No new alderman yet in MaggieBoard wades through appointment process
MAGGIE VALLEY — By the end of its Monday meeting, the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen might very well have a newly minted member, but at this point, who that will be is anybody's guess.
The board is currently in the midst of an appointment process in the wake of longtime alderman Phil Aldridge's departure last month. Appointments to the board are nothing new (with recent appointees including former alderman Danya Vanhook and current alderman Mike Matthews), but just about everyone can agree that the process has been extremely sticky this go-round. With seven applicants, an unprecedented number, questions of fairness and backdoor dealings have been floating in the air — and spilling into public meetings.
At the board's Monday meeting, where five of the applicants showed up for interviews, things got a little tense when Steve Hurley sat down for a chat.
Hurley, who owns Hurley's Creekside Dining and Rhum Bar, had been openly backed by Matthews for weeks. When Matthews said as much in The Mountaineer and also stated that interviews for other applicants might not be necessary, a firestorm was ignited. This culminated in a board meeting where a few local residents were openly hostile toward Matthews. Hurley attempted to quell this animosity in his interview.
"I think it was a witch hunt," he said of the negative comments lobbed at Matthews. "I think it got out of hand."
There has been "a lot of backstabbing" on the board's part, Hurley added, aiming many of this comments squarely at Mayor Ron DeSimone. Hurley also refuted a rumor that Matthews had introduced him at a regional dinner as the new alderman.
"I do want to make this point clear: Not one time did Mr. Matthews say or introduce me as the next aldermen," Hurley said. "And I will put my hand on that Bible."
Hurley also made clear that he believed DeSimone once supported him whole-heartedly, and told him the board was only going to interview him. Hurley also claimed DeSimone told him he should be the next mayor pro tem.
"And I said absolutely not," Hurley said to the board. "That would be a slap in the face to Mike (Matthews), Phillip (Wight) and Saralyn (Price)."
As for his feelings on issues, Hurley said the town has a "good board" but that its members should encourage more residents to get involved in its decisions. While the board can't make people stand up and speak, it can encourage them to do so, he said. He also criticized the board's recent budget, saying it had "stirred up a hornet's nest."
His strongest words however, were in regard to the revival of Ghost Town and its new owner, Alaska Presley. Presley deserves a plaque for all she's done for the town, he said, adding that the board should ask her what kind of help she might need.
"I think it's a crying shame that the people of this Maggie Valley town board do not support Alaska Presley one bit," he said.
While DeSimone didn't debate these issues much with Hurley, he did refute Hurley's memory of their recent discussions over the vacant seat. In contrast to Hurley's account, DeSimone said he never told Hurley he was a shoo-in.
"I've never made my mind up on any of this beforehand," he said, as the temperature seemed to rise in the room.
After the meeting, in separate conversations, both DeSimone and Hurley re-stated their strong — and opposing — views on how this appointment process has been handled.
Hurley said that DeSimone has flat-out lied and did fully support his appointment until the controversy over Matthews' comments blew up. He also said DeSimone wanted to install him as soon as possible.
"I'm sorry, Mayor, you started it, not Mike Matthews," Hurley said, explaining what he would say to DeSimone over the issue.
He added that DeSimone changed his mind in a matter of days — and even told him as much.
"He did say 'sorry,'" Hurley said. "But I was humiliated. I really was."
DeSimone, however, had a completely different take on his dealings with Hurley. He does admit that he initially supported Hurley, and even said he'd make a good mayor pro tem, but claims he was only expressing his opinion, rather than a certainty. This was before he realized there was such a large pool of applicants vying for the seat, he said, and before he believes Matthews "tainted" the whole process with his comments about having made up his mind already.
"I don't want that to be hindered by the perception that's hanging over us now," DeSimone said.
DeSimone added that after Matthews' comments — and after realizing what a large group had applied for the vacant seat — he had no choice but to change his mind and go ahead with public interviews of all the candidates. These interviews are in addition to the several hours of his own personal time he said he spent with many of the applicants.
"I was determined to talk with those people," DeSimone said. "I wanted to hear who those people were."
With so much hullabaloo surrounding Hurley, it's easy to imagine the other applicants getting lost in the fray, but everyone who showed up to the last meeting had an open-ended amount of time (typically 20 and 40 minutes) to make his or her case.
In addition to Hurley, Vanhook, June Johnson, Jasay Ketchum and Charlie Meadows were interviewed. Heather Hyatt and Billy Case, who both submitted applications, were not present, though Case notified the board beforehand and sent a package of materials explaining his views.
In the letter, the real estate agent talked about many ideas for the town, from an advisory panel made up of locals to taking inventory of all Maggie's assets, while possibly adding new features to the town, like a family recreation area, more trees and landscaping, and a new town hall. His other ideas include expanding sewer service in Jonathan Creek to attract new businesses and possibly county-funded softball fields.
The other applicants' ideas, experience and take on things in general varied wildly, with no two sounding alike.
In her interview, Vanhook, who formerly served as an appointed alderman before being narrowly beaten in the most recent election, touted her experience on the board and her connections in the county and in Raleigh. She expressed her support for the board and what she sees as its open approach to things — but said she's never been a fan of "special-called, rushed meetings." She also stressed that she believed she'd work well with all the board's members.
"I don't have an agenda on any specific issue or represent any specific group," she said, "and I think that's important."
Johnson, who is well known in town for organizing its popular fall decorations, spoke of her love for the valley, as well as all the time she has to devote to being an alderman. As a retiree, she's has time to be "out and about," she said, and to check in with all the various aspects of Maggie. She talked about wanting to promote "music, laughter and fun" in the valley — instead of motorcycles — and explained that she represents an important demographic.
"I think you need someone who is retired," she said. "I think you need someone who is part of the largest-growing group in this nation."
Ketchum, a fellow retiree, didn't talk about his age nor did he speak much about specific issues, but he did tout his vision for the future of Maggie. The town needs to be "getting more good stuff" he said. He explained that while he's not crazy about motorcycles or video sweepstakes — two issues that divide the town — both bring in money. Maggie, he stressed, needs "everything we can get."
The valley should "be one prosperous city that people would be very proud to say they are from Maggie Valley," he said.
Meadows, a business owner and very frequent attendee of town meetings, also expressed a rosy dream for the valley, saying he'd like to see it "bloom into one big, ol' flower."
He urged unity on the board and said he had agreed with most of its recent decisions, including its recent budget and ordinance allowing for more video sweepstakes machines. If appointed, he promised to try to work things out with his fellow aldermen while still sticking to his principles.
"I wouldn't come to the board and always agree with everybody 100 percent," he said, "but I would listen and determine what would be the best decisions for tax payers that I could make."
And the appointee is …
After all this, neither the mayor nor the aldermen are willing to guess who the newest member of the board will be — though conflicting rumors are predictably flying around town. At their next meeting, slated for 1 p.m. Monday, the board members are expected to hash all this out and possibly appoint someone, though it's unclear if a majority will be able to agree on anyone.
Alderman Phillip Wight, who ran on a promise of change and openness alongside DeSimone and Aldridge, described some of the turmoil currently on the board.
On this issue "it doesn't appear that the mayor and I are even close to on the same page," he said.
It only seems right to appoint someone to the vacant seat who was similar to Aldridge, Wight added, explaining that's clearly who the voters wanted when they voted him in last November. Instead of picking someone like Aldridge — who spoke of decreasing taxes and the size of government — Wight believes DeSimone is trying to install someone more in line with his own views.
"It appears he's turning his back on the voter base who put him in office when it comes to this particular issue," Wight said.
Nearly echoing Wight, Matthews explained that he believes DeSimone went along with Hurley being the new alderman "until some negative press came out." Matthews also stated that DeSimone, and everyone else on the board, had a favorite appointee going into this process. He claimed they all even discussed the matter among themselves.
"The only difference between me and them was that I wasn't trying to hide it," Matthews said. "That was pretty transparent, I thought. I don't see how that cannot be transparent."
While he voiced his frustration over the current situation, he did stress that he believes he'll be able to work with whoever is appointed. Though things are tense right now, Matthews did express hope that the current board, as well as its soon-to-be-named new member, would be able to move forward together.
In his words, they all have the "same goal."
"It's what's best for Maggie," he said. "We just have different ideas about how to get there."