Is change coming? Candidates battle it out

This story was written by Tanner Hall, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Photo taken from The Sylva Herald.

Jackson County Board of Commissioners forum. Photo taken from The Sylva Herald.

Some of Jackson County’s most pressing issues – the ones current officials have been working to solve for the better part of the past year – are helping to shape the upcoming local election.

Candidates running for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners gathered for two forums last week. One was held at Southwestern Community College, the other at the Chief Joyce Dugan Cultural Arts Center in Cherokee.

Democrats now control the five-commissioner board, led by Chairman Brian McMahan. That could change, depending on the election’s outcome. November’s ballot will feature Republican Ron Mau challenging incumbent Democrat Vicki Greene in District 3. Republican Mickey Luker will be up against incumbent Democrat Mark Jones in District 4.

Since announcing their candidacy this spring, Mau and Luker have made a joint push to win over Jackson County voters. Mau said the strategy has made for an efficient campaign; the men’s ideas align on most issues, he told audience members in Cherokee.

Mau, a current Forest Hills town board member, said his background in engineering and higher education would give him a unique perspective as a county official. Approaching issues from a more creative standpoint, even if it doesn’t end up working out, is important, he said. As an example, and, he said, to cut costs, Mau cited his and Luker’s proposal to house the Jackson County Health Department in the new health sciences building planned for SCC.

Greene, born and raised in Jackson County, said her love for the area is why she decided to seek reelection. Her 36 years spent working closely with local leaders while at the Southwestern Regional Commission have given her the experience to be an effective commissioner, she said.

Luker touted his experience as a local business owner. The opportunity to meet and talk with customers everyday provides a good sense of what the community wants and needs, he said.

For Jones, skills learned while managing the High Hampton Inn for nine years have transferred to being a commissioner, he said. Jones said he wants to continue to address some of the longterm issues facing local officials, such as setting infrastructure goals and getting a water system in place for the southern end of the county. “Government works slow,” he said.

The county’s homeless population, and the question of whether public dollars should be used for a more permanent solution such as a shelter, became a focus during both forums.

Commissioners on Oct. 6 planned to appoint a taskforce to study the problem and find solutions.

Neighbors in Need, the nonprofit organization currently taking care of the homeless, is running out of money. During the winter, the organization houses Jackson County’s homeless in local motel rooms.

The Democrat incumbents say they are open to public funding for Neighbors in Need. “The signature of the homeless has changed in our generation. It’s no longer a displaced individual, or a veteran, who can’t quite find employment,” Jones said. “It’s families, and it’s happening in Jackson County.”

Mau said there is enough money in the county’s operating budget to help Neighbors in Need, while the taskforce works toward longer-term solutions.

Luker said homelessness remains a year-long problem; however, it shouldn’t be a decision made by five commissioners. It needs to be a community decision, he said.

Candidates were questioned about two past instances of alleged negligence in county departments: The Permitting and Code Enforcement office’s failure to enforce the steep slope ordinance, and the Department of Social Services’ failure to offer clients voter registration.

Greene and Jones said that problems have been resolved, and that new county Manager Don Adams and new DSS Director Jennifer Abshire seem comfortable in their new roles.

The Republican challengers said there is room for improvement, and that Jackson County government must better adhere to state guidelines and be transparent.

As an example, Mau brought up commissioners’ decision to put a sales-tax referendum, to increase public-school funding, on the local ballot in June, rather than in November, when voter turnout is typically higher.

Greene countered that delaying the vote until November would have meant losing revenue collected since the sales-tax increase took effect. County leaders received state approval before putting the referendum on the June ballot, Jones added.

The Democrat incumbents said the current board has done a good job of being transparent. Greene mentioned a resolution the group passed to make closed-session minutes available to the public, once all of the issues discussed behind closed doors have been resolved.

“Whatever you ask me, I will tell you what I really think,” Greene said. “I am transparent.”

Luker and Mau, however, said there is a need for better communication. They said there are times when officials will discuss a topic at length during a Tuesday work session, but wait to add that topic to the Thursday meeting agenda. That’s too late, they said, if members of the public are going to be allowed to participate in local government.

Candidates also were asked about the Jackson County Airport’s reoccurring slope-stability problems. New surface cracks, about 20-feet-long and 10-inches-wide, were discovered in May in the same area as a 1970s landslide.

Jones said county leaders are waiting to hear back from experts. An upcoming geotechnical study will show whether the slope moved throughout the summer, he said.

Greene serves on the airport’s governing board, the Airport Authority. Jones serves as its chairman.

Mau, a former geotechnical engineer, said he’s familiar with the landslide problems and the airport’s history. He’s read through the previous geotechnical reports and documentation from when the airport was built in 1976, he said. Mau served as an expert witness for landowners who sued Jackson County following a 2005 airport landslide.

“There isn’t an easy solution,” he said, adding that he believes any fixes will be costly.

Jones said the N.C. Division of Aviation has approached airport officials about fixing the slope problems and restoring the runway back to its original length. Safety money is available to study the possibility, Jones said; however, stabilizing the slope would most likely need matching county funds, he said.