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Despite widespread criticism of the job he’s done, Swain Sheriff Curtis Cochran proved unstoppable in this year’s Republican primary. Cochran buried opponent Wayne Dover in a landslide with more than 77 percent of the vote.

In November, Cochran will go head-to-head with Democrat primary winner John Ensley, who had an impressive run with nearly 29 percent of the vote despite competing with a whopping seven other candidates.

If the primary is any indication, the November race will be close. At the end of Tuesday’s primary, Ensley walked away with 513 votes, while Cochran received 525.

“I’m just in awe of how may people came out and supported me,” said Ensley. “There were a lot of great candidates.”

Cochran said he had been hoping for a landslide, and characterized the win as evidence of success during his first term.

“I think the support shows that the people are pleased with the job we’ve done,” said Cochran.

Ensley said his emphasis on community involvement in the sheriff’s office, more education for officers, outreach programs in the school system and better networking with surrounding counties all contributed to his win.

During the primary, almost all candidates emphasized their experience in law enforcement, drawing a sharp contrast between them and Cochran, who had no prior law enforcement training before being elected sheriff.

But Cochran has retorted that he is the lone candidate with on-the-job experience as sheriff. He has undergone training and participated in seminars since taking office as well.

Cochran said despite many candidates touting their experience, no one could ever say they’ve had enough training. “It’s a learning process every day,” said Cochran. “We run across something new just about on a daily basis.”

Ensley is the owner of Yellow Rose Realty but is also a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer. He has worked as a jailer in Florida and worked for Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years as well.

Controversial issues were not few or far between during Cochran’s first term as sheriff: a suspected murderer escaped from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran sued Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for discriminating against him by essentially reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchased a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail continued to sit half-empty.

Candidates were lining up and campaigning more than a year before the actual primary. Now, the focus will be on the upcoming general election.

Ensley plans to emphasize his 18 years of business experience, in addition to his law enforcement training. “You need to know the law, but also be an administrative and PR guy [to be sheriff],” said Ensley, adding that he knows how to run an organization and build working relationships.

Ensley says he will also cooperate with county commissioners if elected as sheriff. “It is imperative that we do that,” said Ensley.

Cochran said he hopes both Republicans and Democrats will come together to support him in November.

Similar to his last election campaign, Cochran will focus on eradicating drugs in Swain County.

“We have taken a stand against drugs from day one, and we’re going to continue that,” said Cochran.

Swain County sheriff

Democrat – one winner advances

John Ensley: 513

Mitchell B. Jenkins: 285

David Thomas: 236

Julius F. Taylor: 218

Steve Buchanan: 197

Steve Ford: 150

David Franklin: 119

Chuck Clifton: 53

Republican - one winner advances

Curtis Cochran: 525

Wayne Dover: 156

Other sheriff races:

Haywood County sheriff

Democratic primary

Bobby Suttles*: 3,720

Dean Henline: 966

*The winner will face a Republican challenger in the fall.

Macon County sheriff

Democrat – one advances

George Lynch: 965

Richard Davis: 776

Ricky Dehart: 114

Swain County citizens might have been more thrilled about a candidate forum that was held Thursday, April 22, than the people actually running.

About 75 residents came to forum to see candidates candidly answer questions submitted by fellow citizens. It was an unprecedented opportunity to get directly acquainted with candidates.

But only four of the 10 sheriff candidates showed up, and only one out of three candidates for county chairman made it to the forum. Nine out of 14 commissioner candidates came that night to speak to citizens on pressing issues.

Among those who were missing were elected officials, including Sheriff Curtis Cochran, Commissioners Steve Moon — who had already agreed to attend a Chamber of Commerce dinner that night — and Philip Carson.

Sheriff candidates John Ensley and David Franklin committed to the event but didn’t show up. Sheriff candidate Steve Ford sent his regrets, as he had to undergo an unforeseen medical procedure, though he expected to be released a few days later.

Commissioner candidate Jerry Shook openly expressed his disappointment with those who did not participate in the forum.

“Everyone has been cordially invited to this,” said Shook. “There is some who chose not to be here, chose not to share their opinions with you, chose to keep their ideals behind closed doors...We didn’t, and I will not.”

Several citizens expressed the same sentiments as Shook.

“I’m disappointed more candidates didn’t turn out,” said Valerie Harrison, a senior advocate in Swain County. “If you’re running, why weren’t you here tonight?... This, to me, is important. I would like to have seen this place packed.”

Despite less than full participation by candidates, the evening was full of healthy discussion about issues ranging from animal control to open government to Swain’s drug problems. Citizens said they were grateful for the opportunity to meet the candidates.

Bryson City resident Mary Ann Byrd said she’s usually skeptical of media coverage in general and wanted to see how the candidates answered questions, unmediated by the press.

“I want to hear it from their mouths,” said Byrd.

Bill DeHart, 62, said the night was a golden opportunity to learn more about candidates and he couldn’t imagine why any Swain County resident would miss the forum.

When asked what he looked for in his leaders, he replied, “Somebody that doesn’t bullshit.”

“I think that’s the highest priority,” said DeHart. “If you say you’re going to do it, do it. If you can’t do it, don’t say you can.”

John Howard, a 37-year-old Swain County resident, said he was concerned about the relationship between the sheriff’s department and the county commissioners.

Howard added, “I’m tired of the good ol’ boy system. People need to be held accountable.”

His wife, Leanne Howard, 44, said curbing the drug problem should be a first priority, as should making law enforcement’s response to crime more consistent. Howard said she’d once called in to inform the sheriff’s department of a suspicious car in the neighborhood. “They called the SWAT team,” said Howard. But when she informed them of an identity theft case, in which she lost $1,500, she never got a call back.

Bryson City resident Beth Zimmerman said she was concerned about unemployment in the county. She supported sheriff candidate David Thomas’s idea of hiring staff locally.

Meanwhile, Harrison said she wished candidates had paid more attention to senior citizens. Only commissioner candidate Raymond Nelson and sheriff candidate Steve Buchanan mentioned the elderly in their speeches.

Harrison said there’s a significant senior citizen population in Swain County that needs to be attention from county leaders.

“These are people who’ve been here for generations,” said Harrison.

Formulating the forum

Two Swain County citizens, Robin Hamilton and Vickie Crews put together the forum after going through an election cycle in Swain County without knowing any of the candidates.

Hamilton said she’d initially hoped other citizens would lead the effort. “I was hoping someone else would take the ball and run with it, but nobody did,” said Hamilton.

So the duo got to work contacting candidates, lining up a venue, recruiting Smoky Mountain News Publisher Scott McLeod as the moderator and publicizing the forum.

Citizens and candidates both said they were grateful for their hard work.

“This was a tremendous service,” said Harrison.

All candidates were given time for opening and closing speeches. Supplanting the usual format where all candidates answer the same questions, each Swain candidate was asked a different question.

Below are some notable comments from each candidate:

Sheriff’s race

Wayne Dover, Republican sheriff candidate: “I will give you my word — There will be an officer 24/7 dedicated to nothing but animal control and animal care.”

Steve Buchanan, Democrat sheriff candidate said being a newcomer is a positive: “I haven’t lived here my whole life... As a sheriff’s candidate, I don’t owe anyone anything, I don’t have to repay favors.”

David Thomas, Democrat sheriff candidate: “I’m going to have an open door policy with all the commissioners and citizens of Swain County.”

Chuck Clifton, Democrat sheriff candidate: “How can you be a leader of a law enforcement agency if you have no knowledge? There is no substitute for experience and education in law enforcement.”

Commissioners races

Mike Clampitt, Republican candidate for chairman: “My one and only promise is I will be accountable to you because you are the ones that put me there... This county will be a team. Public service will be our business.”

Tommy Woodard, Democrat commissioner candidate: “What we need is openness and honesty, Swain County reunited with a common vision and a common goal. This board of commissioners has the ability to start that process.”

Raymond Nelson, Democrat commissioner candidate on interest from North Shore road settlement: “We need to have an input on what you want done with it. Use it wisely, use it frugally, use it for the benefit of all and not a few.”

John Herrin, Republican commissioner candidate: “Elect me because I’m going to come hunting you down, and we’re going to run this government together.”

William (Neil) Holden, Libertarian commissioner candidate: “As a Libertarian, I owe no allegiance to party politics. That is one thing that sets me aside from all these good folks you see here today.”

Gerald (Jerry) Shook, Republican commissioner candidate: “I don’t take the backseat. I’m not afraid to face any issues... We need to stand up and stop taking the bullying, and we need to start fighting for the community.

Judy Miller, Democrat commissioner candidate, in direct response to Shook: “Fighting’s good, but consensus is better.” Miller supports public involvement in creating a long-term plan for Swain County.

David Monteith, incumbent Democrat commissioner candidate after being asked whether he supports the county manager style of government or the older style, where department heads reported to commissioners: “I would like to go to the other style of government. I think it better keeps commissioners more involved in all of the decisions. The more commissioners know, the better decisions they can make.”

Billy Woodard, Democrat commissioner candidate: “We got to capitalize on what little revenue we have, promote our beautiful mountains, our quiet lifestyle, and our small business.”

Andy Parris, Republican commissioner candidate on the budget and tax increases: “I want to see what we have, what we can do with it before we go pushing anything else on the people.”

In the lead-up to the primary elections on May 4, criticism of the current administration is stewing underground in Swain County.

Most commissioner candidates admit reluctantly that much of that frustration is directed toward County Manager Kevin King, though few would openly criticize King themselves. Others have heard complaints that county commissioners seem to sit back while King makes decisions for them.

Complaints include concerns over King’s close family relationships with his uncle, Philip Carson, a sitting commissioner who is running for chairman; and Sue Carson King, Kevin King’s mother, who is running for clerk of court.

Still others protest what they perceive as a lack of transparency and entrenched partisanship in county government.

King characterized the criticisms as being baseless and simply a routine part of the usual election cycle.

“The county manager is always looked at,” said King. “[But] he is the one that is basically following through with the orders of the board.”

Moreover, King said the economic downturn is playing a major role in citizens’ dissatisfaction. “In this recession, everybody’s wanting to point the blame,” said King.

Since political backlash goes with the territory, county managers are offered hefty severance packages that discourage politically-motivated firings.

King’s contract, which doesn’t expire until December 2013, comes with a particularly generous golden parachute. If he gets fired without adequate cause, he would continue receiving his salary plus benefits until his contract runs out. King’s current annual salary is $65,776. In comparison, Jackson County’s manager makes $144,304.94, while the county manager for Haywood County receives $125,320 per year.

In addition, King would get a lump sum payment equal to a year’s salary and benefits, including car allowance, medical insurance and retirement. The county would also provide major medical hospitalization and life insurance for both King and his immediate family for a year.

If King resigns at the recommendation of a majority of commissioners, he receives the same benefits, but if he voluntarily resigns, he would not.

King said he’d let his record speak for itself in spite of citizens’ grumblings against the county administration.

Rumors flying

Almost all candidates admitted that they’ve heard negative comments about the job Kevin King has done as county manager.

“Most of the time, in the heat of emotion, I’ve had several people say that Kevin King was one of the first people that needed to be fired,” said Democrat candidate Tommy Woodard, adding that he has not made his own evaluation on King’s job yet.

Democrat Robert White, who is running for commissioner and is the former superintendent of Swain County schools, said he’s heard people don’t like Kevin King, but admits that King has a tough job to do. White has also heard that Kings is making most of the decisions behind-the-scenes — rather than the elected officials calling the shots. White pledged a more proactive role if he gets elected.

“I think we’ll make the decisions as a board,” said White. “He is an employee, more or less, working under the board of commissioners.”

Democrat candidate Billy Woodard said, “I heard that he runs the county as he wants to, but I don’t know that because I’m not in there.”

For Republican candidate John Herrin, it’s not King who’s the real problem. While Herrin “tends to agree” that King has too much power, he added that King directly reflects what the current board wants.

“If they want to be laidback, be absent from the post, let him carry their load, that’s their prerogative,” said Herrin. “[But] the people did not elect Mr. King. They elected the board.”

According to current Commissioner Steve Moon, who is running for re-election, however, it’s ridiculous to say the board has not been proactive.

“I just don’t see any solid proof behind that statement, that we’re a do-nothing board of commissioners,” said Moon. “Whoever would say that is either a malcontent or don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Current Commissioner David Monteith, who is also up for re-election this year, refuses to blame one person for all of Swain County’s problems. If Monteith did have a problem with King, he would deal with it personally.

“He works for me, and four other commissioners,” said Monteith. “I would not air it publicly. That’s a personnel problem — if there is one.”

Monteith says King has done an “OK” job in his opinion, adding that many who do criticize King have little information to go on.

“Until they put his shoes on and do his job, it’s easy to criticize when you’ve not been there,” said Monteith.

However, Monteith admits there’s always room for improvement in the job that King is doing, and that he would like to be kept in the loop by King in the future. Monteith said he usually has no clue what will come up at a Monday meeting until the Thursday or Friday before.

“Informed people do not create a problem, it’s the uninformed,” said Monteith.

Meanwhile, King maintains that a weekend is plenty of time to review the packet for an upcoming meeting.

Monteith says he calls Kevin King every morning at 8:15 to ask about the agenda and King’s activities. “I should not have to do that,” said Monteith.

King retorted that he keeps all commissioners equally informed of significant developments as soon as they occur. There’s a difference between keeping commissioners informed and bugging them with the day-to-day occurrences or being “micromanaged” by them, King said.

Commissioner Moon said King makes sure he’s fully up-to-date on all the latest happenings.

“He keeps us informed about what we need to know and sometimes, what we don’t want to know,” said Moon, who receives calls from King “quite often.”

Moon said he hasn’t heard much negativity about King’s performance.

“If you look in the right nooks and crannies, you’ll find critics,” said Moon. “Harsh critics, sometimes.”

Most candidates say they just have to wait and see how King performs if they are elected to the board. Republican candidate John Herrin said he would not hesitate to fire King if he did not meet Herrin’s high expectations.

Pointing fingers

The state Local Government Commission recommends that counties set aside at least 8 percent of their budget for a cushion. Last year, Swain’s reserve funds fell to 6.6 percent, prompting state oversight of the county’s finances.

King and commissioners differ on whether King warned them of the pending financial crisis before it was too late.

In his defense, King said the board was “fully alerted” about the potential that the fund balance would fall below the 8 percent benchmark. King said he stressed the need for additional revenues or to cut additional positions or add furloughs.

“The board chose not to do anything during the time period,” said King. “The board at the particular time wanted to wait it out to see how everything would shake out.” King said anyone who looked at the meeting minutes could see that he suggested the board cut back. King admitted he knew by September 2008 that the fund balance would be compromised by at least $250,000. It ended up being short by $1 million, however, and that information wasn’t made public for nearly another year.

Commissioners say they were not aware of the problem until April 2009, when the LGC contacted them. The commission said Swain County had appropriated more than $2 million from the emergency fund. It was only legally authorized to appropriate about $1.8 million, however.

The letter also admonished King and the board for not authorizing changes to the budget by passing budget amendments. It’s widely known that commissioners must pass a budget amendment even if they spend a penny more than what was appropriated in the budget they passed at the outset of the year.

Contradicting King, Moon said he was not aware that the fund balance was going to fall below the 8 percent benchmark until after the fact. Moon would not comment on whether King should have informed the board sooner about the issue.

“We can’t blame bad economic times on Kevin King,” said Moon, adding both King and Finance Officer Vida Cody have done a good job working to create a balanced budget.

“I don’t understand it myself, but I think Kevin does a great job,” said Moon.

Jail blues

With the new $10 million jail eating up much of the county’s revenues — and sitting half-empty — many are looking back to how such a mistake could have been made.

Swain County’s previous board decided to build the 109-bed jail, expecting to receive overflow prisoners from surrounding counties even as they planned jails of their own.

Now that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is moving forward with its plans for a jail, Swain stands to lose half of the prisoners it is currently housing in its jail — leaving it only a quarter full.

King was a major advocate of such a large jail and convinced commissioners at the time it was the right thing to do, insisting it would be easily filled with future growth.

According to King, the difference between building a 75-bed jail and a 109-bed jail was only $1 million, accounting to $50,000 in debt payments each year.

“That’s not going to make you or break you,” said King.

But every year, Swain struggles to meet $450,000 in debt payments and an additional $160,000 on overhead and staff at the jail. The new jail annually costs the county $610,000 more than the old jail.

Monteith says he is glad to have voted against the facility, pointing out that he had argued all along to drop the jail to a 75-bed facility. Originally, a 150-bed jail had been planned.

“I stood on that then, I still stand on that,” said Monteith. “It is too big, it’s costing too much to heat, costing too much to cool, costing too much all the way around.”

Meanwhile, Moon said he was not involved in the planning of the jail, but that the county would have to live with the decision that has been made.

King admits that the jail is having a significant negative impact on the budget since it’s not pulling in enough revenue.

But it was absolutely necessary for the county to replace its decrepit 80-year jail, which only had 55 beds and often had to turn away overflow prisoners from surrounding counties.

King said the previous sheriff Bob Ogle wanted a larger jail and had reported that no other counties were planning on building its own jail at the time.

According to King, Swain planned its jail before the other counties.

“We were really the first one at the rotation. We started our process in 2005,” said King. In reality, however, Jackson, Haywood and Cherokee counties were already well on their way to building new jails of their own.

Calls for open government

Another issue brought up by critics is what they see as the county government’s antipathy for operating transparently.

Republican John Herrin said he’s asked for all documents related to the North Shore Road settlement, but received only a few emails.

King retorted that not all board members use e-mail, and they are not required to tape one-on-one conversations. Moreover, King sent all emails in his possession and personally made a request to commissioners to forward any relevant emails on to Herrin.

Monteith responded with about 10 emails, but no other commissioners responded to the request.

Republican sheriff candidate Wayne Dover said earlier that he had asked for records on all DARE program funds. A response letter from Finance Officer Vida Cody, however, states, “I regret to inform you that we will not be able to provide you with any information regarding the DARE program. I have made multiple verbal request [sic] for this information. On Feb. 9, 2009, I was informed by Jenny Hyatt, that Sheriff Cochran had said that this information would not be provided to the county.”

King said he could only make requests to other departments, not force them to make it available.

In recent weeks, King instructed Cody not to speak to the media and to direct press to his office.

“The board instructed me to send everything through the public requests officer,” said King, who as county manager serves as the public requests officer for Swain.

The request came after Cody spoke to The Smoky Mountain Times about her decision to pay for a K-9 dog’s surgery after Sheriff Cochran refused to pay for it with his department’s budget.

King said the new policy will allow him and commissioners to be more informed about what information is given to the press, and to make sure the facts that are presented are accurate.

King said Cody might sometimes give out numbers, without knowing proper background information to contextualize those numbers.

However, Herrin called the recent decision absurd, adding that King should not be a gatekeeper of information.

“That’s foolhardy,” said Herrin. “She’s the finance officer, what should she not know?”

Herrin added that citizens have to ask very specific questions to get public information at times, and other times, no information comes from a request.

“It’s very easy for a request to be sidetracked,” said Herrin. “If we ask for something, we should be able to see it.”

Herrin proposes following in Wake County’s footsteps and posting all expenditures and revenues online for citizens to see.

Billy Woodard said the county government must be an open government in order to suppress the spread of inaccurate information.

“The people are supposed to know what’s going on, but we don’t,” said Woodard. “If we get information, we get information that’s not factual...there’s too many rumors going on around the county, nobody knows the facts.”

It’s all in the family

Critics have raised concerns about the close family relationship between Kevin King and Philip Carson, King’s uncle who is commissioner and running for chairman; and Sue Carson King, Kevin King’s mother, who is running for clerk of court.

Democrat Candidate Robert White said that the relationship had crossed his mind, though he isn’t necessarily concerned about it.

“I can see where people would be concerned about that,” said White. “The criticism is that there’s too many of one family associated with county government.”

White later said the public has full right to elect Philip Carson and Sue King, however, if they so choose.

Moon agreed that the majority will rule on this case, adding that he personally didn’t see a problem with the relationship.

King said when he started working for the county 15 years ago as a finance officer, no one in the building was related to him.

“This is a small county,” said King. “There are a lot of people that I’m related to, and board members are related to. This is something that can’t be helped.”

King said with such a small population, it’s difficult not to run into family members at the county building. He said Hester Sitton, who is also running for clerk of court, is related to at least four people in county government. King said family relations should not hinder a candidate from running, however.

“It’s their own prerogative,” said King. “If they want to run for office, hey, feel free.”

Nine Democrats and four Republicans have set their sights on four open commissioner seats in Swain County. A primary on May 4 will decide which four Democrats will advance to the November election. All four Republicans will automatically advance, along with one Libertarian candidate. Another primary will determine which Republican candidate, Bill Lewis or Mike Clampitt, will go head-to-head with sole Democrat candidate Phil Carson in November for the chairman’s seat.

*Democrat Jerry McKinney dropped out of the race to serve out his term on the school board.

The question on everyone’s mind

Swain County commissioners presided over a historic decision this year, signing an agreement with the federal government to settle once and for all a dispute that has been raging for more than six decades.

Swain will presumably receive $52 million in exchange from dropping its claims to the North Shore Road, a 30-mile road the government flooded 66 years ago and never rebuilt.

Swain will get $12.8 million now and the rest in increments over the next 10 years. The money will be placed in a locked trust fund with only the interest remitted to the county each year. Interest could amount to $800,000 for just the $12.8 million already in hand. Candidates discussed how they’d like to see that money spent.

Steve Moon (D) said the cash settlement is a great deal for the county. Moon is in favor of setting up an emergency fund to make sure that the county doesn’t dip too far in the red in the future. “This money will help prevent really bad times in the county. It’ll be a godsend.”

Tommy Woodard (D) said the North Shore Road should have been put to a vote many years ago. Since the issue has been decided, Woodard supports using the money for the school system and public safety.

Raymond Nelson (D) said a good portion of the settlement money should be used to improve walking trails on the North Shore Road to make sure families removed from the park territory when the lake was created can visit graveyards that are barely accessible now.

Donnie Dixon (D) said he’ll believe the settlement money is coming when he sees it. “I’m afraid it’s going to be another ‘if and when funds are available.’” If the money does come through, Dixon would place it in an emergency fund to keep the county running in case the economy worsens. Dixon added that it should be only used for the betterment of Swain County and a portion should be used to recognize that part of Swain’s history.

Robert White (D) said if citizens helped formulate a strategic plan for the county, the board could look at their ideas in deciding how to spend the North Shore money. White says the interest money should go into big projects, rather than being deposited into the general fund or used for recurring expenses.

Judy Miller (D) is in favor of setting up a grant with the North Shore money to fund projects in the long-term. “We should not expect to use that money for our basic needs. That money should be something that is extra and should not be wasted or frittered away.”

Janice Inabinett (D) says the community should have input on how the North Shore settlement money is used. “I think community dialogue is more important than the money itself.” Inabinett would like to see the money used to focus on the needs of the county’s youth.

David Monteith (D) is highly skeptical about the North Shore cash settlement. “It’s only on paper, that ain’t in the bank.” If the money does come through, Monteith would love to see a heritage center built in Swain County. He’d like to set up an emergency fund with the remainder.

Billy Woodard (D) believes Swain will eventually receive the North Shore money, but says it’s up to county commissioners to push representatives to make sure that happens. Woodard wants to set aside some of the money for emergencies for now. When the county is back on a good financial footing, it can build a heritage center to honor families who lived on the North Shore.

Woodard believes that the money belongs to every taxpayer in Swain County, and should not be doled out to special interests.

John Herrin (R) asked for all communication on the North Shore cash settlement. “I refuse to allow these people to have a half-assed closed-door soap opera.” But Herrin received only a handful of emails between the county manager and the attorney — none from county commissioners to each other or anyone else.

Herrin said the county sold itself for “less than a cup of porridge,” but says the North Shore money should undoubtedly be devoted to education.

Andy Parris (R) said he doesn’t think Swain County will receive the North Shore money, and the only chance of getting another appropriation is to see President Barack Obama re-elected, even though Parris admits he’s not an “Obama fan.” Parris said the money that the county has received should be used to create jobs so young people don’t have to move somewhere else to make a living.

James King (R) said the cash settlement should benefit every single taxpayer in Swain County in a direct way. King said the issue is settled, but it might take years to get all the funds promised by the federal government.

Jerry Shook (R) said the cash settlement could be used to build a “fun factory” to retain tourists and give local kids something to do afterschool. The county could hire talented high school students to work at the fun factory and use profits to fund scholarships.

School funding

When it comes to salaries, teachers in Swain County are at the bottom of the totem pole compared to other counties. Swain is one of the few that doesn’t offer a local supplement to augment the base teacher’s salary paid by the state.

A steady growth in the student population has led to serious space needs in Swain County schools, especially at the high school. But commissioners have not taken action other than buying property adjacent to the high school for future construction. The candidates debated the need for an additional school in the county.

Steve Moon (D) said the county will need a new school in the very near future, and is unsure whether it will be funded by a bond or a tax increase. Though teachers deserve a higher salary, Moon said the county does not rake in enough now to give them a local supplement. Moon said the North Shore cash settlement might be used toward that problem.

Tommy Woodard (D) said many public servants, not just teachers, in Swain are some of the most severely underpaid in the state. With the current economy, Woodard says he’d be leery of building a new school. “I’m not denying that there is a need for classroom space. I’m just not sure it’s something that we can be doing right now.”

Raymond Nelson (D) said he’d rather see the high school expanded than see a new school built. Nelson said teachers’ salaries could afford to be raised, but would like to see state lottery money used to fund a salary increase.

Donnie Dixon (D) said the county board should closely evaluate whether it’d be more cost-effective to expand schools or build a new one. Dixon said in order to fund a new school, the county needs a bigger tax base and to fight for grants. Dixon says he would favor a salary increase for teachers if it is “practical.”

Robert White (D) said commissioners should work closely with school officials to see how to come up with money to tackle space needs. In the meantime, schools should see if they can come up with funds within their current budget. White says he tried to start a local supplement for teachers as superintendent, but the money was needed elsewhere.

Judy Miller (D) said some of the North Shore money might have to go toward setting up a local supplement to teachers’ salaries. Miller said commissioners will have to take a look at the need for new school construction.

Janice Inabinett (D) would like to set up a citizen involvement task force to research the schools’ needs, pull the issue apart and come up with the best recommendations for commissioners.

David Monteith (D) sits on the school’s planning board, and says the only way to increase schoolteachers’ salaries now is to increase taxes. “I will not vote for a tax increase under no circumstances.” Monteith said the growth in the student population is not enough to push the construction of new buildings.

Billy Woodard (D) says the county can’t increase funding to the schools unless the economy picks up. When the county’s financial improves, Woodard hopes to take a look at increasing teachers’ salaries.

John Herrin (R) says in order to raise teachers’ salaries, Swain must look at increasing its tax base. While this could be achieved with a higher tax rate, he supports user taxes instead. “We need to look at what revenues we’re overlooking.”

Andy Parris (R) said Swain’s schools are in good shape, but teachers’ salaries, as well as salaries for law enforcement, do need to be addressed.

James King (R) said money from the lottery should be used for construction at the new schools. Commissioners should demand information from state representatives on where the lottery money is being used, King said.

Jerry Shook (R) said the commissioners should take a serious look at student population growth at public, charter and private schools in Swain County to see if additional facilities must be built. Shook said the school board is responsible for teachers’ salaries and should make choices in their budget that would allow for a raise.

Serious budget woes

The recession hit all Western North Carolina counties hard, but Swain faced one of the greatest challenges. Commissioners did not adequately plan for a tough fiscal year and were later notified by the state that the county’s reserve funds had fallen to a dangerous low.

The state’s Local Government Commission recommends that all counties set aside a cushion of at least 8 percent of their budget for emergencies — Swain had only 6.6 percent. The LGC immediately began overseeing Swain’s budget, and commissioners struggled to plug the $1 million shortfall on the fly.

Meanwhile, the newly built $10 million jail continues to scoop up much of taxpayer money without bringing in enough revenue. The county is not receiving hoped-for jail fees for housing prisoners from outside Swain because surrounding counties have built their own jails.

Steve Moon (D) said dipping below the 8 percent standard was due to “a series of bad events” and pointed out that the entire economy had been in bad shape. “We had a hard time maintaining that 8 percent.” Moon says the county will have to wait and see on the jail and hope that the sheriff can bring more federal prisoners to the facility.

Tommy Woodard (D) said like many others, the commissioners underestimated the recession. Woodard said the county should focus on vital services, like education and public safety, and make cuts elsewhere.

With multiple jail escapes in recent years, Woodard says the county needs to restore confidence in order to attract prisoners back to its newly-built jail. To accomplish that, commissioners must work with the sheriff, Woodard said.

Raymond Nelson (D) said the commissioners have done a poor job handling the budget during the recession and have not spent money or made cuts wisely. “I don’t think you can cut the budget on law enforcement and still protect the people of the county properly.

Nelson said the jail needs more federal prisoners, but said it’s too late to comment on the size of the jail now.

Donnie Dixon (D) earlier came into office when the previous group of commissioners had landed the county below the 8 percent benchmark. The state had threatened to come in and raise taxes, but within a year, the county was able to meet the state requirement. Dixon said instead of fighting feuds, commissioners need to sit down “like they got a little bit of education” and figure out what’s draining the county’s fund balance.

Dixon says Swain jailers should be better trained to keep prisoners from escaping so the county can attract prisoners from outside Swain.

Robert White (D) said commissioners have done a good job with what they had to work with, but the county must gain more revenue in the future. White would also like to see a greater effort to secure grants and possibly add another grant writer to the county staff. Until then, the county should use the money it does have wisely.

White says the jail should also be included in a long-term strategic plan.

Judy Miller (D) said it’s unfortunate that commissioners did not think ahead and initiate cuts as soon as the recession hit. “It’s another instance where planning ahead needs to be done.” Miller is concerned about Cherokee’s plans to build a jail and says the commissioners really need to sit down to come up with a plan to tackle this “big issue.”

Janice Inabinett (D) said she has not studied the budget issue. However, Inabinett wants Swain to better market the area’s natural resources to bring in people, and generate more revenue for the county.

Inabinett says not having enough prisoners to fill the jail is actually a good thing. The county could look for another entity that could be interested in the building, and send its prisoners to other counties’ jails.

David Monteith (D) says the county’s budget mess is due to insufficient planning and wasteful spending on pet projects that should not have been done. But commissioners have tightened their belts, and Monteith says the county is seeing a turnaround. “Everyone is doing their job much better than they were doing a year ago.”

Because federal prisoners have not returned to Swain’s jail despite a new agreement with the U.S. Marshals, Monteith suspects that politics are involved. “It’s hard for a little county to compete with the a big county. We have to take crumbs off the table.”

Billy Woodard (D) says he won’t criticize commissioners without knowing the complete situation, but admits many residents are concerned about the county’s finances and the possibility of a huge tax increase. Woodard plans to examine exactly how money has been spent by current commissioners.

Woodard said the sheriff should work hard to bring federal prisoners to Swain’s modern jail. “We didn’t need such a big jail, but hindsight is 20/20...I don’t think if we arrest every criminal in Swain County that you could fill that jail.”

John Herrin (R) said commissioners should be conservative with their projections for how much money taxes will bring in. They should track the budget at every meeting, and post every expense on the county Web site.

Commissioners should also take a hard look at how to avoid landing in the red.

“If that means more taxes, then that may be where we have to go.” But before taking money out of taxpayers’ pockets, Herrin said the government should exhaust every other option.

Andy Parris (R) said there’s been some irresponsibility on the part of the county board. Cutting the sheriff’s department was a mistake, Parris said. “That was purely a political move...that was a stab at him [Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran] and that wasn’t a very smart one.”

James King (R) said Swain had plenty of money before commissioners went on a spending spree that put them in bad shape. All departments should have a working relationship with the board so that they follow the budget that was accepted at the beginning of the fiscal year. Changes should be made upfront and not in the middle of the year, King added.

The sheriff should work with other counties that don’t have jails of their own and also try to bring federal prisoners from all over the state to Swain County, King said.

Jerry Shook (R) said commissioners must make hard decisions and not be afraid to make cuts in the budget when necessary. Shook said there are some in the county who are getting “personal servitude” and are unjustifiably being paid with taxpayer money.

Shook said it’s a shame how commissioners have treated Sheriff Curtis Cochran. Shook says that the county has served as a training grounds for law enforcement agencies who move on to surrounding counties that pay higher salaries. Shook said these officers should sign a contract to work in Swain for a certain number of years if they receive county funding for training.

Swain County is nearing the end of an ongoing saga with neighboring Graham County over who will provide emergency services to Deal’s Gap.

The sparring counties reached a tentative agreement last week pending approval by both boards.

According to the agreement, Swain will reimburse Graham $250 for each time it sends an ambulance to Deal’s Gap, as well as pay any portion of ambulance bills that is uncollectible.

“It is good news. We can still be a friend to Swain County and help them out in that area but in this case we are being fairly compensated,” said Steve Odom, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.

In exchange, Graham will also reimburse Swain for taking care of emergency calls at Graham’s Tsali mountain biking area, which is closer to Swain.

Kevin King, county manager for Swain, called it a fair agreement and said he expects commissioners to approve the plan next week.

Deal’s Gap — an outlying Swain territory that is completely bordered by Graham — receives droves of thrill-seeking motorcyclists headed to the Dragon and Hellbender, world-famous sections of winding roads. But it would take an ambulance 45 minutes to get there from Swain, so Graham has long provided emergency services to the territory.

Graham was being hit in the pocketbook by routinely covering all 911 calls to the area and grew weary of responding to an increasing number of serious wrecks. Each time Graham sends an ambulance out of the county to the remote Deals Gap territory, “We have to call in backup crews to cover our own county,” Odom said.

And patients treated don’t always pay their ambulance bill.

“A lot of times we are left holding the bag,” Odom said.

Odom said Swain was taking advantage of Graham. The county proposed everything from annexing the territory to demanding $80,000 annually from Swain.

But Swain County claimed it was incurring its own expenses transporting Graham patients to area hospitals from the Tsali campground.

After a months-long stalemate on the issue, Graham decided to drop all emergency services to the area in January. Swain leaders retreated from their line in the sand and said for the first time, they would be willing to negotiate.

But according to King, the two decided to cooperate again after a rockslide shut down the Dragon.

“A lot of conversation came out of those few days it was closed,” said King.

While King is unsure on why Graham County backed down from its initial demands, he suspects the county could not find figures to back up their initial request, which he called extravagant.

Before the tentative agreement was reached, Swain’s rescue squad had independently collaborated with the Steacoah rescue squad to come up with an agreement of its own. Stecoah would provide first-responder coverage to the area until Swain could make the long drive to Deal’s Gap.

King said the new arrangement will again solidify the relationship between the two counties.

“We’re all mountain people and trying to reach an agreement,” said King.

Becky Johnson contributed to this article.

Democratic candidates, pick four

Steve Moon, 59, owner of a tire shop, incumbent

Moon is finishing up his first term as commissioner and has served on the school board for six years. Moon said he’d like to be re-elected to make sure the interest from the North Shore road settlement is used wisely. “I wouldn’t want to hand the reigns over to anybody else.”

Tommy Woodard, 51, owner of construction company

Woodard said his main goal is to represent the interests and desires of Swain County residents. Woodard freely admits that he would like to bring his Christian values and ethics to the board of commissioners. “Whether you agree or disagree, it would only be fair to you that you know where I stand.”

Raymond Nelson, 63, retired U.S. Navy officer

Nelson said politicians should stop pointing fingers and start tackling problems. His main goal is to save taxpayer money through efficient use of county employees and equipment. For example, he’d like to use county engineers and workers to repair a sinkhole in front of the jail rather than paying for private labor.

Donnie Dixon, 64, tool and dye maker/machinist

Dixon was a commissioner for one term in the early ‘90s. He’s running to provide good leadership during tough economic times. Dixon would like to bring high-paying jobs to the county, create a more open government with televised meetings, and focus on setting long-term goals.

Robert White, 70, retired school superintendent

White says he has spent countless hours working on budgets, communicating with both staff and community and creating a strategic plan for Swain’s schools. He would like to create an ad hoc committee of citizens to look at the Swain’s future needs, help create a strategic plan, and guide commissioners in their decisions.

Judy Miller, 62, retired psychotherapist

Miller would like to see staggered terms for county commissioners and the school board race made nonpartisan. Miller advocates creating a long-term plan for the county and closely involving citizens in the process.

Janice Inabinett, 68, retired social worker

Inabinett said her chief goal is to inspire citizens to participate in government. “People are apathetic because they are not asked to participate.” Inabinett says she’s in favor of starting a department of community involvement to create more leaders in Swain.

David Monteith, 63, schoolbus driver, incumbent

Monteith hopes to bring more jobs to Swain County and better promote tourism. Building the North Shore Road would have brought 714 federal jobs to the area, according to Monteith, who was the sole commissioner to vote against the cash settlement. “We need to make sure we do not allow the federal government to continue to take over Swain County.”

Billy Woodard, 63, construction worker and supervisor

Woodard says he will bring much-needed leadership to the county. For Woodard, the biggest issue facing Swain now is the lack of jobs in the area. Woodward’s priority is help citizens establish small businesses in the county.

 

Republican candidates

John Herrin, 49, project manager for construction company

Herrin’s priorities are to establish an open government, create an active job creation program, and provide full support to the school system. Herrin says the county government would stay within budget if it was profit-driven like the private sector.

Andy Parris, 35, insurance agent

Parris hopes to bring a more transparent government to Swain County. “I want to see if we can do business on top of the table instead of under it.” Parris said commissioners seem to do what they want once they’ve been voted in. “I think it’s time that people had a say-so. That’s what a representative does.”

James F. King, 57, owner of a local meat butcher facility

King would like to keep property taxes as low as possible and curb some county spending. “I feel I can help people of the county, maybe address what people of the county wants instead of what the government thinks they need.”

Gerald (Jerry) Shook, 48, delivery driver

Shook would like to quit following the “old partisanship ways” and make choices for the common people of Swain County. Shook also wants to curb waste on the county’s expense accounts and make cuts to the budget.

A coalition of Cherokee and Swain County residents have stepped up the pressure on a proposed Duke Energy substation in the vicinity of the sacred Cherokee mothertown, Kituwah.

Last week, a coalition of more than a dozen people filed a formal complaint with the N.C. Utilities Commission asking the regulatory body to halt the project. According to critics, the substation and related transmission lines would mar views of a rural valley between Cherokee and Bryson City and alter the character of the nearby Cherokee ceremonial site.

Natalie Smith, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has been an outspoken critic of the substation and has spearheaded a grassroots effort to move it away from Kituwah. Smith is the only named complainant in the case, but says the coalition includes a mix of county residents, property owners, business owners and tribal members.

“This wasn’t started or formulated for the Eastern Band’s interest,” Smith said of the challenge. “It’s for all the citizens of Swain County and all Cherokee people.”

The coalition’s complaint alleges that Duke Energy began work on the substation without state approval required for projects that exceed a certain capacity and that the project will have significant adverse impacts on residents.

Duke Energy spokesperson Jason Walls released a written statement reiterating the company’s willingness to work in conjunction with tribal leaders to resolve the issue.

Duke is considering alternative sites for the substation suggested by the tribe. It is also looking for ways to reduce the visual impact should it stay in its proposed location, Walls said.

Smith expressed her concern that the tribe has not taken any legal measures to stop the project, even after the tribal council authorized legal action in February.

“I’m curious as to exactly why they haven’t, and I suspect that it is politics,” Smith said. “If it proves to be politics, then I think our leaders need a major recalibration of their priorities, because Kituwah is the heart and soul of our people. It’s beyond any individual or political status.”

The utilities commission has the power to issue an immediate injunction on the project pending resolution of the complaint, but the project has already been halted.

Last month, Swain County commissioners passed a moratorium that put a stop to the project for 90 days, enough time for the county to create an ordinance regulating substations and cell towers.

Candidate profiles

Democrat candidates

Steve Buchanan, 50, Bryson City resident, owner of a construction company

“Most of the thefts relate back to drug use, people stealing to pay for their drug habit, and I feel that it’s at a point now where it has to be stopped in its tracks.”

Buchanan has more than 16 years of law enforcement experience, including six years as an undercover narcotics agent and five years in supervisory positions. Buchanan has also served as a Swain County jailer for about seven months.

Buchanan is running because he believes he has the law enforcement experience, especially in narcotics, to help reduce crime in Swain County.

“I think we’re at a crossroads now in our county...If we don’t elect somebody with experience in law enforcement, then our quality of life in Swain County is going to be affected.”

For more information: www.stevebuchananforsheriff.com.

 

Chuck Clifton, 60, Bryson City resident, security officer at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino

“There is no substitute for education, and experience brings education. When you have experienced leadership, that education can funnel all the way down to the lowest man.”

Clifton retired from more than 27 years of law enforcement experience in 2003. Clifton served as interim chief of police in Florida, and he has supervised as many as 48 officers. Clifton has worked in everything from narcotics to investigations to agricultural crimes to patrolling.

Clifton has also taught at a police academy in Florida and would like to bring more education to deputies. “I would like to see the residents of Swain County be able to say I’m proud of our Sheriff’s Office. They are well-educated, they know how to handle things.”

John Ensley, 42, Bryson City resident, owner of Yellow Rose Realty

“Not only am I going to ask the people to be involved in our community, I’m going to expect it.”

Ensley has 17 years of experience as a business owner in Swain County, has been a Sunday school teacher and coached youth sports.

Ensley is also certified with the Florida Department of Corrections, a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer and president of his B law enforcement training class. He worked as a jailer in Florida and for Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years.

He would like to bring a businessman’s approach to the Sheriff’s Office, especially when it comes to the $10 million jail that’s now sitting half-empty. “We need some entrepreneurship in there to grow that.”

Ensley’s first priority is to eliminate the drug flow into Swain County and into the school system. His second priority is to rebuild a relationship between law enforcement and the community and restart a community watch program.

For more information: www.ensley4sheriff.com

 

Steve Ford, 51, Bryson City resident, retired law enforcement officer

“If you’re going to put a badge on them, which in reality is a target for a criminal, you’ve got to pay them.”

Ford has 24 years of experience as a law enforcement officer in Florida, including as a deputy, investigator, sergeant and lieutenant.

Ford said he’s running because he sees a lack of trust between the citizens and the current sheriff’s office.

“I want to make sure that citizens know when they call in a complaint, no matter whether it’s a barking dog or a burglary, we’re going to respond.”

Ford would also like to set up a volunteer community watch team, and has already assembled a team of retired law enforcement officers in Swain County with more than 100 years of combined experience. With their expertise, Ford will pursue grants to work on the drug problem.

“You gotta know where to tap into the assets. Unfortunately, our taxpaying dollars in Swain County is not the right place for all of it.”

For more information: www.fordforsheriff.com

 

Mitchell Jenkins, 52, Whittier resident, self-employed logger

“I’d like to make Swain County be appreciative and proud of their Sheriff’s Department. I don’t feel like it is right now.”

Jenkins has nine years of law enforcement experience, including eight years as chief deputy in Swain County and one year in the Bryson City Police Department. Jenkins is running because he’d like to establish a better working relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the public.

“The politeness of your officers when they’re addressing people goes a long way in getting people to confide and trust the department.”

Jenkins said he’d also respect the confidentiality of those who phone in tips to the Sheriff’s Office.

“You gotta earn that confidence...or you won’t get no information to operate on.”

 

Julius Taylor, 37, resident of Big Cove community, Cherokee Police officer

“To make sure occupants are in there, always have the vacancy sign out and not take reservations.”

— On Swain County’s oversized jail.

Taylor has worked for the Cherokee Police Department for almost 16 years and has also worked for the Swain County Sheriff’s Office. His experience includes being a supervisor for 12 years and an administrator for three years. Taylor has had training from the U.S. Interior Department, the FBI, the SBI, and the North Carolina Justice Academy, where he has trained officers.

Taylor’s goal is to work together with surrounding communities to jointly combat the drug problem.

“When you enforce so hard in one jurisdiction, you push it from your yard into somebody else’s...It’s such a deep-seated problem, but all you hear are surface solutions...I’m not the surface solution type of person.”

 

David Thomas, 56, Bryson City resident, general contractor

“If somebody sued me, I’m not going to sit down and have lunch with them.”

— On the commissioners’ testy relationship with Sheriff Cochran after he filed a lawsuit against them.

Thomas has worked in law enforcement in Swain County under three different sheriffs for almost two decades.

“My priorities are to see if I can’t do something with the drug problem with our kids around here.”

Thomas would also like to work closely with local people as well as those from surrounding counties.

“You gotta get along with everybody...You gotta go out and talk to the people, talk to our other counties, get along with their sheriffs...You can only do what the people let you.”

*Democratic candidate David Franklin was unable to participate in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News for this article.

 

Republican candidates

Curtis Cochran, 57, Bryson City resident, current sheriff

“We hear criticism every day. When it comes down to the final vote, we’ll see how the voters of Swain County act, if they think I’ve done a good job or a bad job.”

Cochran has worked in heavy construction for 22 years then served as the county facilities manager for 12 years until he was elected sheriff in 2006, narrowly ousting the sitting sheriff at the time. Since being elected, Cochran has attended a sheriff leadership institute, is a member of the North Carolina Jail Administrators’ Association, and has received certificates from a North Carolina Justice Academy identity theft seminar.

“My number one priority is to continue the fight on drugs that we’ve been very aggressive with.” Cochran said his office has a zero tolerance policy on drugs and has made 728 drug arrests since December 2006.

Cochran emphasizes that he’s the only candidate who has experience as Swain County Sheriff.

“I’m local, I know the people, they know me. They know they can come see me.”

 

Wayne Dover, 36, graphics designer, Bryson City resident

“The sheriff is a political figurehead. If he surrounds himself with good officers, then his job is simple.”

Dover served as a Swain County deputy for four years, and has experience being a detention officer, a patrol officer, a dispatcher and part of courtroom security with the U.S. Marshal Service.

Dover would like to see stiffer penalties for drugs, including more jail time rather than probation periods. “If they’re found guilty of a drug offense, then we need to take their money, their cars, their homes — give them a reason to leave. If you take enough of their toys, enough of their money, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Dover says he’d also like to set up an explorer program for young adults to ride with officers and learn about a career in law enforcement.

There is, perhaps, no sheriff’s race as hotly contested as the one currently taking place in Swain County.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran’s volatile first term as sheriff has brought no shortage of issues — or candidates — to the Swain sheriff’s race this year.

Challengers were lining up and campaigning more than a year ago. The moment they’ve long awaited is now here.

Eight Democrats will battle it out during a primary this May, while Cochran will compete head-to-head with newcomer Wayne Dover for a spot on the Republican ticket.

Candidates spoke with the Smoky Mountain News on the myriad issues facing Swain’s sheriff office and on their vision for the next four years.

Among those topics: a suspected murderer’s escape from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran’s ongoing lawsuit against Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchasing a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail sitting half-empty.

All or nearly all candidates say they want to bring more professionalism and training to the Sheriff’s Office, combat a growing drug problem in the county, and rebuild a relationship with the community, the commissioners, and surrounding counties.

 

FINANCIAL MATTERS

Cochran sued the county commissioners after they took away a long-established “meal deal” shortly after he was elected. For decades, Swain County commissioners paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed jail inmates and allowed him to pocket any surplus. The off-the-books subsidy bolstered the sheriff’s salary, which was otherwise the lowest of any sheriff in the state.

Other jurisdictions had already gotten rid of the corruption-prone policy, and Swain commissioners voted to follow in their footsteps two weeks after the 2006 election. Cochran filed a lawsuit claiming the county reduced his salary because he was a Republican, while commissioners and most of his predecessors were Democrats.

Cochran asked commissioners to increase his salary from $39,000 to $80,000. The lawsuit is ongoing, while Cochran continues to receive much lower than average pay. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office is struggling to cope with a reduction in its budget and layoffs after the recession hit.

Meanwhile, the sheriff and the commissioners have been at constant odds over the sheriff’s operating budget, staffing levels and salaries for deputies.

John Ensley (D) would like to see a salary increase for deputies as well as the sheriff funded by a fee charged to criminals. As the owner of small business that’s still prospering amid a recession, Ensley said he’d do more with less at the Sheriff’s Office.

Steve Ford (D) said he’d work hard to justify every item in his budget to commissioners, backing them up with statistics if he had to. “You’ve got to justify your existence... [Cochran’s] lack of ability to prove to the commissioners the need for his budget is what created his cuts.”

Ford said the meal deal was borderline illegal. He’s in favor of having an increased salary for the sheriff, with a starting and ending income point, based on experience.

David Thomas (D) said since the county is often paying to train officers, it should also offer them enough pay to keep them working in Swain. “That’ll save the county money in the long run.” Thomas also supports a salary increase for the sheriff. He suggests using the money from the Road to Nowhere settlement to pay for raises.

Julius Taylor (D) said he has experience securing grant money for the Cherokee police. In a 15-minute presentation to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security he was able to score $180,000.

Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s taken a look at the sheriff’s budget and could not target any areas to cut. He said he’d have to see a further breakdown of actual spending to make a decision. Buchanan said the budget is a joint effort and that he’d work with the commissioners to come up with the best solution for all.

Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d like to see salaries brought up to where they should be. Clifton has heard of deputies whose families are eligible for food stamps. He says he will support the county in actively pursuing a commercial tax base for the county. “Without a tax base, we’re not going to be able to increase anything.”

Mitchell Jenkins (D) said the commissioners’ decision to cut the meal deal just had bad timing, and that they should not have jerked the rug out after Cochran took office. “They made it look political to the public.”

Considering all the duties that the sheriff carries out, Jenkins agrees that the sheriff should get paid more.

Jenkins said he’d work within the budget that is made available by commissioners.

Wayne Dover (R) said the commissioners’ timing was off, but Curtis knew what his salary would be before running. Dover said deputies need a raise before the sheriff because Swain is unable to compete with the salaries offered in Jackson County and Cherokee.

Dover said he’d apply for every grant that’s available, and would hire a full-time grant writer in-house to support the effort.

Curtis Cochran (R) would not comment on the ongoing lawsuit or the meal deal. Cochran said his department is always on the lookout for grants. He added that he disagreed with the commissioners cutting three deputies and a secretary from his department in last year’s budget.

“I feel that was very unfair for the people of Swain County, that their safety could be jeopardized by not having enough people on patrol.”

Curtis said he’s asked for the positions to be filled again in this year’s budget. Cochran pointed out that he’s had experience working on Swain County budgets since 1994.

 

MISMANAGEMENT OR ROUGH LUCK?

No matter how well they get along with Sheriff Cochran, candidates claim that Cochran lacks the law enforcement experience to serve as Swain County’s sheriff. When Cochran was elected in 2006, he had no previous law enforcement experience.

During Cochran’s first term in office, a female jailer helped a man charged with murder in a double homicide escape from the Swain County jail. Cochran was allegedly warned by employees of a cozy relationship developing between the jailer and inmate. In another incident, an inmate escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse. The search ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74, during which Cochran shot at the tires of a getaway van the inmate had stolen.

Also during his term, a detention officer used the county’s Sam’s Club card to purchase a big-screen TV. The officer was later fired.

John Ensley (D) says he’s been trained to work in a correctional facility and has experience on the job. “I know what red flags to watch for, and how to manage issues.”

To prevent more escapes, Steve Ford (D) plans to review hiring practices, look at his employees’ job performance, and make sure there’s standard operating procedures in place. In the case of the big screen TV, Ford said he would have charged the employee with theft. “Did they use a credit card that wasn’t theirs? Why weren’t they charged? Fired is far from being charged.” Ford said Cochran has done the best he can do for a man with no prior law enforcement experience.

David Thomas (D) said he would not have female jailers working with male inmates and vice versa. “I don’t think that’s right.” Thomas said he never saw mishandling of county credit cards when he worked at the jail. “Curtis didn’t have no experience when he went in, I think that hurt him.”

Julius Taylor (D) said the escapes and credit card use show that Cochran did not have the right people in certain positions. Taylor said he would be a better supervisor if elected and make sure there is an official policy and procedure for the jail.

Taylor pointed out that Cochran had to learn from scratch, and even though he now has three years of experience in law enforcement, it doesn’t compare to Taylor’s 16 years. “Not saying he’s a bad person, he’s had three years of rough luck with it.”

Steve Buchanan (D) said the county should hire an experienced sheriff to stop crime in its tracks.

Buchanan claims he knows exactly what needs to be changed at the jail since he worked as a jailer there for seven months. He would not elaborate, however, because he had promised Cochran, his former boss, to not reveal problems in the jail during his campaign.

Buchanan believes he was unfairly fired from his night shift at the jail after he decided to run for sheriff. According to Buchanan, the county cited the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity, as justification for the firing. However, Buchanan was not a federal employee.

Chuck Clifton (D) said escape was caused by lack of education and mismanagement. “Sheriff Cochran has minimal law enforcement experience, none when he was elected, and that shows.” Clifton said he would use his education and experience to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Mitchell Jenkins’ (D) only comment on the issue was that in his view, Cochran has not established a good working relationship with his employees and with the community. “I don’t feel like people confide in him the way I’d want them to me.”

Wayne Dover (R) said the escapes resulted from a failure to listen to employees who warned Cochran about the jailer’s inappropriate relationship with the inmate she helped escape. “It’s not really, per say, his fault. It is still his responsibility.”

Curtis Cochran (R) said the jail escapes had nothing to do with him being sheriff. “If you got a person on the inside that’s going to help somebody escape, they’re going to do it.” Curtis said the jailer who helped the prisoner escape went through a background check and received state certification as a detention officer. “You’d have to have a crystal ball, I guess, to see what people are going to do, and I just don’t have one. And neither do the other candidates.”

 

JAIL WOES

Swain County opened its 109-bed jail aiming to receive overflow prisoners from other counties, raking in revenues that would help pay for the $10 million facility. Instead, surrounding counties built their own new jails, leaving Swain’s jail half-empty on most nights.

Cherokee prisoners make up the vast majority of out-of-county inmates helping to fill the jail and offset costs, but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians now plan on building its own jail as well. Swain’s jail is 75 percent larger than what it currently needs for its own inmates.

Cochran recently signed a deal that will bring back federal prisoners from the U.S. Marshal Service, which pulled out from Swain’s crumbling old jail because it lacked a fire sprinkler system. Still, that agreement has failed to bring in a significant flow of inmates, while the jail continues to cost taxpayers $610,000 every year.

John Ensley (D) denies that the jail was overbuilt since it will accommodate future growth in the region. Ensley said he’ll take part in an aggressive outreach effort to state, federal and local agencies. A good rapport will help lure prisoners to Swain’s jail in the future. “These other counties, they may have not built their jail as big as ours. Eventually, they’re going to reach capacity...I think we’ve got it, we’ve got to be positive about it.”

Steve Ford (D) says the brand new jail should pay for itself instead of costing taxpayers money. He supports charging those who are arrested a book fee and a $5 fee per day to offset the cost of their housing.

David Thomas (D) said he’d work with everyone in the community and county government to figure out a solution for the jail. “I think you’ll get more prisoners if you’re in the good grace of your surrounding counties that don’t have their own jail.”

Julius Taylor (D) said having a customer service attitude will greatly help the jail. Taylor said instead of reserving bed space for state or federal prisoners, he’d have a first-come, first-served approach.

Taylor, who has worked with the Cherokee police department for almost 16 years, said he’d also work aggressively to change Cherokee’s mind about building its own jail. “We run the jail, let us do what we’ve done for hundreds of years.”

Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s talked to Graham County’s sheriff, who has expressed interest in shutting down the antiquated jail there. According to Buchanan’s research, if two counties work together to operate one jail, it is considered a regional jail and may receive more federal funding. Buchanan insists that Swain’s commissioners would retain control over the jail if the arrangement comes to fruition. Graham currently sends its prisoners to the new jail in Cherokee County.

Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d try to work with federal agencies to entice prisoners to Swain’s jail. “We have a state of the art jail...There is no reason why we cannot entice or encourage outside agencies to house their prisoners in our jail.”

Mitchell Jenkins (D) said he needs to further study the jail to come up with the solution. Jenkins plans to sit down with commissioners to work on the problem. He said the county government should have surveyed surrounding counties about their plans to build jails. “If they had been aware of the situation, I feel like they went overboard with the size of the jail that was established. I feel like they got a bigger facility than they’re gonna need.”

Wayne Dover (R) said he’d rather have a jail too big than not big enough. He says if there are stiffer penalties, with more jail time, for those who are charged with crimes, the jail will pay for itself. Dover said he’s worried about Cherokee’s plans for a jail. “Steps need to be taken now.”

Curtis Cochran (R) said all surrounding counties except for Graham County now have their own jails. If the tribe builds its own jail, Cochran said the county will soon be at the mercy of the U.S. Marshal Service for inmates. Cochran pointed out that he inherited the jail problem when he took office.

The setting may have been humble –– a nondescript meeting room in a county administration building –– but the Swain County commissioners’ vote to pass a moratorium on communications and utility projects may prove monumental. The vote could force utility giant Duke Energy to the negotiating table, and it was a bona fide act of solidarity with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on the part of the county.

Last week, four Swain County commissioners –– Genevieve Lindsay, Steve Moon, Phil Carson, and David Monteith –– voted unanimously to pass a 90-day moratorium on all telecommunications and utility projects that require a county building permit.

The moratorium could prevent Duke Energy from moving forward with a controversial electrical substation project near the sacred Cherokee site Kituwah.

After the vote, a small but energetic crowd of Swain County residents –– some enrolled EBCI members –– applauded loudly.

“We don’t often get applauded,” said a smiling Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay, who chaired the meeting in the absence of County Chairman Glenn Jones.

Judging by the crowd, Lindsay should not have been surprised by the applause.

Nate Darnell, whose family operates Darnell Farms, an agri-tourism business in the same valley as the Kituwah mothertown site, expressed his support for the moratorium.

“I want people to come to our farm and say, ‘Wow, this place is unscathed by development,’” Darnell said. “We have to take a stand and say some things are more valuable than power.”

Darnell’s family has leased the farmstead since 1984 and is the most recognizable business in the valley below the proposed Duke Energy substation project at Hyatt Creek, between Ela and Bryson City.

“I’m not a conservationist. I’m a preservationist,” Darnell said. “I don’t want the land locked up, I want it used wisely.”

Natalie Smith, a Swain resident and Cherokee business owner who has led a citizens’ group that opposes the substation project, also spoke in support of the moratorium.

“I am so relieved to see Swain County take the reins. It is overdue. This could be an historical event,” Smith said. “I feel as if Swain County has taken many punches over the decades from big conglomerates and continues to suffer from them. Finally, we are standing up for ourselves and acknowledging our assets.”

Smith’s citizen action group has announced its intent to bring suit against Duke over the project.

“The coalition is organizing and we are going legal, but we can’t discuss any details until the case is in court,” Smith said.

But it was the Swain County commissioners themselves who had the final say on the moratorium, which will be in effect for 90 days. During that time the county will develop an ordinance regulating the construction of telecommunications and utility facilities. New ordinances can’t be adopted until a public hearing is held, meaning Swain citizens will get the opportunity to address the proposal before it becomes law.

“You can’t stop progress, and we don’t want to,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “But it would be a shame if they were allowed to continue to desecrate that site. Let’s see if the project can be located in a place that would be less visible and less detrimental.”

Moon said he felt the need to stand up for the Cherokee residents of Swain County, in part, because his wife Faye is an enrolled EBCI member who feels strongly about the issue.

“They’re our friends, our relatives and our neighbors,” Moon said.

Commissioner Phil Carson said his vote was prompted by his experience at a meeting last month between Duke Energy’ and the EBCI to which the Swain commissioners were invited.

“I felt like it was a real eye-opener,” Carson said. “We were really just observers and weren’t considered as part of the solution to the problem. Working together for all our people is the common goal.”

While it’s not entirely clear whether the moratorium will stop Duke’s progress on the 300-by-300-foot substation on a hill overlooking the Kituwah site, Fred Alexander, Duke’s regional director, was clearly concerned by the vote.

“Quite frankly what Duke is trying to do is find an alternative that will meet the needs of our customers in Swain and Jackson counties that gets us off of that mountain,” Alexander said.

Renissa Walker, another enrolled member of the EBCI who resides in Swain County, confronted Alexander after the meeting, asking him to consider the issue from the perspective of a tribal member.

“Stand on top of the mound under a full moon and do a 360-degree turn making a full circle, and you’ll see that Kituwah is protected by all of those mountains and you’ll see the genius of why our ancestors put it there,” Walker said.

The EBCI Tribal Council passed a resolution last month clearing the way for the tribe to take legal action against Duke. So far, the tribe has not filed any suits in court or with the state utilities commission, preferring instead to hold ongoing negotiations focused on locating alternative site locations and considering options for mitigating the visual impact of the project.

The Swain moratorium poses the first legal hurdle to the project, but much depends on what kind of ordinance the county produces during the moratorium period. Duke needs a county building permit for the project and does not have one.

Alexander, while communicating Duke’s desire to resolve the conflict with the tribe and the county, was careful to reiterate the company’s stance so far on the issue.

“On the other hand, we’re not in a position to say, ‘No, we can’t be where we are today,’ because we have a responsibility to serve our customers,” Alexander said.

Both Swain County and the EBCI have offered alternative locations, and Alexander said Duke would continue to evaluate its options before making a decision on whether to relocate its substation.

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