Oct. 25—Waynesville voters have the future of the town in their hands as they head to the polls over the next two weeks in what may well be the most pivotal election the town has faced.
The sitting town council is in the fight of their lives against tough competition from a slate of challengers dubbed "Team Waynesville." The essence of Waynesville is on the line, according to the incumbents who made their case at a candidate forum hosted by The Mountaineer last week.
"The heart of our community is at stake. Are we a community that welcomes people or builds walls and pulls draw bridges up?" posed Town Council Member Anthony Sutton.
Waynesville has a reputation as a model town, but the progress and success Waynesville has seen over the past two decades would be in jeopardy if Team Waynesville takes control of the town, the sitting council members claimed.
"We must work together, not against one another," said Council Member Julia Freeman. "I believe in Waynesville, I believe in our people. The future of Waynesville is bright, and those who claim otherwise and spread false information to gain support don't deserve to serve on this town council."
The Mountaineer has a long-standing tradition of moderating public candidate forums every election. The three 'Team Waynesville' candidates running for town council seats did not attend, but instead hosted their own forum the night before via Facebook where questions were posed by a livestream audience consisting largely of their own supporters.
"This is the first time candidates in Waynesville have turned down an opportunity to speak to the public. Why?" Town Council Member Chuck Dickson posed. "Have the absent opponents realized that while it is easy to complain, it is hard to find solutions? And they have offered few. Are they afraid to engage in a real discussion? Are they concerned about being confronted with the misinformation they have put out, and the portrayal of our town as being on decline?"
That is perhaps one of the biggest differences in the two fields of candidates. The sitting town council members also disagree with claims that Waynesville is in dire straits.
"As we grow and change in the coming years, we should never lose sight of the things that have made this the best small town on the planet — community, self reliance and an unlimited capacity for hard work," Town Council Member Jon Feichter said.
Unity, not division, is needed, he said.
"If we are going to make progress, what we absolutely must do is stop treating people we disagree with as enemies. It is important to seek common ground. Otherwise, we are just going to be fighting amongst ourselves," Feichter said.
Issues in the election run the gamut, including affordable housing, growth and development, and homelessness and crime. But the crux of the election boils down to how the two fields of candidates see Waynesville.
"There is a stark difference between the town council that's currently serving and folks who are opposing us," said Dickson. "The heart of a small town, no matter its size, is how we treat all people, our willingness to help our neighbors, and to volunteer to make our town even better. It is about being a welcoming community."
Despite Team Waynesville's claims of wide-spread dissatisfaction among town residents, Dickson said the majority he speaks with during door-to-door campaigning are proud to call Waynesville home.
Team Waynesville alleges the town is headed down the path of becoming a "Little Asheville," but Freeman took issue with that descriptor.
"I say nonsense. That is an insult to our local officials, our citizens and our businesses," Freeman said.
Mayoral candidate Joey Reece is the only Team Waynesville challenger who attended The Mountaineer forum. The mayor's race will appear in upcoming coverage, featuring Reece, sitting Mayor Gary Caldwell and a third candidate, John Barrett.
Future coverage will also highlight the campaign platform of the Team Waynesville town council candidates — Tre Franklin, Stephanie Sutton and Peggy Hannah — as well as a fourth challenger Ken Hollifield who isn't part of either camp.
Experience on the line
All four Waynesville town council seats are up for election this year, along with the mayor. The incumbents fear dire consequences if their institutional knowledge and experience are wiped out in one fell swoop.
Dickson questioned whether Team Waynesville realizes what it takes to run a town based on their campaign platform. That platform includes repairing all streets (there are more than 90 miles worth) and all water and sewer lines (there's hundreds of miles of those) — all without raising taxes. Meanwhile, they want to cut the budget, but without cutting services, Dickson said.
"This displays a complete lack of knowledge about how our town government works. We struggle every day to find the money and make decisions about what we can fund and what we can't fund," Dickson said.
Freeman hefted a thick copy of the budget up for the audience to see during the forum.
"This is the fine print stuff that we deal with," Freeman said. "The town of Waynesville needs proven leadership. And we've done a lot to make this town better under our leadership."
She rattled off a litany of accomplishments that benefit the quality of life for Waynesville residents, including expanding greenways, rehabbing the dog park, fixing sidewalks, pursuing a new fire station in Hazelwood and ensuring state-of-the-art equipment for fire and police. While challengers have decried expenses like the purchase of a $400,000 street sweeper, this was needed to keep the streets clean, Freeman said.
Dickson called one opponent's campaign pledge to reduce dependency on grants nonsensical.
"This is crazy. Every town in North Carolina gets grants. That is how we get money," Dickson said.
With 70% of the town's budget consisting of salaries for town employees, cutting the budget isn't possible without sacrificing pay. Sutton said the sitting town council has made employee pay a priority by adjusting its pay scale to ensure living wages and equity.
"Women and men now make the same for doing the same job," Sutton said. "We also increased the pay for our police officers and have some of the best-paid police officers in WNC, which attracts the best employees."
Sutton also questioned whether the challengers understand the work that plays out behind-the-scenes to keep the gears turning.
"It is more than common sense, it is actually knowledge that we need to move our community forward," Sutton said. "There is a lot of minutiae we deal with on a weekly and monthly basis that quite frankly some people never see because they don't stay at the meeting long enough. They just make public comments and leave."
Indeed, Waynesville's town council has come under fire over the past four years when divisive social issues landed on their plate, packing the meeting chambers with angry crowds over philosophical questions like masking during the pandemic and transgender locker room use.
"We have an ocean of problems to solve aside from any kind of hot-button social issues," Feichter said. "But we have to deal with them whether or not we want to, in spite of the fact that many of the issues are things we have absolutely no ability to influence or change."
The sitting town council members said they pride themselves on civil discourse.
"This board doesn't always agree 100% on things, but what we do very well is come together and discuss to come up with a solution," Sutton said.
Freeman echoed that.
"We have worked together despite our differing political backgrounds, varying opinions and viewpoints, and different perspectives to find positive solutions to the issues facing Waynesville," she said. "We need individuals who are reasonable, individuals who aren't putting falsehoods and information out there that is absolutely not true, people who are open-minded and will listen to the citizens."
This is the last year a clean sweep of elected leaders would be possible. Starting with this election, the town will switch to staggered terms as is the practice for the majority of local governments. The mayor plus the top two vote getters for town council will serve four year terms, but the two candidates with the third and fourth highest votes will only serve two years before being up for re-election again — thus setting the stage for staggered terms going forward.