacant positions, one seat gets appointed by the county and two by the state Division of Health and Human Services.
County commissioners last week appointed Georganna Carson to the county’s vacant seat.
The state this week made its two appointments: Tom Decker, a teacher at Swain County’s alternative school, and Sarah Wachacha, a tribal member who works in administration at the Cherokee Indian Hospital.
A meeting of the newly constituted DSS board will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, at the Swain DSS office. The board will presumably take up the issue of whether to suspend the employees in question until the investigation is concluded.
While the new board members will have to get up to speed on DSS policy, Decker said he is looking forward to the challenge and will not be distracted by the media attention surrounding the controversy.
“Once the new board sits down I am sure we will be able to work together well to do whatever needs to be done,” said Decker, who moved here 10 years ago. “I volunteered because I care about the people of Swain County and especially the children.”