The money can be used in the French Broad River basin, meaning Haywood, Buncombe, Madison and a small part of Henderson counties. Because the Pigeon River and the Walters plant are in Haywood, more than half of the funds each year are to go to this county’s projects. Each spring and fall, the board meets, reviews and decides on requests for this money, funding projects from the schools’ Kids in the Creek to testing and monitoring water quality.
I’ve spent five years serving with the Pigeon River Fund. When members’ terms expired, we discussed candidates for replacement, consulted with the community and submitted suggestions to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, whose secretary had final approval. Until this year, those suggestions were approved. Political affiliations were never discussed.
This spring, that changed. DENR administration decided to remake the Pigeon River Fund board. Two members whose first terms had expired last year — and who we had strongly recommended be appointed for second terms — were replaced. And three members whose terms were not finished were also replaced. Except for the representative from DENR and the two from Duke Power, I was the only “survivor.”
It wasn’t thanks to my brain or work ethic, for the three Haywood County residents removed from the board — retired Mountain Research Station director Bill Teague, retired Waynesville town manager Lee Galloway, and retired banker Peggy Melville — were as hard working and intelligent as any community leaders I’ve known. Apparently, the skill needed to hold onto my position was my Republican Party registration.
The changes stunned Democrats and Republicans here. A leading Republican described Galloway, Melville and Teague as some of the finest public servants he’d ever worked with. And, he said, while the governor’s political party had tremendous appointment power, it usually waited until terms were expiring before completely remaking a board. It was a level of partisan politics the board had not experienced. My appointment had been approved under the previous Democratic administration, as was that of my predecessor, another Republican.
I considered resigning in protest. But there was a problem. A number of requests for money were up for review, including some exceptionally good projects. If I resigned, Haywood County would have no resident representative on the board. So I stayed and refused comment until the grant process was completed. But I never wanted my silence to imply agreement with the changes.
I’m angry and embarrassed by the shenanigans within my own party and the Republican governor’s administration. There are some bright spots in this story, however.
First, the new board members — who may have had no idea of the process behind their appointments — are dedicated and intelligent people. With only a month between their appointments and the time to decide on the spring grants, they worked hard and fast, visiting sites, thoroughly reviewing applications. They came to the first meeting ready and educated, and their questions and comments were keen. I will be honored to work with them.
Second, the grant process went well, and Haywood will receive well over half of the funds allocated for projects ranging from better river access at the Canton Recreation Park to shoreline stabilization at Lake Junaluska.
Third, DENR is trying to make peace with this controversial decision. There have been apologies and letters sent acknowledging the contributions of members who were removed so abruptly from the board. DENR’s leaders have recognized the importance of Haywood County to this process and realize folks here are upset.
So why speak out at all, now that the deed is done but Haywood’s interests seem to be protected? Largely because protesting reminds our leaders that some of us really mean it when we say we’re tired of political games. We truly want Democrats and Republicans to focus on the best interests of this state and country. We don’t want party affiliations to trump integrity, work ethic and sound decisions. And we plan to hold people accountable if they don’t take those expectations seriously.
I expect better of state leadership, particularly when my own party is in charge. Now let’s see if our leaders can live up to those kinds of expectations.