There is a strong sense of shock still reverberating around the Haywood County political landscape after the defeat two weeks ago of County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger in the Democratic primary. Talk to local politicos and most of them will tell you that even those who wanted Swanger out of office didn’t really expect to accomplish their goal.
Many of those who fought for Swanger’s defeat said publicly that they wanted to rid the county of his micromanaging. There’s little doubt Swanger has been the most involved county commissioner in recent memory, putting in many more hours than his fellow commissioners. It was the same when he was on the school board.
Everyone in Haywood County probably took issue — both in policy and procedure — with some of Swanger’s actions as county board chairman and ascommissioner. Most recently it was County Manager Jack Horton’s forced resignation that led many to berate Swanger’s motives and leadership style.
But Swanger brought a lot with him, and it wasn’t all negative baggage, as some would have voters believe. Just look at the previous boards under the leadership of Jim Stevens and Bill Noland. These boards became — more or less — completely bogged down in the controversies over the justice center and a prison potentially locating in the county. They could not operate effectively as these issues, particularly the justice center, polarized the public and paralyzed county government.
Those who have attended county board meetings and kept up with its activities over the last decade or so can point to a leadership that has, in too many areas, been bereft of fresh policy initiatives that could have set Haywood County apart. What Haywood County loses as Swanger prepares to depart is someone with ideas. Whether one agreed or disagreed with Swanger, he implemented procedures to encourage public discourse and then tried to extract policy ideas from that input.
A few examples include Swanger’s inclusive board meetings, his revamping of the Economic Development Commission, the initiative to provide small businesses grants to those affected by the floods, his work to help move through county government a slope development ordinance, and his leadership during the Council on Aging fiasco.
But the future is now, and there are important issues facing Haywood. Are any of the current candidates thinking pro-actively about the future, or will this become a passive board that reacts only when issues turn to crises, which is usually too late?
Here are a few initiatives Haywood County could tackle:
• Property taxes — Instead a simple “no tax increase” pledge, how about galvanizing efforts in North Carolina’s tourist counties for a plan to let working people and long-time residents, along with farmers and forestland owners, retain their property. Right now developers with deep pockets are driving almost all land-use decisions.
• Ridgetop development — The county that gets out first in this area and devises a smart way to control ridgetop development will position itself for a prosperous future.
• Recreation — As the county’s department grows, an overall plan integrating the municipalities and the rural communities is vital for our youth.
• Economic development — Efforts to encourage entrepreneurial start-ups is vital. A key component is broadband access.
• Tourism — This component of the regional economy is usually just an afterthought for elected officials. That’s opportunity lost.
• Teacher shortage — WNC counties have relied on lifestyle for too long to address the teacher shortage. The crunch is coming, and the counties — not the schools — have the financial resources to do something about it.
• Recycling — Haywood is the only county in the region not recycling glass. Why are we different?
This is a short list, but the point should be clear. We need good ideas. Swanger brought some to the table, and it was refreshing. His successors, and county leaders throughout the region, have their work cut out for them.