Just the Facts

Commissioners elect new leadership; vow to restore order going forward

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Dan Finnerty

New leadership can bring with it fresh focus and renewed optimism. At the Dec. 12 meeting, the Macon County Board of Commissioners elected a new chairman. This procedure conspicuously, if coincidentally, followed one of the more contentious commissioner gatherings in recent memory — the Nov. 14 meeting.

To begin, County Manager Derek Roland reported on the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding distribution, as requested by then Chairman Paul Higdon at the November meeting. Macon County received a total of $7.85 million in ARPA funds, made up of $6.96 million allocated for the county in general, $178,952 for housing, $547,252 for public health, and $164,350 for transit.

The board then elected new leadership with Commissioner Danny Antoine nominating Commissioner Josh Young for chairman – to replace Higdon. No second was forwarded and the motion failed. 

Outgoing Chairman Higdon then nominated Gary Shields, commissioner since 2014, as new chairman for the next year. Commissioner John Shearl seconded the motion, which was unanimously approved. Upon his election as chairman, Shields jokingly flipped his two thumbs from down to up and quipped, “Those two thumbs are my momma and daddy turning over in their graves.”

COMMISSIONER GARY SHIELDS was elected chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners for 2024.

Current Vice Chairman Josh Young was re-nominated for vice chairman, which was also unanimously approved.

During the public comment period, nine county residents spoke on various topics, such as November’s commissioner meeting and the Macon County Board of Education (BOE) party affiliation resolution. However, prior to the public comment session, new Chairman Shields addressed attendees.

“Over the past two weeks, [former chairman] Higdon requested to speak with commissioners individually. One thing we concluded was that we will agree to disagree in a respectful manner.” 

Shearl followed with a statement regarding his conduct at the November meeting.

“In my mind I was backed in a corner and that’s not where I want to be. My kids have told me, ‘Dad, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,’ and I agree with that 100%.”

Shields provided additional insight on commissioners’ efforts going forward.

“We talked about how we want to improve. One area we want to focus on is we want you [residents signed up to speak at meetings] to speak to us, not to those in attendance. We won’t get into interactive exchanges with you, because you are speaking to us.” 

During the public session, former Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland spoke on the November commissioner meeting.

“To be honest with you, it was embarrassing – I mean that with respect. I think all of you realize that – and at the beginning of tonight’s meeting you addressed it. I’m really glad to see that.”

Holland also spoke directly to and in support of Roland.

“In my 32 years of working with five county managers, I want you to know, Mr. Roland, there’s none that worked harder for the citizens of Macon County, which include the employees who work for you. You stood up for us, you stood by us, you corrected us when we were wrong, but you listened to us. You always treated us with respect and conducted yourself as a Christian leader.”

Shearl admitted that he “misspoke” at the last commissioners meeting and reiterated his love for “this country and our communities.”

Following the public session, Shearl read a statement that conveyed, in part, “Each of us love this county and our communities … I acknowledge that the path to success is often cluttered with different ideas and viewpoints … working together sometimes brings conflict, that is simply part of the process … Yes, I misspoke at last month’s meeting and was wrong about the budget increasing $25 million under Derek Roland. I spoke too hastily as I spoke both about the fund balance and the budget in the heat of the moment.”

He also pointed out, “Certain media outlets and other groups start controversy by twisting the narrative instead of reporting on the bigger picture. This spin can be put on any topic when information is purposely left out because some journalists have a history of making judgements on something without having a clue what had transpired behind the scenes to cause friction in the first place.”

He concluded, “Let me be clear that I’m not against any county employees … we all appreciate their work the same as we appreciate those in the private sector.”

BOE against proposed resolution

Public comment also included Board of Education (BOE) member Hilary Wilkes reading a statement reflecting unanimous rejection of the party affiliation initiative. Former Town of Franklin Mayor Bob Scott also commented on the same resolution.

“I’m against making the board of education a partisan office … if you change it, you will have school board members acting as traditional, partisan politicians rather than as apolitical citizens acting only in the interest of local schools, students, and our community.”

BOE members Jim Breedlove, Diedre Breeden, and Wilkes further expressed their board’s stance on the party affiliation resolution initiative.

Shearl spoke in support of the initiative and stated to Breedlove and the BOE in general, “This is a much bigger picture in the state and national level; if it’s not, why do we have almost half of the school districts in North Carolina going to partisan races? It seems there is a much bigger problem within public education beyond Macon County.

“Politics are embedded within the public school system and people want to know who they voting for.” County commissioners motioned to terminate the original resolution for identifying party affiliation in response to the school board’s position, which passed 4-1, with Shearl opposing.

“One thing we concluded was that we will agree to disagree in a respectful manner.”

Other business

Veterans Services Office Director Leigh Tabor-Holbrooks and Assistant Christie Black requested commissioners’ support to host a screening of “The Veterans Battlefield.” The film documents North Carolina veterans who face wide-ranging challenges in their struggle to find purpose and hope acclimating to life after military service. They explained that North Carolina is home to approximately 700,000 veterans. February or March is targeted for showing the film.

Finally, Scaly Mountain Historical Society and Scaly Mountain Community Association received funds to improve the condition of the area’s community center building, which was built in 1899. The $20,000 for immediate building repairs and an increase to $10,000 yearly, from the current $5,000 allotted, was passed, 4-1, with Young opposing.

The next Macon County Commissioner meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 9, at 6 p.m.