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2020: Burn, baby, burn

They say hindsight is 2020 and that is definitely true as we’re all eager to put this disaster of a year in the dumpster and light it on fire. 

While many of us remember way back in January feeling like 2020 would be our year — we just couldn’t predict it would be our year of high unemployment, isolation, fear, sickness and uncertainties. 

All we can hope for now is that 2021 will bring an end to this pandemic and that we’ve all learned some hard lessons we can take along with us in this uncertain future. 

But before we move on, The Smoky Mountain News once again takes a look back to reflect on the last year of news — it’s been a doozy. Some of the headlines that have graced our pages could pass for a satire headline from The Onion, but sadly, they’re all too real. However devastating and infuriating the news has been this year, it’s still important to find a little bit of humor in the absurd.

Our annual Spoof Awards and Fake News Freakout pay tribute to the people, places and events that have made 2020. Congratulations and condolences to those who have earned an award this year. We appreciate the laughs among the tears and hope you can find the courage to laugh at yourselves as well. If you didn’t make the cut this year, there’s still plenty of time in 2021 to leave your mark.


The Chumbawamba Award

They may have gotten knocked down hard when the pandemic forced the first-ever closure in the history of Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos — but they got up again, pulling in significantly more money than worst-case scenarios feared upon reopening at limited capacity.

Casino profits for the April through October period of 2020 came in at roughly 70 percent of 2019 levels, much better than the worst-case scenario of 30 percent or the budgeted level of 50 percent.

However, as casino patrons took their whiskey drinks, their vodka drinks, their lager drinks and their cider drinks inside the socially distanced walls of Harrah’s Cherokee, outside forces were threatening the profits those walls could pull in during future years. Though legally contested, construction is underway for a Catawba Nation casino in Kings Mountain, and another casino is under development in Bristol, Virginia. Not to mention that North Carolina as well as all the states surrounding it are exploring potential legislation that could result in further competition nearby.

The tribe wouldn’t let those threats keep it down, however. The EBCI is currently engaged in a lawsuit seeking to halt the Catawba project, and in November it broke ground on a development worth tens of millions of dollars along Interstate 40 in Sevierville, Tennessee. Kituwah LLC, the tribe’s business arm, purchased a modular home company back in February, and Harrah’s Cherokee is celebrating a finalized agreement that allows it to add sports betting to its mix of offerings. Looking to the future, the tribe hopes to get into the commercial gaming business and is in the process of finalizing a $250 million deal to purchase the operation at Caesars Southern Indiana.


2020 maxpatch

Crowding on Max Patch has sparked concerns about overuse and litter. A Shot Above photo


The Oscar Award

This award is not named for the accolade of the same name given by the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but rather for the garbage-dwelling puppet of Sesame Street fame — and it goes to all the people who couldn’t manage to pack their trash out of WNC’s public lands this year.

Max Patch in the Pisgah National Forest has become something of a poster child for this issue, with a widely circulated drone shot taken in September showing the placid bald transformed into a city of tents. Benny Braden, who camped out in the area during one of those high-traffic nights, reported picking up 82 gallons’ worth of trash the next morning.

Other public lands have dealt with similar issues. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park experienced record-setting visitation this summer and fall, with more than 1.5 million recreation visits per month in June, July, August and October. October was particularly intense, with the 1.7 million visits recorded that month representing a 23.6 percent increase over October 2019.

All that use has led to severe impacts. The park held a slate of public input meetings in October to gather ideas as to how to address congestion issues at some of the park’s busiest areas. Intense use has led to erosion and resource damage issues as people park on any piece of available ground, as well as safety challenges with hikers commonly walking a mile along the windy and heavily used Newfound Gap Road to reach some of the popular trailheads located there.

These problems won’t be solved overnight, but on an individual level, the solution is simple. Don’t drive on the grass, stay on the trail, and please, please, don’t be a Grouch. Pack out your trash.


Community Service Award

This one’s for the thousands upon thousands of health professionals across the state of North Carolina who last January had absolutely no idea that 2020 would turn out to be perhaps the most difficult, consequential year of their careers (so far). 

Given that global pandemics only seem to occur about once a century, there are few alive with memories of the 1918 Spanish Influenza, which infected half a billion people — one-third of the world population — and killed between 20 million and 50 million, including more than 675,000 Americans. 

From Maggie Valley to Myrtle Grove, doctors, nurses, paramedics and public health officials suddenly found themselves dealing with a global health emergency that they’d probably only read about in some long-forgotten textbook lesson back in school.

While the rest of us isolated and attempted to remain out of harm’s way, these brave souls rushed towards the dangers of the Coronavirus Pandemic with superhero-like resolve. It’s largely because of them that deaths in the United States remain about half of those counted in the 1918 pandemic. 

Worthy of special recognition are Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandi Cohen, now-retired Haywood County Public Health Director Patrick Johnson and Haywood County Health Department Medical Director Dr. Mark Jaben, all of whom have served as stern but optimistic voices of reason and comfort during a time when misinformation and mania surrounding the pandemic ran as rampant as the 2019-nCoV virus itself.


2020 nolte

Dr. Bill Nolte learned some lessons of his own this past year. Cory Vaillancourt photo


Think Twice, It’s Not Alright

The award goes out to Bill Nolte, superintendent of Haywood County Schools, who learned this year that Dylan’s breezy lyric ‘don’t think twice, it’s alright’ doesn’t apply to superintendents wading into issues of race and history.

Nolte’s post, which included an old photo of white kids in a cotton field and his words “Children of every color picked cotton. Open a book and gain some knowledge,” was taken down. He apologized, not for the content of the post but for the way it might have made viewers feel. He also informed everyone that he had a black roommate in college, so, phew! there’s no way he could harbor any amount of racial bias, implicit or explicit. 

While this is the type of cringe-worthy behavior is expected from our crazy uncle on Facebook, school superintendents are not awarded the same leeway. For the sake of everyone in this community, we hope that during the few days he was relieved of his duties, he opened a book and “gained some knowledge” about the realities of race in America. 


Whose Line Is It Anyway? Award

Without a doubt, hands down, teachers win for best improv performance this year. They’ve had to make it up as they go along and be ready to change directions at the drop of a dime and at the whims of old men running this country.

As soon as they felt like they had distance learning modalities functioning properly, they had to prepare to bring students back into the classroom as well while still teaching some students remotely. While trying to meet state curriculum guidelines amid so much chaos, they’ve had the added stress of trying to teach students who are also dealing with their own stress and anxieties associated with this pandemic. 

Through all of the trials 2020 has thrown at our society, teachers have been there, nurturing and educating our children. They put their lives in danger. They deal with children that are scared, sick, isolated and confused. Still, they’ve shown up day after day with a smile on their face even when their scripts are changing daily. They are heroes for the work they have done and for the rubbish they have put up with in 2020. Now let’s pay them more.  


2020 meadows

Mark Meadows.


Best Emulation of a Classical Tragedy Award

There’s been something spectacularly Shakespearian about Mark Meadows’ character arc over the last 14 months or so. 

In the year 1040, The Bard’s MacBeth was a powerful Scottish general serving under the rule of King Duncan. Hailing from an obscure district of Scotland, MacBeth’s ambition, coupled with the designs of his wife, lead him to abandon his rural constituency in favor of a more powerful position. 

In 2019, Meadows was a powerful Republican congressman serving under the rule of President Donald Trump. Hailing from an obscure district of North Carolina, Meadows’ ambition, coupled with the designs of his wife, led him to abandon his rural constituency in favor of a more powerful role. 

A close friend of Meadows’ wife, Maggie Valley real estate agent Lynda Bennett, was given advance knowledge of Meadows’ impending departure, ran an embarrassingly bad campaign and then ended up losing to a 25-year-old political unknown, current congressman-elect Madison Cawthorn. 

While MacBeth ended up offing King Duncan, Meadows didn’t go quite that far in his lust for power but he did get awfully close to the throne — after announcing he wouldn’t seek almost-assured reelection in his newly un-gerrymandered district, Meadows abandoned his seat in Congress last March to assume the role of President Trump’s chief of staff. 

It may have seemed a smart bet at the time for Meadows even though his seat has remained empty through some of the largest spending bills ever passed, but as Shakespeare reminds us again and again, opportunistic power grabs are dishonorable and usually punished by the gods as moral sins against humanity. 

That penance came for Meadows when the unthinkable happened — his boss lost the election, giving Meadows several months on the job instead of several years. 

Now, as Meadows’ character arc comes full circle, he’ll have plenty of time as a private citizen to ponder what he had, and what he lost. Look for his next chapter to be less Shakespearian and more Machiavellian.

An honorary second-place award goes to Rep. Mike Clampitt and former Rep. Joe Sam Queen. Western North Carolina’s own Capulet and Montague, Clampitt and Queen have run against each other for the District 119 House seat five times dating back 10 years, with Queen still up 3-to-2 but now on the outside. If only these two had some kids who would fall in love with each other and unite the two warring factions and … oh, wait. Never mind. 


2020 blm

Black Lives Matter marchers visited Maggie Valley twice this summer. Cory Vaillancourt photo


Civic Engagement Award

You. Not since the 1960s have Americans just like you taken to the streets in such large numbers to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly by demonstrating for (or against) a variety of causes close to their hearts. 

First, there were the “Reopen North Carolina” vehicular caravans that took place in Waynesville in April, and later in Franklin. Drivers were upset with Gov. Roy Cooper’s orders shutting down large swaths of the economy over fears of COVID-19 transmission, at a time when North Carolina was logging less than 400 cases per day — a far cry from the current 7-day rolling average of more than 5,000 cases per day.

Then, starting in Waynesville in June, the Black Lives Matter movement began appearing in Western North Carolina towns from Murphy to Canton and all points in between. Roughly a dozen marches, vigils or rallies were held in places like Bryson City, Franklin, Maggie Valley (twice) and Sylva. 


2020 trump

Volunteers finish setting up the stage at an event in Bryson City on July 18. Cory Vaillancourt photo


In response, roughly a half-dozen “Back the Badge” rallies in support of the nation’s first responders took place, including in Haywood County and in Franklin on July 25. 

Some of these events then evolved into demonstrations over Confederate imagery — notably in Sylva — and drew healthy counter-demonstrations from the “heritage not hate” crowd. 

No matter which side of these contentious issues you fall on, we’d like to bestow upon you the Civic Engagement Award for getting out there, in your cars and on your feet, on your street, making local, state and national leaders hear your voice loud and clear — and all without the serious injuries, mass arrests, property damage or casualties that marred many of the actions in other cities and states across the country.


Civic Irresponsibility Award

You, again. With rights come responsibilities, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that within the course of exercising your First Amendment rights during the 20-odd mass demonstrations that took place across Western North Carolina this past year (excluding Asheville), some of you ignored your corresponding responsibilities by circulating preposterous conspiracy theories, spreading senseless misinformation, engaging in unfounded fearmongering and promulgating race-baiting lies on social media. 

It goes a little something like this. 

COVID-19 is a bioweapon deliberately manufactured by the Chinese to humiliate our president and cripple our nation. 

The installation of a new 5G cellular network overseen by Chinese mega-corporations is instrumental in sickening millions of Americans and in spreading the coronavirus. North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is exercising powers far beyond his authority while assuming the role of dictator, all because you can’t enjoy a fat rack of ribs at Applebee’s and then get your nails did. 

The COVID-19 vaccine has a microchip in it so that Bill Gates can personally and continuously eavesdrop on your mundane, inconsequential life. 

Billionaire George Soros is funding every Black Lives Matter march out of his own pocket. Violent inner-city protestors (read: Black people) are paid $100 a day to take a rented bus from Atlanta all the way up to your little town, just to burn it down.

Self-styled “militias” and, like, 400 Harley dudes are all coming from miles away with full-auto .50-cal machine guns and bazookas to guard against imaginary enemies. 

Of course, it doesn’t help that some of these falsehoods were perpetuated by “Mr. Very Fine People on Both Sides,” our nation’s liar-in-chief, throughout 2020.

Such rumors aren’t simply innocent internet chatter. Indeed, the ultimate effect of them, especially on social media, resulted in short-staffed small-town police departments stretched thin by the Coronavirus Pandemic scrambling to follow up on every tip, every rumor, every threat, while working overtime to monitor these demonstrations — because that’s their job, to keep us safe. At taxpayer expense.

Shame on you. Be better. 


Disturbing the Peace Award

Perhaps the loudest, most obnoxious part of 2020 has been the horn honking and engine revving from the ubiquitous Trump caravan. You’ve likely seen them, cars, trucks (each with their own pair of tiny truck nuts) and motorcycles gather together to fly their Trump, Blue Lives Matter and Rebel flags high as they honk and rev their way through one unsuspecting, peaceful downtown after another. 

They come out in protest of the protests rocking our nation, and disrupt any and all peace in their way. They come out in support of the losing candidate like screaming children after their favorite toy has been taken away. They come out to show everyone just how big and how loud their truck really is. 


2020 froglevel

Citizens had plenty of questions for Waynesville’s political candidates back in 2019. Jessi Stone photo


Epic Fail Award

In the lead-up to the November 2019 municipal elections in Waynesville, the town’s homelessness problem rushed to the forefront just weeks before voters would get their once-every-four-years opportunity to elect the town’s mayor and Board of Aldermen. 

Hosted by SMN Politics Editor Cory Vaillancourt at Frog Level Brewing, a candidate forum dedicated solely to the issue was held, with most candidates concluding that a homelessness task force would be a priority after the election. 

The defeat of two longtime board members, Mayor Gavin Brown and Alderman LeRoy Roberson, gave Waynesville a new mayor in Alderman Gary Caldwell, and two new aldermen, Chuck Dickson and Anthony Sutton. 

The new board followed through on the promise, but the task force has been beset with dissent, defections and, almost a year later, a complete lack of meaningful results. 

First, there was haggling between board members over who should be appointed to the task force. Then, the appointments were delayed. Then, there were complaints about the relatively large (almost 20) size of the task force. Then, at least one member — Joey Reece — quit over his disappointment with the group’s direction. 

Some task force members began showing up sporadically. Some never showed up at all. But those who did — including the town’s police chief, personnel from the county sheriff’s office and leaders of prominent local nonprofits — spent many evening hours only to tell us in September what we’d known all along: there’s a need for a homeless shelter. 

Look, the complex problem of homelessness in America isn’t going to be solved quickly or easily, but the inefficacy of Waynesville’s task force in moving the issue forward in this particular community isn’t the outcome taxpayers, business owners, residents or the unsheltered themselves deserve. 


Exit, Stage Left Award

All the world’s a stage, Shakespeare said; accordingly, in 2021 a number of notable political actors will make their exit from that stage. Some may end up playing other roles, others not, but all have performed in ways that will spell out the next act for their audience — the people of Western North Carolina. 

Congressman Mark Meadows may have left his seat open when he resigned in March 2020 to take a job in the Trump White House, but prior to that he dominated his gerrymandered district over the course of four elections. Rising to become chairman of the influential House Freedom Caucus, Meadows was a national figure with a broad base of conservative support, thanks to his frequent appearances in conservative national media. 

Like Ovid’s Icarus, Meadows may have flown too close to the sun — with Trump’s loss, Meadows will soon be out of government, but not out of influence. His next role is anyone’s guess. 

North Carolina Sen. Jim Davis’ next role isn’t much of a guess. After announcing his retirement in September 2019, Davis was quickly pulled back into the spotlight when Meadows made his last-minute announcement not to run for re-election. 

Davis finished a disappointing third in the primary election. He plans to continue seeing patients part-time at his orthodontics practice in Franklin while also spending time with family in a new vacation home. 

House District 118 Rep. Michele Presnell announced she wouldn’t be returning to the General Assembly, telling constituents in a December 2019 press release that she too wished to spend more time with family.

Presnell didn’t get a lot of love from leaders in Haywood County — singlehandedly quashing a number of measures that had overwhelming multi-jurisdictional bipartisan support — but her Republican constituents absolutely adored her. She won four straight elections and was probably just as undefeatable as Meadows and Davis were. 

Waynesville Democrat Joe Sam Queen has proven to be anything but undefeatable by losing two of his last four elections in House District 119, including the most recent, to Bryson City Republican Mike Clampitt. 

It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll return for the sixth bout between the two, but given the depth of Democrats’ bench (Queen hasn’t been primaried since 2012) and imminent redistricting, he may once again have to show up for the big dance in 2022. 


2020 sylvasam

Demonstrators gather to oppose changes to the "Sylva Sam” statue. Holly Kays photo


Festivus Award

This one goes to Sylva Sam, which — like the iconic pole featured in Seinfeld — serves as a central location for people of all beliefs and backgrounds to gather and tell each other the things they most dislike about each other.

Since this summer, the statue, which portrays a Confederate soldier, has been a flashpoint for racial justice advocates who see it as a symbol of hate with no place in modern society and also for more conservative folks who see efforts to remove it as an attempt to erase history and disparage ancestors who died in the war.

Those sides met in a series of public meetings this summer, with the Sylva town board voting to ask the county to relocate the statue and the county board voting to let it stand, with alterations to remove language glorifying the Confederacy. Multiple protests and rallies also brought people passionate about the issue into downtown Sylva, and after the county’s Aug. 4 vote law enforcement officers had to separate the opposing sides when they met at the statue and began shouting at each other.

Afterward, the statue was enclosed in a chain link cage, and the steps surrounding it were closed off. Last week, the county finished covering up the pedestal with new granite, but the barriers still remain in place.


Go Ahead, Make My Day Award

When the story about the so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement first appeared in the Jan. 7, 2020, issue of The Smoky Mountain News, several elected officials privately questioned the relevance of the topic.

They were right to do so, at the time, because only two North Carolina counties, Cherokee and Rutherford, had passed such resolutions. But soon — very soon — the discussion would come to them. 

Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions, in general, state that a county will refuse to support or enforce any law, state or national, that it deems to be in violation of the Second Amendment. 

Of course, such resolutions are utterly unenforceable, but they did become a powerful symbolic way for gun rights activists to affirm their interpretation of the “shall not be infringed” clause of the amendment. 

After sweeping through Virginia in response to gun control measures proposed by the Virginia General Assembly, the movement found fertile fields in the Old North State.

Less than three weeks after the SMN story was published, citizens packed the Historic Haywood County Courthouse demanding a Second Amendment sanctuary resolution. Subsequently, another 80 or so North Carolina counties considered similar measures. 

Most passed, but some counties, like Haywood and Macon, took a third route — they passed “Constitution-protecting” resolutions that affirmed support for all the amendments, even the boring ones. 

There was plenty of chest-puffing and rifle-stroking along the way, along with some tears, including from Natalie Henry Howell, who showed up unexpectedly at a Haywood commission meeting to speak on the issue. 

Howell’s son, 21-year-old Waynesville native Riley, was shot eight times while attempting to stop a spree killer at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in April 2019. He was successful. He paid for it with his life. 


2020 tribalcouncil

SMN publisher Scott McLeod addresses the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council. ECBI video


The Sisyphus Award

In recognition of the king of Corinth who in Greek mythology was forced to spend the afterlife pushing a rock uphill — only to have it roll back down each time — The Smoky Mountain News gets this award for its efforts to better cover the Cherokee Tribal Council through in-person attendance of the body’s meetings.

In April 2018, Council voted to bar non-tribal media from its chambers, and since that time SMN’s reporters have had to cover Council proceedings using online meeting videos, a method that comes with some inherent limitations. After a constructive conversation between SMN Publisher Scott McLeod and members of council this February, the body agreed to lift the policy and allow reporters in the chambers once more, provided they got the OK from the chairman before each meeting.

That agreement was a rock-on-the-hill moment for SMN, and a seeming milestone for transparency in Cherokee.

Then, a month later, the pandemic hit. These days, we’re covering Cherokee meetings — and nearly all of our county and town meetings too, for that matter — through Zoom and YouTube. It’s not ideal, but hopefully it’s temporary. The rock may be firmly at the bottom of the hill right now, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed that as vaccine distribution accelerates, that rock will shoot up top again, with minimal labor required from SMN.


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Area nursing homes weren’t spared by the Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020. Donated photo


The Purple Heart Award

The Purple Heart is a solemn medal given to service members who’ve shown bravery and sacrifice in battle, and no one deserves this award more in 2020 than the nursing homes throughout the region. 

They haven’t gotten a break from this pandemic since March and have shown true bravery in the face of uncertainty, sickness and death. Their faces have been marred by masks and shields, their eyes swollen from tears and their hearts heavy with grief as they’ve had to watch helplessly as their elderly residents pass away.

In early December as Silver Bluff Village in Canton was experiencing its second major COVID-19 outbreak, Administrator Lisa Leatherwood’s comments are a perfect example of the exasperation nursing homes are feeling right now. How much more could they take after losing 30 residents back in August? After taking all precautions and doing everything that was recommended, Silver Bluff had a second outbreak in November. 

“Especially when we had our big outbreak, you know, we were worn out and they would come and say, ‘we have no suggestions’ and I mean, my director of nursing and I just sat there and cried,” said Leatherwood. “If we’re not doing anything wrong, why has this happened? You know, I think that’s the hardest part.”

The physical and emotional toll this pandemic has brought upon the medical community should not be overlooked. Day in and day out these folks have witnessed what most of us would turn our eyes to because it’s too painful to see. Our deepest appreciation and respect goes out to nursing home staff and our deepest condolences to the families who’ve lost loved ones this year.

Helicopter Parent Award

When North Carolina instituted the first COVID-19 restrictions back in March, it wasn’t long before Swain County added a 10 p.m. curfew for all residents. 

Sheriff Curtis Cochran said it was more important than ever to keep movement in the county to a minimum during the pandemic so his officers wouldn’t have to respond to so many late-night calls. 

In theory it made sense, but the sheriff’s department perhaps took curfew a little too seriously when a grown-ass man was pulled over at 10:05 p.m. in Bryson City and cited for his late-night run to the grocery store for some ice cream. The man, Jesse Shows, might have gotten away with a warning if he would have just minded his manners and said “Yes, sir” to the deputy before going straight home, but Shows backtalked the deputy, questioning the legitimacy of the curfew, which landed him the citation, which could be accompanied with a $1,000 fine. That’s a hefty price to pay for some ice cream. 

Shows wasn’t going to be treated like a child though — days later he filed a federal lawsuit against the sheriff for violating his constitutional rights. Courts dismissed the “invalid citation” in June before Shows was scheduled to appear in court. A major win for children everywhere who’ve been forever impacted by helicopter parenting.


2020 jaben

Dr. Mark Jaben has become a familiar face to many in Haywood County this year. Screenshot


Mr. Congeniality Award

You know it’s a weird year when the county medical director becomes an overnight celebrity. Dr. Mark Jaben has been the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Haywood County thanks to his weekly video updates and popular appearances before the commissioners each month. Though he’s often delivering bad news about more cases and community spread, Jaben does it in a way that’s unbiased, non-judgmental and somehow hopeful. 

Jaben joins a growing list of esteemed men who’ve been chosen for the Mr. Congeniality Award, including Haywood Sheriff Greg Christopher, former Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingshed, the late WCU chancellor David Belcher and former director of Lake Junaluska Assembly Jack Ewing. 

Jaben has definitely had his fair share of critics this year, especially from anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists and self-proclaimed constitutional scholars on social media, but he still gets this award for the graceful way he’s responded to these backbiters with solid data and facts. To others, his weekly video updates have been a source of comfort and clarity among a sea of misinformation and fear mongering. 


2020 pless

Mark Pless.


Seat Warmer Award

Mark Pless receives the Seat Warmer Award for leaving his county commissioner seat vacant only two years into his first term to seek higher office in Raleigh.

Before 2018, few people had heard of Pless outside of the county government — county administration knew him because he had been fired from his county position as a paramedic for in 2003 for insubordination. The Republican hadn’t run for any public office before but now he wanted to run for county commissioner. His victory in November came as a surprise to voters and to Pless himself. 

But just a year into his four-year term, Pless announced his intentions to run for Rep. Michele Presnell’s seat in the House. With Presnell retiring, she endorsed Pless early on and without any competition in the March primary, Pless slid right into the General Election against Democrat Alan Jones, another political newcomer. 

Pless didn’t do much campaigning or spend a lot on advertising, but neither did Jones, which led to a walkover victory for Pless in November. It also chapped some asses locally, as the voters of Haywood County trusted Pless enough to elect him and then he vacated the seat within a year. That vacancy meant the Haywood GOP had an opportunity to appoint someone to fill the remainder of his term. 

Now Jennifer Best will be keeping the seat warm, hopefully for two more years. Time will tell if Pless can keep still in his new seat in the General Assembly. 


2020 hca

Ron Winters with Gibbins Advisors talks to Franklin residents in January about the firm’s role as an independent monitor of the Mission Health-HCA Healthcare sale. Jessi Stone photo


Over Promise, Under Deliver Award

Most people were skeptical about HCA Healthcare purchasing Mission Health Systems in 2019. Having a huge nonprofit health care system covering all of Western North Carolina turned over to a mega for-profit company just didn’t sit well with people, but if it meant more services and resources, most people were willing to give them a try. After all, the sale would mean the proceeds would be rolled into a new foundation that would distribute millions to nonprofit health organizations across the region for years to come. 

HCA remained fairly quiet during the transition, but then the independent contractor tasked with overseeing the transition and ensuring HCA met its contract obligations held a series of public input meetings in Mission hospital communities. Within a matter of a couple of hours it became clear HCA had been over promising and under delivering in the first year of ownership. Many people shared stories of improper billings or said they’d never received a bill before it was sent to collections. Others talked about incidents where it took more than 10 hours to get a transport from Angel Medical in Franklin to Mission Hospital in Asheville for a service or procedure. Person after person described their experiences with HCA as “unacceptable” and “unconscionable” while Angel CEO Karen Gorby sat quietly during the meeting and had little to say about the issues patients were facing. In a follow-up statement, Gorby said she would work with HCA to correct the problems presented. 

After reading reports from the meetings and fielding many complaints from constituents, Attorney General Josh Stein stepped in to demand answers from HCA execs by March 11. Of course by then we were facing the COVID-19 Pandemic head on and Stein extended HCA’s deadline to the end of March. Then he extended it again at the end of the March but didn’t give a specific deadline. Now 2020 is over and we still haven’t heard any details regarding how those questions were addressed and hoping Stein delivers on his promises.


Battle Royale Award

We don’t think we’ve ever witnessed such a contested race for a district court judge as we did in 2020. Beginning in 2019, candidates were lining up to get the seat left vacant by Judge Richard Walker. Judicial races are not usually contested, they’re not usually competitive and so they’re not usually talked about much, for all of those reasons. However, four Republican candidates faced off in the March Primary Election, creating a lot of interest early on in the campaign. Young Waynesville attorney Kaleb Wingate was victorious in the primary despite being the least experienced lawyer on the ballot. He then went on to face his Democratic opponent Justin Greene, a Bryson City attorney, in the General Election and even held a virtual debate. Though Greene had 10 more years of lawyering experience than Wingate, Wingate once again pulled out a major win. It didn’t hurt that his campaign raised nearly $55,000 in contributions, which was all-too-apparent as every billboard in WNC had Wingate’s smiling face plastered on it. 


No Pants, No Problem Award

Be honest, how many Zoom meetings have you sat through in 2020 without your pants? It’s OK, we won’t judge — we’ve all done it and we have Zoom to thank for it. If nothing else, 2020 has killed all our vanity to the point we feel completely confident sitting at our computers in front of our co-workers without a bra, makeup, pants or even one shred of dignity left. The cat is knocking stuff off the Christmas tree in the background and all your co-workers get an unsolicited view of your spouse coming out of the bathroom in nothing but a towel. We all know way too much about each others’ home lives now and there’s no going back. How will we ever go back to getting fully clothed to actually go to the office? Will every day become casual PJs day? Will our regular clothes even fit anymore? Let’s all make a pact to give the sweatpants a break (and a wash) in 2021.

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