Canton’s future pivots on heated board raceWritten by Becky Johnson
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When voters head to the polls in Canton next week, they will face a daunting and even unwieldy list to choose from: 10 candidates for four seats on the board.
Town politics in Canton have been marked by division the past two years, and the vast majority of candidates claim they will rise above the fray and bring an end to the stalemate that has stalled progress on some important issues.
Much is at stake as the historic mill town struggles to find its place in the 21st century economy. Canton is one of the last blue-collar, working towns in the region, where smoke dominates the landscape and the mill whistle still trumpets across town. But the mom-and-pop shops that once anchored Main Street have gone the way of suburban sprawl. Unlike other mountain towns that filled the void by catering to tourists, that model wasn’t in Canton’s cards.
Candidates running for town board say they want to help forge a new path for Canton, but to do so means ending the power struggles that have consumed the town’s agenda.
“I feel like the lack of cohesiveness on this board the past two years has kept them from making a lot of progress,” said Carole Edwards, one of the candidates.
“It’s like we are standing still, waiting to move forward,” said Angela Jenkins, another challenger on the ticket.
The mantra for change resonating through this election is not new. Two years ago, voters ousted three long-time board members and ushered in a slate of new faces for the first time in years.
“I think people were looking for some good positive change,” said Patrick Willis, who supported the turnover two years ago but is now running himself. “I think people were hoping for improvement the last election, but I didn’t see much improvement, so I think that’s why so many people are running now.”
Indeed, many candidates share Willis’ assessment of town politics.
“Two years ago, I was happy there was a change made,” said Gene Monson, another candidate. “It was time for some fresh faces. However, as a board, I don’t think they accomplished what they wanted to accomplish over the past two years — or accomplish what most of the citizens were hoping for.”
Those who swept into office two years ago admit they haven’t been as effective as they hoped.
“There was resistance to the improvements and initiatives we brought,” said Alderman Eric Dills, who seems to be at permanent loggerheads with Mayor Pat Smathers. “If the town has not progressed in the past two years, the mayor has to bear his share and can’t keep pointing his finger at the board and saying it is all our fault.”
While challengers are quick to criticize the current board for not getting along, few were willing to ascribe blame.
“I don’t know whose fault that is. That is very controversial, and I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” Edwards said. “You can’t place blame on any one person.”
Jenkins said the blame lies on both sides.
“I think it has been uncooperative all the way around. People went in there and picked a team,” Jenkins said. “It was us versus them.”
Kenneth Holland, another candidate, said he wouldn’t “point the finger at anybody.” That’s not what matters, he said.
“The net result is not a whole lot is being accomplished,” Holland said.
Candidates scrambled to fend off labels that would lump them into one of the existing camps on the board.
“I think the idea of a Pat Smathers’ camp and an Eric Dills’ camp is more in the mind of Pat and Eric than the minds of the citizens,” Monson said. “I think the citizens are saying ‘I agree with part of what one says and part of what the other says.’”
While campaigning to voters, however, Monson has been asked point-blank if he was on one side or the other. His answer?
“If elected, I am not in either camp,” Monson said.
Underwood said he wouldn’t “take sides” between Dills and Smathers. Candidates would lose votes from people on the other side if they openly testified to being in a camp, Underwood said.
Only Jenkins admitted to being in any particular camp: the people’s camp.
“I feel like I would be for the side that was for the people,” Jenkins said. “I think you should be able to voice your opinion but also be able to listen to other people’s opinion.”
That’s precisely what hasn’t been happening amidst the power struggle on the board, according to candidates staking out the middle ground.
“I hope I have the intelligence and humility to consider every idea on its merits and not based on whose idea it is,” Monson said. “I am more concerned about getting it right than being right.”
Willis said a difference of opinion on the board could be a positive thing if they listened to each other.
“I am all for putting out 200 ideas,” Willis said. “I don’t want the board members not to listen to an idea just because they don’t like who it came from.”
Dills said the new board members faced pushback on initiatives they tried to bring to the table over the past two years. Dills said those in charge at town hall tried to block the change.
One example involved installing swings at the town playground, which had been part of Dills’ campaign platform in 2007.
“I told people, ‘If I get elected, I am going to get you those swings,’” Dills said.
Shortly after taking office, Dills and the other new board members expressed their desire for swings. But Town Manager Al Matthews said the town’s insurance would go sky-high with the addition of swings, according to Dills. They continued to push the issue, however, and directed Matthews to research insurance rates. It turned out the town’s insurance rates wouldn’t “go up one cent,” Dills said.
“It was like pulling teeth to get the swings,” Dills said.
Dills recounted a similar resistance when he proposed extending the season for the outdoor pool by remaining open two additional weekends through the end of August.
“Mr. Matthews said it could not be done. He said it was impossible,” Dills said.
According to Dills, Matthews said it would be a problem getting lifeguards to work. But when Dills took his proposal directly to the town recreation committee, they said there was no problem getting lifeguards for two additional weekends. The extended season was a success this year, Dills said.
A top example of the quagmire on current board point is how long it took to hire a permanent town manager. Long-time Town Manager Bill Stamey retired shortly after the new guard was elected in fall 2007. Town Clerk Al Matthews stepped in as interim town manager, a post he held for another 16 months — which is how long it took the board to choose him to take Stamey’s place.
“We were in a state of flux during that time,” Edwards said. “It is a very important role for a town, especially a town this small.”
As the process drug out, Smathers publicly expressed his frustration. But Dills claims it was the mayor’s fault, not his.
“He kept blaming us for taking so long to hire the manager when he was delaying the entire process,” Dills said.
Smathers wanted to promote Matthews to town manager, while Dills supported an outside candidate. Dills was ultimately the only board member who voted against Matthews appointment to the post.
“I felt we needed a new manager for things to change,” Dills said.
While the majority of candidates say the turnover on the board two years ago reflected voters desire for change, Charlie Crawford, one of the aldermen voted off the board at the time, paints a different picture. He claims it was mostly backlash over a 5-cent property tax increase.
Crawford said the town had depleted its reserves on flood recovery, a catastrophe dating back to 2004 when a swollen Pigeon River consumed much of downtown Canton. The town had to rebuild the depleted reserves, he said.
“It absolutely had to be done,” Crawford said.
Crawford points to the failure of the current board to lower property taxes as proof there was no alternative.
“That says to me they knew absolutely nothing about what they were talking about before the election,” Crawford said of his ousters two years ago.
Not only did the newcomers not lower taxes, but they raised fees for town services like trash pick-up and water and sewer.
Jimmy Flynn, a long-time town employee now running for office, agrees discontent over the tax increase drove the election results two years ago.
“I think that tax increase was not thoroughly explained to the public,” Flynn said, adding that an incremental increase would have been more tactful.
Alderman Troy Mann, who is running for election, made the property tax hike his main campaign platform two years ago.
“Most people were upset about that,” Mann said. “We needed folks on that board who would look out for the expenditure of their tax revenue.”
But Ed Underwood, another candidate, questioned a governing philosophy that avoids raising taxes at all costs.
“They don’t care what happens to anybody else as long as their taxes don’t go up,” Underwood said. “If you’ve got that mindset, you are being a little selfish. They don’t want the town to progress. Other people are out there saying, ‘I wish we had things for our kids to do.’”
Underwood said he was not among those seeking wholesale change in leadership two years ago.
“I liked a lot of the board members who were there at the time. I supported some of the board members who were there,” Underwood said.
A big plan
Mayor Pat Smathers, who has held office since 2000, has aggressively pursued a new image for Canton over the past decade. The current board has stalled that vision, Crawford said.
Flynn agreed and said if elected, he would support the “mayor’s train,” borrowing directly from an analogy Smathers has used over the years to describe his initiatives.
“Even if it is moving very slowly, it still needs to be moving,” Flynn said of the train. “I think over the past two years, it has not went forward at all.”
While Smathers is running unopposed for mayor, he has not stayed out of the race. He wrote an op-ed column in The Mountaineer two weeks ago laying out a 17-point plan for the town. He directly challenged candidates to get on board with his vision and called on voters to pin candidates down on whether they would support him.
“My aim is to make the following items election-year issues so that I and whoever is elected can begin working on an implementation plan soon after the election,” Smathers wrote in the op-ed.
Many were careful to couch their support, however. They said they would support Smathers’ ideas on their merits, but not merely because Smathers wants them to.
“I will do what is in the best interest of the town,” Monson said. “As far as it being Pat’s platform, I am running to work for the citizens of Canton. I am not running to work for Pat.”
Willis said the members of the town board should also craft their own lists. The board should compare and contrast their lists, then rank the projects by priority.
“I don’t think all the ideas (on Pat’s list) are as important as Pat thinks they are. Some are. We just need to look at those,” Willis said.
Residents should be brought into the fold as well, according to Willis.
“In a perfect world there would be a number of residents who have input on what those goals should be,” Willis said.
Underwood said there’s not much Smathers left off the list.
“Pat listed a lot of things,” Underwood said. “I think anybody in that position who knew the town like Pat does would probably list the same things.”
Nonetheless, Underwood thinks there’s room for more input.
“Pat has put this list out there. Everybody else needs to put their list out there and come up with a consensus on how we need to attack what Canton needs,” Underwood said.
Underwood pointed out that Dills has not put out a similar list of his ideas.
Dills countered that not all of his ideas are tangible projects. One of his initiatives would be ending a long-standing practice of nepotism in town hiring. Another would be reducing the number of town employees who are issued unmarked town vehicles to drive back and forth to work.
What to tackle
The sheer volume of items on Smathers’ list left few stones unturned. The list called for installing lights on town sports fields, creating a craft and farmer’s market, hiring a town recreation coordinator and extending the town’s greenway. It included an upgrade of town water and sewer lines around Interstate 40, where the capacity has been maxed out preventing new businesses from hooking on. Smathers also wants to annex new territory into the town limits.
Nearly every candidate said they supported the items on the list in theory, although they had different ideas of which are most important and should be tackled first.
Holland said Smathers has been an excellent visionary for the town.
“He hits the nail on the head,” Holland said. “The problem is he can’t get everybody to go along with him on it. Some board members may have opposed it just because Pat proposed it.”
Dills said it would be hard not to support items on the mayor’s list.
“Who could be against those things? We all want outdoor lights at the international sports complex, but it costs $425,000 and the town absolutely doesn’t have it,” Dills said.
Alderman Troy Mann also questioned the usefulness of the list when there was no way to pay for it all.
“It would be foolish to go out and advocate spending $450,000 on a project without the necessary cash flow to pay for it,” Mann said.
Mann said he has tried to keep the reins on town spending during his term, even though it’s labeled as not progressive.
“I wasn’t bursting forth with a lot of ideas that would create a lot of tax requirements,” Mann said. “There are times in your own family budget that you put back those things you think you can do without.”
Mann said no board should fall in lockstep behind one person’s initiatives, which is one difference between the current board and previous board.
“It is not a given that if it is brought to the table it is going to be approved,” Mann said. “There is more discussion, more oversight. We are more engaged. Every issue is given more consideration.”
Crawford said just because the previous board got along doesn’t mean they rolled over.
“I had a number of disagreements with the mayor when I was on the board serving under Pat. They just weren’t worked out in public. They were worked out behind the scenes,” Crawford said. “You don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”