Just the Facts

Board of commissioners’ meeting high on tension, low on progress

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Dan Finnerty

With resolutions aplenty on the Nov. 14 Macon County Commissioner meeting agenda, the air was thick with opinions and verbal exchanges from the public comment session and the commissioners. A county employee-focused, retention pay policy and a proposed amendment to the Fontana Regional Library (FRL) agreement generated nearly two hours of occasionally heated debate. Both items were ultimately approved by commissioners, but other key agenda items were tabled.

County Manager Derek Roland put forth a budget amendment recommendation to use pandemic-originated American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds for county employee retention pay. While ARP funding expenditure was halted, as per federal direction in April 2023, Roland’s request would move the remaining ARP funds – $1,850,659 of the original $6,964,996 – to other budget areas the county manages, such as general, housing, and solid waste funds.

Some bantering between Roland and Commissioner John Shearl about the movement and use of the money was followed by Chairman Paul Higdon commenting on the genesis of the money and how its use was unclear from the outset. Both Higdon and Shearl felt that doing anything other than returning the remaining funds back to taxpayers was in error.

“I thought this had already been put to bed, and here we are again,” said Higdon. “I want to put it to bed. I cannot vote to spend this money without exploring other options. I request full accounting (of use of ARP expenditures thus far) to bring this back to us in December.”

Higdon then prompted the board to a vote on the budget amendment resolution, which passed 3-2.

Library update

Nearly two years of meetings and discussions on the Macon County Public Library’s role within the Fontana Regional Library System (FRL) coincided with a mandatory, 10-year review of the current FRL Inter-Local Agreement. The agreement includes the counties of Macon, Swain and Jackson. The proposed resolution generated some complaints as yet another effort by commissioners to “fix something that isn’t broken,” as one public speaker expressed.

The resolution submitted in support of amending the existing agreement offers that “revisions will result in improved communication and coordination between the local government units and FRL.” Changes to the current agreement are numerous. While it currently reads, “The FRL shall operate county libraries and branches of the participating local government units,” a proposed addition to that statement reads, “in a socially and politically neutral manner.”

Some other significant proposals to the agreement are that trustees shall be full-time, year-round residents in the county in which they are appointed; no single term served longer than four years (now six); members will be appointed by the applicable county commissioners rather than the FRL; and, vacancies on the FRL will similarly be filled by commissioners, instead of local library advisory boards. Additionally, in any case whereby a majority of commissioners determine a library trustee from their applicable county has failed to abide by the library’s by-laws or policies, they may be removed by commissioners of that county.

One attendee repeatedly shouted her disapproval at commissioners and accused them of wanting to pull the Macon County Public Library from FRL oversight, while another accused commissioners of “shoving their religious beliefs down our throats.” Commissioner Josh Young countered that Macon County leadership proposed the FRL agreement resolution “in good faith.”

The proposed resolution will also be sent to Swain and Jackson County commissioners for their review, input, and concurrence or non-concurrence.

Social district

Under new business, Town of Franklin Council Member David Culpepper and Town Manager Amie Owens spoke concerning the social district effort currently being considered for Franklin. A social district is a zone where alcohol can be carried and consumed. Two areas within town limits, the gazebo and town square, are technically Macon County property and therefore need to be approved by commissioners.

TOWN MANAGER Amie Owens spoke at the Nov. 14 Macon County Commissioners meeting regarding establishing a social district in Franklin, defined as a zone where alcohol can be carried and consumed.

Commissioner Gary Shields asked if allowing the social district within town limits would prompt further requests to have alcohol at park functions and activities within the county. Further, he asked if additional costs are associated with the district. Owens assured commissioners that “only signage and special-designated cup purchases are anticipated.”

“Sylva considered potential additional security requirements for their social district but have not encountered any difficulties so far,” added Culpepper. 

In the end, commissioners did not authorize use of the requested social district areas within downtown Franklin and therefore did not initiate motion for approval. Instead, the issue was tabled until at least the Dec. 12 meeting.

Election process revamp

A new resolution presented to commissioners was a revision to the existing county commissioner election process. Since 1978, membership has been comprised of one person each from Districts 1 and 3, with three people from District 2. Furthermore, District 2 members could file for an election every two years, whereby the other districts could only file every four years.

In order to provide equal opportunity to all eligible citizens of Macon County to run for commissioner every two years, the revision will result in the election of one member from each of the three districts, and two at-large members with staggered terms. If approved by the North Carolina General Assembly, the resolution would then come back to Macon County for final structure and execution. Commissioners engaged in some spirited debate regarding the pros and cons of changing the existing process. By a 3-2 vote, the resolution was approved to move forward to Raleigh for consent.

“My vote will be not to make it [Board of Education election process] partisan. You can’t afford to have a disruption of a political issue to derail thoughts on education.”

In another contentious topic of the evening, commissioners also considered an additional resolution, initiated by Shearl, that focused on party affiliation identification for Macon County Board of Education candidates. With around one half of N.C. school districts currently following the same requirements, the resolution proposed that “election clarity and transparency are of upmost importance to ensure voters a basis for their decisions.”

Until close to midnight, commissioners deliberated whether identification of candidates’ party and/or ideological affiliation was actually helpful. They openly debated if the change will provide voters better insight on policies and positions candidates support or whether it politicized an area that must remain neutral and focused on education alone.

“My vote will be not to make it [Board of Education election process] partisan,” said Shields. “You can’t afford to have a disruption of a political issue to derail thoughts on education.”

Ultimately, the topic was tabled in order to allow input from Board of Education members. 

The next Macon County Board of Commissioners meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 12 at 6 p.m.