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Wednesday, 21 November 2007 00:00

Horton returns to WNC as Macon county manager

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By Jennifer Garlesky & Becky Johnson • Staff Writers

An influential yet controversial figure in public policy is reclaiming a leadership post in the mountains three years after his forced departure as Haywood County’s manager.

Jack Horton has been hired as the county manager of Macon County. It’s a post he held once before in the mid-1980s, prior to moving on to Haywood. Before Macon, Horton served as county manager in Swain. Horton said he is glad to get back to the region.

After being fired in Haywood County nearly three years ago, Horton was quickly scooped up for a county manager’s job in Caldwell County. But his long tenure in the mountains drew him back to the region when a position became available with the retirement of Macon’s current county manager, Sam Greenwood.

“I got a chance to come back to the mountains,” said Horton, 57. “It was a good opportunity to get back to that area.”

In Haywood County, Horton was known as a savvy county manager with a strong leadership style, skilled in advancing the county’s agenda of the day. His overt methods were seen by admirers as a strength but by critics as a fault, however.

It was ultimately what led to his downfall in Haywood County, where some commissioners believed he was orchestrating county policy as he saw fit rather than deferring to the judgment of the elected commissioners. Haywood County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to call for his resignation after he disregarded a directive from the commisioners and instead acted to the contrary.

The two commissioners who wanted to keep Horton trusted his judgement, however, and didn’t mind Horton making his own decisions about what was in the county’s best interest and acting accordingly. They accused the other three commissioners of “micromanaging” Horton and felt his firing was political rather than substantive.

Horton’s supporters retaliated against the three commissioners responsible for his ousting, leading to the defeat of two of them in the subsequent commissioners election. It wasn’t the first time Horton was an issue in a county commissioners election. Four years earlier, replacing Horton was a campaign theme for some candidates, who saw him as responsible for pushing through a controversial $18 million justice center in the face of strong public opposition.

Horton’s roots in WNC date back to the late 1970s. After graduating from Appalachian State in 1978, he started working in Swain County as a tax collector before being appointed as their first county manager. He left Swain to become the county manager in Macon County — a bigger county with a bigger salary — where he served from 1985 to 1991. He left Macon County for Haywood — once again a bigger county with a bigger salary. In Macon, he will receive a salary of $125,000 a year.

 

A big plate ahead

While Horton already has a deep knowledge of Macon County government from his previous post there, the county has certainly changed since his departure 16 years ago.

Horton will be faced with several hurdles when he returns.

A countywide subdivision ordinance that would regulate mountainside development is being created by the county planning board and will soon come before county commissioners.

The county recently enacted a temporary moratorium on floodplain development to halt a high-density RV park from being built along Cartoogechaye Creek until the county could implement a floodplain protection ordinance.

Commissioners also are overhauling the county’s approach to tourism development by creating the county’s first tourism development authority and instead of funneling tourism development money through the chambers of commerce.

The county also is building its first animal shelter and creating an animal control division from scratch.

Possibly the toughest challenge, however, will be what to do in the wake of several failed bond referendums defeated by voters this fall.

Commissioners hoped voters would approve a $42 million school bond referendum in the November election, along with another $22 million for a new recreation complex, a Southwestern Community College building, a senior center and a new library in Highlands. Voters rejected all of them, however.

That leaves commissioners with the tough choice of whether to go forward the projects anyway despite the lack of public support, or to rethink their plans. The county can still peruse the building projects without the public’s support in the bond vote, but will have to pay a higher interest rate when borrowing the money than if the bond had passed.

Commissioners had said the projects were pertinent for the county’s future and unanimously supported them, but moving forward with them without the support of voters in the bond referendum could prove controversial. Commissioners said they would have to raise taxes to pay for the building projects.

Despite the pending challenges, Horton is excited about the return.

“The county has a pretty good system of responsibility and progressive style government,” he said. “They (the county) got a lot of good things going on.”

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