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Friendly but formidable forum puts Waynesville town candidates on record

fr forumCandidates for the Waynesville town board faced off in a forum last week before a packed crowd in the Haywood County historic courtroom.

Nine candidates took turns giving prepared stump speeches and answering impromptu questions on the spot. It was during this pop quiz portion of the forum that the most notable differences among candidates emerged.

Five of the nine candidates are entering the race as challengers. The other four are on the board already and running for re-election.

Few of the challengers have ever been to a town board meeting and admitted not being on the board put them at a disadvantage in talking knowledgeably about town affairs.

“People running for aldermen are kind of on the outside looking in,” said Challenger Kenny Mull.

Only two challengers — Jon Feichter and Phillip Gibbs — have started going to town board meetings the past couple months, after declaring their candidacy.

But that didn’t stop a couple of the challengers from complaining about the lack of transparency and access to the decision-making process.

Jonnie Cure, a challenger for mayor, in particular talked about apathy as a plight that needed to be addressed.

“There is an apathy in our community regarding government. We have to fight that apathy,” Cure said.

Cure said she would like to see town government more inclusive and open.

“An exclusive know-it-all attitude is old school,” Cure said.

However, Cure has not attended town meetings or town public hearings herself. 

Mayor Gavin Brown said his philosophy is indeed one of inclusion and collaboration, countering Cure’s dig with one of his own, targeting Cure’s reputation as a rabble-rouser.

“In my 17 years on the job, I have learned the most important characteristic you can have is the ability to get along. If you expect somebody who is going to be your mayor to stick their finger in your chest or thump their own chest, don’t vote for me,” Brown said. “We have a pluralistic community. We all have to come to the table and accommodate each other.”

Town board challenger Jon Feichter has been more plugged in to town affairs than some, due to his role on the town planning board, but also noted a disappointing level of apathy. He recalled an undertaking in 2011 to rewrite the town’s development ordinances line-by-line, a year-long process that culminated in a public hearing.

“I would have thought given the critical nature of this issue we would have people lined up out the door to comment on this. Guess what? That’s not the way it was,” Feichter said.

Feichter offered a solution to bridge the divide.

“I would like to make us more active in seeking out public input, and I think one way we can do that is to go out in the field and engage our citizens. Why don’t we go to the public where they are?” Feichter said, suggesting town hall meetings held in Frog Level or the Folkmoot Center in Waynesville.

Mull seemed to share Cure’s opinion that town hall has an ivory tower mentality.

“I am tired of people running for elected office and then they get in there and promote their own agenda and don’t listen to people and y’all know what I am talking about,” Mull said. “If the majority of people feel one way about it, that’s the way I want to go. If someone has a concern I want them to come to me.”

 

Knowing the budget ropes

When it came to questions about the town budget, responses ended up being less about the budget, and more about where you could get ahold of the town’s budget.

Challenger Kenny Mull said a copy of the budget should be available for anyone to see at town hall.

“That’s a public record I understand. You should have a copy of the budget available and put it on the desk at town hall so everyone can see it,” Mull said. “So everybody can look at it and know exactly where and what it is going to. It would make a lot of people happy and stop a lot of this stuff from going around.”

Alderman Leroy Roberson countered the accusation.

“The budget has always been available to anyone who ever wants to go by town hall,” Roberson said.

Roberson said the budget process isn’t a secret.

“We had three budget hearings announced in the paper, we went over the budget several times, sometimes on specific items,” Roberson said.

Mayor Gavin Brown also countered the idea of the budget being a tightly held secret.

“You want to see it? Just go online. You can see every item that’s in there,” Brown said.

Jonnie Cure, challenger for mayor, said there is a difference in making the budget available and making it understandable.

“I would insist that budget be expressed in laymen terminology so the common people can understand where their money is being spent. It is in accounting language that many of us cannot understand so it keeps us from asking important questions,” Cure said.

Brown disagreed.

“It is not in Greek ladies and gentleman, it is in English,” Brown said. And if you have a question, “You can ask me, you can ask our finance director, you can ask our town manager, you can ask any department head.”

Brown ticked off major areas of the budget, citing police, fire, streets and so on. 

Alderman Gary Caldwell said the budget isn’t a flash in the pan affair.

“We really research it for months and months. I think we have all done a good job. I have to comment for all my guys that’s on the board, we have always been great for watching out on the town’s behalf for the budget,” Caldwell said.

Challenger Jon Feichter admitted that it is difficult to fully understand the decision-making process “as somebody who is not on the board, a little bit on the outside looking in.”

But he has availed himself of the open invitation Mayor Gavin Brown has extended to the challengers to go over the town’s budget any time, and had sat down with Brown the day before the forum to learn more about the budget, but had just started to dig into it.

Challenger Anthony Sutton was the only newcomer in the game who aced the budget question.

“The budget is 314 pages long, and I have read it from front to back,” Sutton said. He proceeded to break down the six major categories of the budget.

“I have read it from end to end. That’s what I do for a living,” said Sutton.

For the record, a hard copy of the budget is indeed on display at town hall, and a digital version on the website under the “finance” tab.

A similar theme emerged when candidates were asked to reflect on Waynesville’s 2020 plan, which proved difficult for some.

“I don’t know much about it, but if I am elected, I will learn more about it,” Mull said.

Challenger Phillip Gibbs made a similar pledge.

“I hope to be on the board one day so I can study it in detail,” Gibbs said.

Challenger Jon Feichter had the best working knowledge of the 2020 plan, given his role on the town’s planning board.

“The 2020 plan is our stock and trade. It is essentially one of the things I think is important to understand and revisit,” Feichter said.

He made a noble attempt to give a crash course on the original 2020 plan and subsequent revisions to it in the short allotted time he had to answer the question.

Challenger Anthony Sutton said he had read the entire Waynesville 2020 plan — as he had the entire town budget — and supports it. It dovetails with his campaign slogan of “making Waynesville a better place to live, work and play.”

However, he said the next board should update the plan.

Alderwoman Julia Freeman agreed.

“The work that went into the 2020 plan is incredible. But the plan is becoming outdated,” Freeman said.

 

More to come

Candidates who are currently aldermen were asked to name the accomplishment they are most proud of.

Roberson had to think a moment, and then pontificated on the importance of negotiating a new wholesale power contract.

“As you know, the town of Waynesville is going to be changing its wholesale power provider,” Roberson said. “This new contract has the potential to save quite a bit of money and increase the funds that will be available for the town.”

Its importance is undeniable — the town makes a $1 million profit off the electric system to fund town operations. That cash cow was at risk in the face of rising wholesale power rates, making it critical to shop around and negotiate a more favorable wholesale power contract.

But citing that as the town’s biggest accomplishment was likely lost on much of the audience, except the most astute of town government followers.

Alderman Gary Caldwell named a crowd-pleaser when it was his turn.

“Everybody knows what I am going to say. It’s going to be the skate park. It took me 10 years, but we got it done,” Caldwell said, pumping his fist in the air to a rousing round of applause.

Caldwell said he didn’t do it alone, citing community support and the rest of the board agreeing to fund it.

Mayor Gavin Brown later pointed out just how much the town’s cost was — more than $350,000 — during a debate on the merits of cutting town expenses versus cutting taxes. 

Alderwoman Julia Freeman said one of her proudest accomplishments on the board has been providing adequate support to the town’s police and fire department.

“They are our frontline responders who serve this community, and they are top-notch in the state,” Freeman said.

Since challengers obviously couldn’t answer what accomplishment they were most proud of, they were instead asked what issue they would tackle if elected.

To a person, each of them cited the need to be more business friendly, criticizing the town for a reputation of being unaccommodating. Several believe the town’s aesthetic standards for new businesses are too arduous and want to see the regulations loosened to varying degrees.

“We need to relax the restrictions that cause people to come in here. We should not deter. We should draw, we should make way,” said challenger Phillip Gibbs.

Challenger Jonnie Cure was the most critical of town development ordinances as being a business deterrent.

“That unspoken, undefined, unfriendly attitude they feel when they come here must absolutely be eliminated,” Cure said. “Government must get out of our way. Let us win this game and other businesses will come automatically and seek our success.”

Alderman Leroy Roberson said the town’s regulations actually help ensure business success and keep the community vibrant.

“I have seen what happens when you have no controls. It is called cancer. If you have no controls and let it go down a lot of things can happen that can be a flash in the pan and then you can start ending up with dead areas and vacancies,” Roberson said.

Challenger Jon Feichter said the anti-business perception is a conundrum the town must address.

“I think in some ways that perception is perhaps unfounded. But I will say in a lot of ways perception is reality,” Feichter said.

The theme will be explored thoroughly in upcoming coverage of the town election in The Smoky Mountain News between now and Election Day.

 

Who’s running?

All five seats on the Waynesville town board, including the mayor, are up for election. Nine candidates are running for five seats on the Waynesville town board this November: seven candidates for aldermen and two for mayor. All the current office holders are running for re-election except one, Alderman Wells Greeley.

Candidates include:

• Mayor Gavin Brown, attorney 

• Mayor challenger Jonnie Cure, real estate

• Alderman Gary Caldwell, printing industry

• Alderman Leroy Roberson, retired optometrist

• Alderwoman Julia Freeman, nonprofit director of REACH

• Alderman Challenger Jon Feichter, owner of New Meridian Technologies

• Alderman Challenger Phillip Gibbs, retired from the Canton paper mill

• Alderman Challenger Kenny Mull, owner of Bob’s Sports Store

• Alderman Challenger Anthony Sutton, accounting manager at Biltmore Farms, an Asheville-based development firm.

 

Voter registration deadline approaching

The voter registration deadline for the 2015 municipal election is Friday, Oct. 9. The board of elections must receive your voter registration form by 5 p.m. on Friday for you to be eligible to vote. 

Oct. 9 is also the deadline to update any information on your voter registration, including political affiliation and change of address. 

Visit  www.ncsbe.gov/ncsbe/updating-registration to print off a registration form and turn in a completed form to the county board of elections office. 

Early voting begins Thursday, Oct. 22, and runs through 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31. 

Election Day is Nov. 3.

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