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2019: What just happened?

As we ring in the New Year, The Smoky Mountain News likes to look back and reflect on the last year of news. 

The headlines that have graced our pages in 2019 have had an important impact on the people of Western North Carolina, and our staff has taken its job of reporting and analyzing those issues seriously.

However, just before those news stories become part of this region’s history and before we head into a new decade, we like to look back at the year and highlight some of the humor in the stories we’ve reported on all year.

Our annual Spoof Awards and Fake News Freakout pay tribute to the people, places and events that have rounded out 2019. Congratulations and condolences to those who have earned an award this year. We appreciate the laughs and hope you can find the courage to laugh at yourselves as well. If you didn’t make the cut in 2019, there’s still plenty of time in the coming year to leave your mark.

 

2019 elk

Elk are wild animals, and getting this close to them is extremely dangerous. But with visitor centers closed and staff furloughed, there was nobody around to remind visitors like this family to keep a safe distance during the shutdown. Holly Kays photo

 

The Overflowing Toilet Award

The federal government gets this one in the wake of a 34-day government shutdown that included most of January. 

Despite the lapse in pay for all federal employees — though not for lawmakers — and furlough of all “nonessential personnel,” the national parks remained open to visitors. In fact, more people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the shutdown than during the same period in 2018 when all services were running. 

Included under the umbrella of non-essential personnel were the employees who clean and maintain bathroom facilities throughout the park. While government funding may have ceased for the month of January, nature’s call did not. Visitors still came to the park, and they still found themselves in need of a particular type of relief during their stay. An uptick in the presence of human feces at popular park locations prompted Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association to donate money to keep the restrooms open, with federal funds from the Federal Land and Recreation Enhancement Act kicking in about halfway through the shutdown. 

After beginning Dec. 22, 2018, the shutdown finally ended on Jan. 25. Since then, the Smokies has kept on track for another record-breaking year, by the end of November recording 11.8 million visits — more than the 11.4 million logged over the entirety of 2018, which was also a record-breaking year. 

 

The Greek Tragedy award

A man, Aristotle said, does not become a hero until he sees the root of his own downfall. Aristotle was one of the first and perhaps best to define the literary concept of a tragic hero, and one can’t help but notice a striking correlation to the political career of Gavin Brown.

Brown’s a seven-decade resident of Waynesville, and had served multiple terms as both alderman and mayor. That ended this past November when he was voted out of office — convincingly — in favor of longtime Alderman Gary Caldwell. The resolution of Brown’s character arc wasn’t surprising to anyone who’d been following along, however.

Despite being largely responsible for a number of Waynesville’s great victories in recent years, including holding down taxes in the aftermath of a recession, successfully opposing an NCDOT project that would have decimated one of the town’s most historic neighborhoods and shepherding the town’s new waste treatment plant into being, Brown’s personal and professional life eventually began to overshadow his political life.

In 2018, Brown was indicted for forgery after using a notary’s stamp and falsifying a signature on an otherwise mundane deed transfer. When asked why he’d done it, Brown told SMN that “the Greek word ‘hubris’” was what led him to do the deed. Hubris, explains Aristotle, is the fatal flaw that often leads to the downfall of the tragic hero.

 

2019 presnell

Rep. Michele Presnell isn’t seeking reelection to her seat this year. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Bye, Felicia!

It might appear that Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, has had it out for Haywood County, but electorally she’s been more popular here than she has been in her home county of Yancey, even though she singlehandedly blocked a proposed Haywood County municipal merger that was overwhelmingly supported by all of the parties involved, and singlehandedly blocked an increase in Haywood County’s room occupancy tax rate that was overwhelmingly supported by all of the parties involved, and singlehandedly blocked a proposed change in how Haywood selects its tax collector that was overwhelmingly supported by all of the parties involved, and singlehandedly blocked an increase in Haywood County’s room occupancy tax rate that was overwhelmingly supported by all of the parties involved, again. 

Perhaps the only fair thing she did for Haywood County in her four terms in office was announce her retirement right at the outset of the candidate filing period — we’re looking at you, Mark Meadows — so that people of all political persuasions could give thoughtful contemplation to a bid for her seat. 

Two candidates have emerged — first-term Haywood County Commissioner Mark Pless, and United Steelworkers official Alan Jones, of Canton — but regardless of who wins, the tiny sliver of Haywood County that lies within House District 118 may finally have a voice in Raleigh. 

 

Too Big for Their Britches Award

Parents really need to stop telling their kids they can grow up to be anything they want to be because the number of inexperienced politicians coming out of the woodwork is getting a bit ridiculous. Just because your mommy loves you and tells you you’re smart and special doesn’t mean you have the qualifications to run for higher office. Maybe it’s not just too many hugs from mom — the fact that America is being run by someone who is also inexperienced in policy and politics might be the culprit behind all these overly confident old white men suddenly finding their calling for public office. 

We once had homegrown politicians who would only consider running for state representative or senator after years of serving in their own communities and building up a reputation and local knowledge — Republican Jim Davis spent years as a county commissioner in Macon before running for N.C. Senate. Republican Kevin Corbin served on the Macon County Board of Education and then as the commission chairman for years before running for representative. We used to have leaders with no other ambitions but to serve their community, but now we have people who’ve barely served one term as a county commissioner running for state office. Who the hell do they think they are? I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

 

2019 chancellor

Chancellor Kelli R. Brown.

 

The Better Late Than Never Award

This one goes to the UNC Board of Governors, which this April elected Kelli R. Brown as Western Carolina University’s 12th permanent chancellor — after leaving the position vacant for more than a year. 

Brown, who began her new job July 1, succeeded former Chancellor David O. Belcher, who stepped down from the post at the end of 2017 and passed away in June 2018 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. 

After Belcher announced in November 2017 that he would be leaving the chancellor’s office, WCU formed a search committee in hopes of having a new leader in place for the fall 2018 semester. Trustees approved a list of three potential chancellors in June 2018, sending the names on to then-UNC President Margaret Spellings, who selected one of the three to forward to the Board of Governors for approval. 

But a reportedly contentious closed session meeting in July ended without a vote on the selection, and the candidate withdrew from consideration. Then-Chairman Harry Smith said the board wanted to review the chancellor search process to “refine and improve” it, implying this should be done before WCU resumed its search. However, after a two-month hiatus the search re-launched in September using the same process as the previous round. On March 1, trustees voted to endorse another list of three candidates, forwarding the names to Interim UNC President Bill Roper, who selected Brown’s name to send to the Board of Governors for consideration. In a unanimous vote, the board elected Brown to the position during a special session Thursday, April 25. 

Brown, 60, most recently served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Georgia College & State University, Georgia’s public liberal arts institution, and has more than 30 years of higher education experience. However, her professional journey had a humble beginning — her first post-secondary pursuit was an associate’s degree in dental hygiene, a program that landed her a job at a dentist’s office in Toledo, Ohio. She now holds a doctorate in education and is the first woman to take the top job at WCU, at least on a permanent basis — former Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar served as interim chancellor during the lengthy search process. 

 

2019 nikwasi

Cherokee children help celebrate the new joint ownership of the Nikwasi Mound in Franklin. Jessi Stone photo

 

The Grass is Greener Award

They say the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but you’ll never know unless you take a chance and climb over the mountain to take a look. 

The town of Franklin has been maintaining the Nikwasi Mound in the middle of Main Street for more than 70 years — mostly just keeping the grass mowed around the sacred native ground — but this year the town council decided to get outside of its comfort zone and see if the grass is greener on the other side by giving someone else a chance to take over ownership. 

The town has been approached before by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians about taking back ownership of the mound, but past leaders haven’t been willing to discuss the option. It’s been a source of contention between Macon County and the tribe for years. To the town’s credit, it has had the deed since 1947 when the people of Macon County pitched in money to buy the property to save it from being developed and handed it to the town for safe keeping. 

But this year a new community nonprofit made up of members representing the county, the town, EBCI and Mainspring Conservation Trust — Nikwasi Initiative — asked the town to turn over the deed to the organization so that more efforts can be made to preserve the mound and educate the public about its history.

You would have thought the group had asked for a sacrificial virgin the way some residents reacted to the request. Obviously the mound isn’t going anywhere and who better to take care of it than a group that represents everyone’s interests? And EBCI has money to invest in their sacred lands, while the town does not. 

In the end, the town board unanimously approved signing the deed over to Nikwasi Initiative along with safeguards that allow the mound to revert back to town ownership if something unforeseen happens. We hope the grass will be greener for everyone in the coming years as more attention is placed on preserving the mound. 

 

Stupid is as Stupid Does Award

Forrest Gump’s mama said it best. Stupid is as stupid does. This award goes to North Carolina legislators who thought it was a good idea to cut another $9 million in mental health funding from Western North Carolina for 2019-20 while at the same time claiming they are working hard to address the opioid epidemic. 

How can the state fight the growing number of people addicted to drugs when Republican legislators can’t see the correlation between mental health and addiction? We could also talk about how Republicans don’t want to expand Medicaid to cover more people with addiction and mental health issues, but that’s a whole other award. In the last four years, the state legislature has cut $48 million from Single Stream Funding to Vaya Health, the provider that doles out mental health funding to local providers in 23 western counties. In the meantime, some of these same western counties are experiencing the highest rates of overdose deaths in the state. Way to cut off your nose to spite your face.  

 

2019 dogwoodtrust

Antony Chiang was hired as Dogwood Health Trust's first chief executive officer. Jessi Stone photo

 

The Golden Goose Award 

No one was crazy about the idea of Mission Health, the last nonprofit hospital network in the region, selling to a for-profit health care giant like HCA, but if there’s one good thing that has come out of that transaction already is the creation of the Dogwood Health Trust. 

Proceeds from the sale went toward establishing a new health care foundation to serve Western North Carolina, which means the new nonprofit — operating outside of Mission’s scope — will have $1.5 billion to put toward worthy programs that will improve the overall health of WNC communities. 

The health foundations that previously supported Mission’s network of hospitals have also had to find a broader mission since they can no longer just give money to the hospital. These legacy foundations will be receiving $15 million over the next several years and will also be awarding health-related grants to community organizations. 

That is an unheard of amount of money being invested in a region that is in desperate need of resources, especially as the state battles the drug epidemic and the state continues to cut mental health services. From what we’ve seen so far from DHT, the board’s priorities seem to be on track — they hired an innovated new CEO with the experience needed to lead this new venture and they seem to understand the underlying causes of poor health in our region. It’s not just about people being uninsured, though that’s part of the problem, but they also understand to be healthy people need an affordable place to live, a secure living wage job, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, mental health and addiction resources and so much more. 

The next few years presents a golden opportunity to change this region for the better — let’s not mess it up. 

 

Put up or Shut Up Award

Politicians are good at talking the talk but not walking the walk. Well, Macon County Commissioners have put their money where their mouths are in 2019. While county governments have been complaining about the state’s lack of action when it comes to funding education and infrastructure in the far west — Macon County included — Macon commissioners decided to do something about it. Yes, it’s unfair the state hasn’t been funding education or broadband infrastructure like it should, but they realized nothing will get done if it’s not done — or at least started — at the local level. Commissioners first approved a property tax increase to be able to make up the public schools’ budget shortfall. Usually raising taxes can be political suicide, but commissioners did what needed to be done. In October, commissioners approved spending $678,000 over the next two years to help two broadband projects move forward. Commissioners approved $500,000 for the Town of Highlands broadband project over the next two years and $178,000 for the Little T Broadband project to bring coverage to Scaly Mountain and Otto.

Good for Macon County for knowing they ought to have skin in the game if they expect the state to step up to the plate. 

 

2019 jimmoore

Judicial candidate Jim Moore (left) chats with Rep. Mark Meadows in Swain County this past fall. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Who Are You Kidding Award

Good lord! Would someone just elect Jim Moore to something already? He’s run for just about every office he’s eligible for in the last four years — district attorney, clerk of court and now he’s running for District Court judge. Not that Moore isn’t well qualified for those positions — he’s been a well-respected lawyer in Haywood County for many years. He’s also a well-known Democrat and ran as such in his pursuit of DA and clerk of court, which is why it was such a shock when he announced he’d be running for District Court judge on the Republican ticket. OK, well maybe he had a good reason. Maybe he’ll be honest and say running in the primary against lesser known lawyers would increase his shot of winning. Nope. When interviewed about his change of party, Moore said he had realized how much the Republican Party had done for members of his family and how his friends commented that he’s more conservative than liberal when it comes to law and order. Not that political affiliation should have anything to do with running for a place on the bench, but since the race is partisan these days, we hope Moore knows he’s not fooling anybody. Maybe it will help him at the ballot box, but probably not with three other Republicans on the ballot. 

 

The ‘Carpetbaggers Gonna Carpetbag’ Award

French-born Floridian Mark Meadows made a fortune in real estate before seizing upon an open U.S. House seat in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District back in 2012, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that after he parlayed his dominance of a racially gerrymandered Republican-drawn map into eight years of national prominence he packed up his bag and left. 

Alas! Mark Meadows, we hardly knew ye. Seriously. Meadows hadn’t held a debate or a town hall in his district since at least 2017, right about the time he stopped doing conference calls with local radio, television and print media. He routinely refused requests for comment on issues large and small, and made only sporadic, unannounced visits to his district. 

Meanwhile, as leader of the influential House Freedom Caucus Meadows became a darling of the national TV talker circuit and spent more time tweeting about Democrats and New York real estate billionaire/President Donald Trump than he did talking about the issues faced by his poverty-stricken rural North Carolina district. 

Accordingly, his constituents first learned about his Dec. 19 decision from a D.C.-based national media outlet, Politico. That came with less than 36 hours left in the filing period, initiating a mad scramble by 11 Republicans — seven of whom have packed their bags to come from outside the 11th District. They’re joined by five Democrats, a Libertarian and a Green Party candidate. 

So what will Meadows do with his all his free time now? Write a tell-all? Collect dinosaur bones? Finish up his degree? 

Probably not. Speculation persists that Meadows is not simply looking to move on, he’s looking to move up — he may take a position in the Trump administration or Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, and may also end up seizing upon an open U.S. Senate seat (Burr) in 2022. 

 

2019 howell

It was always clear that the Force was strong with Riley Howell, even as a young Padawan. Donated photo

 

The Hometown Hero Award 

Without using every superlative in the thesaurus, it’s hard to put into words the heroic deeds of 21-year-old Waynesville native Riley Howell, who was tragically killed in a school shooting at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte on April 30, 2019. 

Howell, however, refused to be merely another victim like the other 486 killed and 1,642 others wounded during the course of 409 mass shootings that took place in the United States in 2019. 

When a gunman entered his classroom and began firing, Howell resisted the urge to flee and instead did what his morals, his upbringing and his caring nature told him to do — he ran headlong towards the gunfire. 

One bullet couldn’t stop him. Nor could a second. The third finally did, but not before he tackled the shooter, ending the killing and saving untold lives in the process.

Despite his bravery and his sacrifice, no one from his hometown was the least bit surprised. “That sounds like something he would do,” said his teachers, his preachers, his family, his friends. 

Once Howell’s deeds became more widely known he garnered international acclaim, but as 2019 drew to a close it was revealed that his fame had transcended international to become intergalactic. 

LucasFilm, purveyor of the enduring Star Wars saga, reached out to the Howell family seeking their permission to immortalize Riley by including him as canon in its epic story of good versus evil. When the Star Wars Visual Dictionary was released earlier this month, it included an entry for Ri-Lee Howell, Jedi master, archivist and historian.

Rest in power, Master Howell — like the Force itself, your spirit now flows through every living being in the universe.

 

The Hocus Pocus Award

For the performance of a magic trick that turned $36,268 of taxpayer money into a $1,853 payment to a private organization, this year’s “Hocus Pocus” award goes to the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen, the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. 

Back in 2017, the town and the TDA approved plans for a temporary, outdoor, portable, artificial ice rink — a dubious proposition what with the unpredictable mountain weather in February — to be called “Maggie on Ice” and managed by the Maggie Chamber.

The town fronted the cost, more than $36,000, with the assurance that it would be reimbursed up to $35,000 by the TDA, an organization charged with collecting the county’s 4 percent room occupancy tax and spending it in hopes of attracting visitors from outside the county, state and region. 

Per anecdote, the rink was a colossal failure, but when The Smoky Mountain News asked Maggie Valley Town Manager Nathan Clark for records and receipts from the ill-fated misadventure, he said the records were being maintained by the Maggie Chamber. 

When SMN asked Maggie Chamber president Theresa Smith for the records, she said she didn’t have any records. A few days later, during a meeting with Clark, SMN was provided the records in the form of an email from Smith to Clark that was dated weeks before SMN’s initial request of Clark.

The rink was supposed to be open for 10 days, but was partially or totally closed four of those days. In the end, just 754 skaters forked over the $6.50 admission. 

The overwhelming majority of them were from Haywood County, and only 35 room-nights were purchased in conjunction with the attraction. Never mind that the rink needed to host 99 skaters an hour just to break even, it grossed a little over $4,300 but after expenses — advertising, wristbands and the like — less than $2,000 was left, payable to the Maggie Chamber. Hocus pocus, Alakazam — the Maggie Valley ice rink was a total sham!

 

2019 srca

Not everything is shiny at Shining Rock Classical Academy. File photo

 

The Best Impersonation of an Actual School Award

Over the past four years, Shining Rock Classical Academy’s unelected governing board has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars to educate its students to a level far below the award-winning public schools of Haywood County, but fiscal responsibility and academic integrity aren’t the only way in which the school has become the laughingstock of the region.

The unelected governing board has repeatedly violated the basic legal obligations of public boards that use taxpayer money, especially in regard to transparency. In 2015, a land acquisition matter wasn’t disclosed, in violation of North Carolina law. In late 2017, the school’s director was made to resign in an unusual Sunday evening meeting, in violation of North Carolina law. In 2018 Shining Rock rescheduled another public meeting, in violation of North Carolina law. 

Those crimes, however, pale in comparison to the school’s cavalcade of calamity in 2019, including a trio of grievances filed against Head of School Joshua Morgan for improperly disciplining students. Those grievances were dismissed by the school’s own attorney during a secret meeting, in violation of North Carolina law. The unelected board also revealed that it hadn’t been keeping proper meeting minutes, in violation of North Carolina law. 

Then, in a moment of unbridled hubris, the school held an illegal closed session to discuss expansion (seriously!) and then refused to provide public records pertaining to that expansion to The Smoky Mountain News, in violation of North Carolina law. 

When enrollment totals for that year came in, they were far below projected numbers (shocking!) so the unelected board scuttled the expansion after wasting probably tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on fanciful renderings and now-worthless surveys. 

Half a year later, the unelected board still hasn’t provided the public documents requested by SMN, in violation of North Carolina law, but it did provide SMN with a bill for $1,537.50 to produce the documents, in violation of North Carolina law. 

 

2019 cointoss

Jackson County Board of Elections Chairman Kirk Stephens flips his 1921 silver dollar to decide the winner of the Sylva town board race. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

The Long Leaf Pine Award 

Since 1963, The Order of the Long Leaf Pine has stood as the highest civilian honor a North Carolinian can achieve for exemplary service and exceptional accomplishments in the state and community. Many have been awarded this honor in the decades since, but perhaps none is more deserving than the silver dollar whose services were required for the solemn task of deciding who should hold the third open seat on the Sylva Town Board. 

It’s not the first time that a coin has been instrumental in deciding a Sylva town board race. Of the last three election cycles, two have required a coin toss to do what voters could not — decide the election. 

It first happened in 2015, when Greg McPherson and Charley Schmidt each finished with 112 votes, tying for the third open seat. McPherson won the coin flip, took a seat on the board, and won re-election in 2019, this time with no coin flip necessary. 

But a trusty 1921 silver dollar owned by Jackson County Board of Elections Chairman Kirk Stephens was called in to decide the winner of the third open seat, a race that this time ended in a tie between Carrie McBane and Ben Guiney, who both drew 108 votes. Stephens tossed the coin for a best-out-of-three contest, and while McBane called tails to win the first round, her next two calls were incorrect. 

The seat went to Guiney, who was sworn in for a four-year term on Thursday, Dec. 12, along with returning commissioners McPherson and David Nestler. They join mid-term Commissioners Mary Gelbaugh and Barbara Hamilton, together with mid-term Mayor Lynda Sossamon, whose seats will be up for election in 2021. 

 

2019 woz

Greg Wozniak appears in a 2009 photograph following his selection as chief ranger of Saratoga National Historical Park. File photo

 

The Gone Fishing Award

This award goes to Greg Wozniak, who already has the perfect burgundy tackle box to use for the many fishing trips he’ll have time to take now that he’s no longer employed as Pisgah District ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

The burgundy tackle box made a memorable appearance in public documents on June 12, 2018, when Wozniak retrieved it from his vehicle and threw it over a highway overpass following a traffic accident in Knoxville, Tennessee, according to a police report. Wozniak and the driver of the other vehicle both claimed to have a green light, and no witnesses were present, so police could not determine who was at fault. However, they did retrieve the tackle box and discovered that it contained 10.1 grams of marijuana, 6.1 grams of mushrooms and six THC edibles.

For a law enforcement officer whose job description includes arresting people who violate the law and testifying when those cases make it to trial, illegal drugs are serious business. Wozniak was booked on two charges of drug possession, and his law enforcement commission was suspended. While he retained the title and pay of a district ranger, he was not allowed to perform any law enforcement duties while the National Park Service investigated and resolved the matter.

Wozniak admitted to Park Service investigators that he had taken “a couple hits” of marijuana within four hours of getting behind the wheel and consumed “a beer or two” after the marijuana. However, while the traffic report stated that Wozniak had been drinking, no field sobriety test was ever performed or DUI charge pressed. Furthermore, a Knox County judge dismissed the charges that were brought forward, and those charges were later expunged from the record — documents pertaining to the case are no longer public records. 

The Park Service’s internal process to resolve Wozniak’s commission status was a long one. The incident occurred on June 12, 2018, and it wasn’t until March 6, 2019, that a Board of Inquiry hearing was held to arrive at a recommendation for the future of Wozniak’s law enforcement commission. On March 15, the board delivered its opinion that the commission should be permanently revoked, which would mean Wozniak would no longer fit the job description for his position. The Park Service concurred with the recommendation and revoked the commission on April 29, 2019 — but Wozniak continued to hold the $88,050-per-year district ranger title through October. 

The Park Service would not comment as to whether Wozniak’s employment ended due to firing or resignation. However, 2019 marked his 20th year working law enforcement for the Park Service.  Law enforcement employees can retire at age 50 with 20 years of service. Wozniak is 46. 

Regardless of the semantics of his separation from the Parkway, one thing is certain — Wozniak and the tackle box will now have plenty of time to work on reeling in some fish stories. 

 

2019 luker

Commissioner Mickey Luker explains his reasons for favoring the controversial consolidation of Jackson County’s health and social services boards — now reversed — to members of that consolidated board during its August 2018 meeting. Holly Kays photo

 

The Can You Hear Me Now Award

“Can you hear me now,” a phrase most often associated with Verizon commercials, has been a central question at Jackson County Commissioners meetings over the past several months, earning Commissioner Mickey Luker this award. 

Sometime over the summer, Luker seems to have decided that physically going to meetings of the board he was elected to join is overrated, opting instead to attend via speakerphone, or not at all. He has not been to a meeting in person since Aug. 20, and has not even phoned in since Nov. 25, despite three additional meetings — including one held in his home district of Cashiers — occurring since that date.

On the occasions when Luker has called in, connection quality has at times been an issue. 

At the end of the Oct. 15 meeting, which featured public comment from Cashiers residents calling for Luker’s removal or resignation, The Crossroads Chronicle responded to commissioners’ usual end-of-meeting call for questions from the press with a query aimed at Luker — “Do you intend to resign?”

When there was no answer, Chairman Brian McMahan said, “Commissioner Luker, did you hear the question?” Again, there was silence. “Commissioner Luker?” said McMahan. “We seem to have lost him.”

On Nov. 7, Luker had just cast his vote to terminate the county’s contract on the Cooper property along Haywood Road when the line went dead, resulting in a loud dial tone filling the chambers. Staff rang him back, and Luker’s voice came on to say brightly “Mickey Luker!”

“Hey Mickey, we lost you for a second,” said McMahan, only to be interrupted by a robotic-sounding woman’s voice saying, “Please record your message.”

They tried back again, and this time Luker picked up, asking — what else? — “Can you hear me?”

 

2019 hollingsed

Few are more deserving of the ‘Mr. Congeniality’ award than former Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Mr. Congeniality Award

This has become one of the most prestigious awards given out by The Smoky Mountain News, not necessarily every year, but only when someone truly meets the qualifications. 

To be considered for Mr. Congeniality, one must be ridiculously well liked in the community. Candidates get bonus points if they are in a position that sets them up to be well hated or at least be a fairly controversial figure since they’re often in the spotlight. Past recipients have included Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher, WCU then-Chancellor David Belcher and Lake Junaluska Assembly’s past director Jack Ewing.   

This year’s Mr. Congeniality Award goes to Bill Hollingsed, who retired as Waynesville’s police chief this year. For the past 20 years, Hollingsed has helmed the police department, building it into a department of distinction modeled after his own pursuit of professional and ethical excellence. 

The chief scored major points for this award because of his tireless work in the community, his focus on educating the community about the drug epidemic, his dedication to having a professional and highly-skilled staff and the respect he’s earned from people in the community and all the way to Raleigh. 

As he takes on a new role as executive director of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, there’s no doubt Hollingsed will continue to serve Haywood County. 

 

The Nancy Pelosi Award

The Cherokee tribal government’s response to media requests for its proposed budget this year was strangely reminiscent of the California Congresswoman’s famous and widely mocked statement about Obamacare — “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it” — earning it this award. 

Principal Chief Richard Sneed delivered his proposed budget to Tribal Council in July, and responded to The Smoky Mountain News’ request for the document by saying that his office would not release the initial proposed version but would provide the document, as well as supporting materials, after Council adopted it. While he couldn’t deliver the document just yet, Sneed said, it was certainly something to be proud of, touting the 2019-20 budget as the “most fiscally conservative in over a decade,” basing expenditures on just 80 percent of casino projection. 

Tribal Council approved the budget during its Sept. 12 meeting, but it did so narrowly, by a weighted vote of 45-36, with 19 votes absent. Following the vote, Sneed’s office again declined to provide the document, stating that it wasn’t final yet — Sneed had not ratified it. Ratification didn’t come until Oct. 2, one day after the fiscal year began Oct. 1. 

Ratification did not result in the document’s release. In contrast to his initial statements to SMN, on Oct. 18 Sneed said in an email that, while the budget is considered a public document, the tribe’s public records act does not apply to people who are not tribal members, including members of the media. 

“While the Eastern Band is happy to answer specific questions regarding the EBCI budget, the EBCI will not be providing the entire budget due to the fact it contains details that are not considered public information,” Sneed’s statement read. 

A follow-up email asking for some specific figures, including the size of the overall budget and of the operating budget, among others, did not receive a response. 

Now that the budget has been passed, perhaps the coming year will offer a glimpse into what’s inside it. 

 

2019 mccoy

Teresa McCoy.

 

The Lazarus Award

A check the University of Alabama cut to former Tribal Council Member Teresa McCoy in 1996 gets this award because, like the biblical figure who was miraculously raised from the dead, this document got a second — and even a third — life during the 2019 election season. 

McCoy, who was on Tribal Council in 1996 and has run in every election since then except for 2017, received $1,500 for a consultation fee and travel expenses relating to a Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act consultation she attended. The payment came under scrutiny at the time due to the fact that she had also received a $432 travel advance from the tribe for the same trip — critics said she shouldn’t have been reimbursed twice for the same expenses. However, the Tribal Council sitting at the time held a meeting in June 1997 to consider the matter and declined to deliver any discipline. Two months later McCoy was the top vote-getter in the race to represent Big Cove on Tribal Council. 

However, this year the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Board of Elections declined to certify McCoy to stand for election, stating that her acceptance of that 1996 check amounted to defrauding the tribe. McCoy challenged that decision, first in a hearing before the board and then in an appeal before the Cherokee Supreme Court. The court ordered the board to certify her in an April 29 decision that came just two days in advance of the deadline to make Primary Election ballots available for absentee voters. 

The apparently invincible check rose to life once more, when tribal member Robert Saunooke filed a protest of McCoy’s candidacy on May 2, after the board had complied with the court order to certify her. His protest trod much of the same ground covered in the initial denial. In an order issued on Friday, May 17, the Cherokee Supreme Court granted a writ of prohibition from McCoy, preventing a hearing on the matter and allowing the election to move forward. 

All that resurrection does not appear to have hurt McCoy’s performance in the Primary Election, in which she finished first out of five candidates, edging incumbent Principal Chief Richard Sneed by 15 votes. However, her performance flagged in September, when Sneed won the General Election with 55 percent of the vote. 

 

2019 letts

Bradley Letts.

 

The Hamlet Award

To be or not to be on the bench was the question for Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts this year, and arriving at the final answer required more than a simple monologue. 

Letts won re-election to an eight-year term in November 2018, but on Feb. 26 he announced that he planned to retire from his seat by the end of the day Feb. 28, in a press release saying that he planned to “enjoy family and friends, and continue my involvement in civic and community boards.”

However, just two minutes before the end of the workday Feb. 28, Letts reversed the decision, distributing a second press release stating that he wished to “continue in my seat and serve the citizens of Western North Carolina as their judge.”

Letts didn’t elaborate on the reasons behind his decision or its reversal, though rumors had been circulating that he was resigning ahead of a planned run for EBCI principal chief. While he told both The Smoky Mountain News and the Cherokee One Feather following his Feb. 26 announcement that he was not planning to seek tribal office, public records obtained later said otherwise. 

On Feb. 20, Letts sent Gov. Roy Cooper a letter declaring his intention to retire, and he was clear about his reason for doing so, writing that “the outpouring of encouragement from friends and community leaders in Cherokee asking me to submit my name as a candidate for the Office of Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians merely confirms the correctness of my decision.”

However, Letts appears to have thought better of that plan, ultimately deciding to be a judge, and not to be a candidate for tribal office. 

 

2019 jobcorps

Job Corps Centers in Franklin, Cherokee and Brevard were at risk of being shut down this year after President Trump's administration claimed the centers weren't performing well. The decision was later reversed. Donated photo

 

WTF?! Award

This award goes to President Trump’s administration for trying to shut down CCC Job Corps Centers across the country, including three in Western North Carolina. 

The program — modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps established during the Great Depression — was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society initiatives back in 1964. To date, it has trained and educated more than 2 million students at more than 100 Job Corps centers across the country.

It’s actually a federal program that works — one of the few — why would you want to shut it down? These youth get a second chance at life, learn valuable skills, help fulfill our workforce needs in the region, are trained in wildfire fighting and leave with a better respect for our national forests and natural resources. 

The announced closures just didn’t make any sense to anyone. Trump’s administration tried to say the program’s performance was lackluster and wanted to shut down many sites while privatizing other sites. Performance might be struggling at some centers, but that wasn’t the case for LBJ in Franklin or Oconaluftee in Cherokee. 

In the end, Congress put pressure on Trump to keep the centers in their districts open and the closure announcement was reversed for now. 

 

Show Me The Money Award

This award goes to Joan Weeks, Swain County’s elections director, for finally receiving the retirement benefits she’s earned throughout the years. 

It’s not easy to be a state employee basically working for the county and having to fight your bosses to get the retirement money you know you’re entitled to, but Weeks never gave up. Weeks has been the elections director in Swain since 1983, but she didn’t start accumulating her retirement benefits until 1992 when the position was considered to be full-time. She’s been trying to get the back pay from the county for at least the last 10 years with no luck. In 2017, she felt forced to file a lawsuit in an attempt to get the money, and this year a judge finally ruled that the county did in fact owe her the retirement benefits. While the county is still trying to figure out exactly what the total amount will be, at least Weeks can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Smallpox Award

Like Smallpox, the spread of Dollar Generals in this region has reached the level of a public health crisis. At this point, the small retail chain is outpacing Smallpox as one of the most infectious diseases in the world. 

Even the smallest, most isolated plots of land in the most rural parts of the region are not safe from being turned into a shiny metal building with bright yellow lettering on the front. Sure, the sickness may bring an exciting sense of convenience for nearby residents, but at what cost? And with only one person staffed at each store, how convenient is it to wait 20 minutes in line to purchase your milk and eggs?

There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but the CDC is closely monitoring the situation. 

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