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Wednesday, 11 January 2006 00:00

A long history culminates in one tumultuous day

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When Haywood County Manager Jack Horton was asked to resign or be fired last week, it was, potentially, a watershed political event for Haywood County. This upheaval probably won’t have a long-term impact on the prosperity of Haywood County, but it will help shape the political landscape in the near future.

During Horton’s 15-year tenure as county manager, he played a significant role in many major decisions. He had been, up until the current commissioners took over, a trusted manager. When Horton was hired at the start of the last decade, Haywood was an industrial county with several thousand good-paying jobs for working class families at five major factories. His predecessor, Ed Russell, was an elected commissioner and county manager. Horton’s hiring, in itself, was an important political event for Haywood, representing a shift in how county business would be conducted.

Now, in 2006, Haywood is a mountain county where second homes, tourism and the service sector dominate the economy. The last large industries are hanging on somewhat tenuously. The old order has been completely turned on its head, and that metaphor may also apply to the political leadership. Through several county boards, Horton survived and even thrived.

Around local government circles in the mountains, it’s hard to find anyone who will talk negatively in public about Horton. He worked hard, was conscientious, volunteered in the community, and did a good job of mostly steering clear of the politics that too often doom even the most talented top government administrators who, for better or worse, serve at the whim of politicians.

Sure, he sparred with commissioners over the years, but he was generally held in high esteem.

Most suspect that Horton’s departure was about much more than the vote not to dissolve the Smoky Mountain Development Corp. and transfer the business incubator to the county. That was, as the three commissioners who voted to accept his resignation admitted, just the final straw. The question many are asking is whether the forced resignation was a proper response to the alleged wrongdoing — not voting in a manner that was best for the citizens of Haywood — and how the relationship between Horton and commissioners got to this point.

 

Campaign foreshadowings

Perhaps the writing for this dismissal was on the wall, though, when two issues became a focal point of the county board campaign in 2002.

One of those was the new justice center and its costs. As this issue drove a wedge into county politics, fracturing alliances and building new ones, Horton was often drug into the middle. He wanted a new justice center and better working conditions for courthouse personnel, as did a majority of the elected leaders of the county and the task force members who volunteered their time to help develop a plan.

As potential locations ping-ponged around and costs increased, the justice center became a major political issue for Swanger, Enloe and Ensley. They formed a political alliance, of sorts, promising to keep costs down. When architects were asked to reduce the size and scope of the courthouse and came back with just minuscule reductions, some blamed Horton for not getting tough with them. Even though little money was ultimately saved on the project after the election, it ended up splitting the county board along the lines later used to force Horton out.

Two of the three — especially Enloe and Swanger — also said in their campaigns that the county manager had too much power. They painted a picture of a manager who didn’t serve commissioners but instead got his own way. One example they used was the annual budget, saying Horton would just present his nearly finished spending plan to the commissioners and expect them to pass it with just minor revisions, and that he would only grudgingly re-think his own priorities despite commissioners’ wishes. While that may be true, it is also true that commissioners have plenty of opportunities to make budget changes.

These, however, seem like differences that could be worked out. What perhaps could not be resolved, though, was a clear philosophical divide between Swanger and Horton. Swanger is a hands-on politician who likes to know all that’s going on and play a part in making decisions that, some might say, overstep a commissioner’s place. Horton was an experienced and respected county manager who probably resented Swanger’s style. It’s also clear that Horton was very close to the two chairman — Jim Stevens and Bill Noland — who preceded Swanger. One suspects he probably was not very good at disguising his feelings at the new style of leadership.

 

This has happened before

Swanger’s reputation certainly preceded him. He got his political start by campaigning against a school bond referendum that took place in the mid-1990s. When school leaders asked for millions to build new schools after closing Fines Creek Elementary, many in the county’s rural areas felt they were being forsaken by school leaders who mostly resided near Waynesville. Swanger, a Fines Creek resident, helped lead a grassroots effort to defeat the bond. He then rode that popularity to a victory in the school board chairman’s race.

Within a few days of his victory, Superintendent Karen Campbell resigned and other top administrators were re-assigned. Bill Upton was Swanger’s hand-picked choice for superintendent.

That episode did two things for Swanger: one, it left him with a reputation for being very involved in the day-to-day workings of the school system that some claimed should have been left to administrators; and two, it solidified a strong, loyal Haywood County political base that has supported his style of leadership ever since.

Whatever people think of Swanger and his methods, though, the school system recovered nicely under his leadership and accomplished much. Those accomplishments include the construction of several new schools, the implementation of annual funding formulas from the county for school maintenance, and a teacher salary supplement that was much-needed. He has garnered respect in many media circles for taking measures to open up government at whatever level he served, making access to information easy and implementing policies to see that open meetings laws are respected.

 

And now this

Horton was around during the Campbell episode at the central office, and then watched as county EDC Director Jay Hinson was pressured to retire after Swanger oversaw a reorganization of that department. Add to that a few run-ins over some other issues — some reported in the media, some not — and it seems both Horton and Swanger probably suspected this day was likely to come. Both of these men are smart enough to have realized this.

So, perhaps, when it came to this vote about the Smoky Mountain Development Corp., fate may have played into both their hands. Horton did just what Swanger had accused him of — not listening to commissioners, making his own decision instead of acting as the majority of commissioners wanted him to. For his part, Horton probably felt that he had to vote according to his conscience, which was opposed to the way the majority of commissioners wanted him to. I don’t know this for sure, but something tells me Horton may have taken some small measure of pride in pushing Swanger’s buttons, of refusing to buckle to a style of leadership he probably did not support. That’s a dangerous game, but at the time of this particular vote it probably didn’t seem like a firing offense, more like another salvo in this ongoing, somewhat terse relationship.

 

What now?

Filing for the next commissioner election begins in February. Voters will have the opportunity to voice their feelings in a referendum of sorts on Horton’s departure and Swanger’s decision. Was it justified? Are the three who voted for it creating a mountain out of a molehill?

Swanger, Ensley and Kirk Kirkpatrick — who gave an emotional and well-worded defense of Horton at the meeting where the resignation was accepted — are up for election. It is rumored that both Swanger supporters and detractors are lining up to run. If this happens, then the May primary may prove to be especially interesting. Swanger himself admits the election may be a barometer of how the people in Haywood County feel about this decision.

In the end, this issue is a case in point of why so many of us are interested in politics. It seems such a petty game at times, and then we look at Jack Horton and see how it can end careers and rip open wounds that sometimes never heal. Even at its most local level, it can be have brutal outcomes.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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