#5. Only in Maggie ValleyTown moves on from tumultuous 2013
“Only in Maggie Valley” became a popular response from locals this year commenting on all the issues the town faced in 2013.
It seemed the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen made headlines each week as the board struggled to agree on several important issues, including appointing a fifth board member, a proposed occupancy tax increase, trimming the budget and dealing with unhappy residents. The mayor also came under fire from two aldermen who felt he was abusing his authority and from a few residents who took their complaints to law enforcement.
All of these matters could have been put to rest much sooner had the board appointed a fifth member to replace Phil Aldridge after he resigned in November 2012. The board had several candidates who showed interest in filling the position, but the board was deadlocked in a 2-2 vote.
That deadlock, with Mayor Ron DeSimone and Alderman Saralyn Price on one side and Aldermen Phillip Wight and Mike Matthews on the other, carried forward through 2013 and caused embarrassing displays of anger during meetings.
Some residents of Maggie only fueled the fire during the public input portion of the meetings by yelling at the board and other residents. Meetings often got out of control as frustrated residents voiced their opinions, and the mayor’s gavel did little to stop it.
The board’s inability to make important decisions and move the town in any direction bred distrust in the town government's competency. Some of the board’s decisions also affected the rest of the county, which is why so many people considered it one of the most important stories of 2013.
Many residents were unhappy this year about being forced to annex into the town and not receive the services they expected, including road maintenance, snow plowing and street lights. But perhaps the most vocal was 20-year resident Joe Maniscalco, who claims his property on Jonathan Creek was illegally annexed into the town in 2009. He was vocal at meetings and at town hall during business hours to the point where employees considered it harassment.
On Jan. 11, DeSimone approved a letter sent to Maniscalco by Police Chief Scott Sutton that banned Maniscalco from town hall unless he have 24-hour notice and was escorted by a police officer.
Wight and Matthews wanted to rescind the letter, claiming DeSimone sent the letter without board approval. They said banning him from town hall violated his First Amendment rights.
The aldermen also stood by Maniscalco in July when he was arrested on charges for allegedly forging a Maggie Valley resolution to de-annex his property. But the 76-year-old claimed he was given the resolution from Town Manager Tim Barth on Aug. 17, 2012, and was told to take it to the courthouse.
“I don’t know what happened. For some reason Tim and DeSimone denied the resolution,” Maniscalco said. “They signed it. They gave it to me. Why would I make one up?”
Maniscalco filed to run for an alderman seat this year, but dropped out before the election, citing health problems. He was placed on probation in November after pleading guilty to lesser charges of misdemeanor common law uttering.
Complaints against mayor
It was clear during many of the town meetings that Aldermen Wight and Matthews were unhappy with Mayor DeSimone’s leadership. They both felt like DeSimone was making decisions without the board’s input. Several residents felt the same way and filed a complaint with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office accusing DeSimone of willfully failing to discharge his duties, forgery and false pretense.
The nine-page complaint claimed DeSimone sent a letter of support to Sen. Jim Davis in support of the proposed occupancy tax increase without board approval. The complainants also claimed the letter of support DeSimone gave Davis was a forged document because it didn’t have the real Maggie Valley letterhead.
Sheriff Greg Christopher, District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, N.C. State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Jim Schandaval and Chief Deputy Jeff Haynes reviewed the materials submitted. According to the letter sent to the complainants on July 26, Bonfoey found no evidence of criminal activity in the materials provided and declined any prosecution.
In response to these accusations, DeSimone said he wrote the letter to Davis on his own behalf and had every right to do so.
Wight said he thought there was plenty of evidence to charge the mayor. Matthews agreed, stating that other people were looking into the charges.
“It’s not the end of it by any means,” he said.
After some research Wight and Matthews were ready to bring up the accusations again in September. At a regular board meeting, Matthews said a number of complaints about the mayor had gone unanswered and the only way he could see they get addressed was to begin the process for amotion.
Amotion is a public hearing process typically started with the intent to remove an elected official from office. But of course the vote to hold a public hearing failed with a 2-2 vote.
Wight then tried to withdraw his motion and made a motion requesting DeSimone to recuse himself from the vote since the hearing would pertain to his alleged misconduct.
“Don’t record his vote… his vote is irrelevant at this point,” Wight said.
But the mayor stood his ground, stating that all the complaints had been aired at public meetings, taken to the sheriff, SBI and district attorney and also aired in the local newspapers.
“My vote is not irrelevant,” DeSimone replied. “There is no self interest in here, there’s no facts on the table — I’m not recusing myself.”
Judging by the applause from the audience, several residents were there to support the mayor after seeing the “amotion hearing” on the agenda.
“Resident Phil Freeland called the mayor a tremendous asset to the community.
“He’s pointing us in right direction… I think it would be wrong for people to try to get rid of the mayor. It would be a waste of time and money to do that,” he said.
Wight and Matthews said they would continue to bring it up until something was done, but more important issues in the following months would move the amotion to the back burner.
Festival grounds disputes
In September, complaints started coming to the board on events at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds. As the complaints were examined, the board quickly realized that someone needed to be accountable.
The board held a hearing to question Festival Grounds Director Audrey Hager and Barth about the financials surrounding the Matt Stillwell concert in August. The show was expected to sell out and generate revenue but rainy weather caused the event to lose money.
The state ABC board denied the event alcohol permit two weeks before the show, leaving Hager and the promoter Charlie Meadows in a bind. To make it work, the town had to apply for the permit itself with the promise that the town would keep all alcohol revenue.
Hager claimed Barth gave her permission to reapply for the permit under the town’s name. Hager also moved forward with footing many of the concert bills while Meadows signed a contract promising to repay the town for any revenue shortfall from the concert.
After a special-called meeting to go into closed session with Barth and Hager, the board voted unanimously to accept Barth’s resignation and to fire Hager. Planning Director Nathan Clark was appointed as interim town manager until further notice.
According to town documents, the concert was anticipated to sell about 2,000 tickets, but only 493 tickets were sold. When all was said and done, the town sent Meadows a bill for about $11,000 while the town kept the $4,000 made on alcohol sales. Meadows has yet to pay his bill and said he planned to dispute some of the charges.
Maggie Valley municipal elections were held in November and the newly seated aldermen are ready to put the negative behind them. It came down to seven candidates vying for three seats.
While Matthews didn’t win another term, Price will serve another four years on the board. The board also welcomed newcomers Mike Eveland for a four-year term and Janet Banks, who will serve out the two-year unexpired term left by Aldridge.
The new board held its first meeting in December and already the tone was different. DeSimone said the board already has a couple of public meetings scheduled for January to discuss the future of the festival grounds.
The board is in negotiations with Clark to offer him a one-year town manager contract but the board hasn’t decided whether to hire another festival grounds director.
The new board members touted that they were willing to work together to move Maggie Valley forward without petty bickering. They know there is a lot of work ahead but they are eager to get started.
"Tomorrow at 8 a.m. the work begins," Eveland said on election night. "We have people we can work with and some diversity. It's a huge opportunity for Maggie Valley and with this crew on board we can make it happen."