Waynesville mayor candidates make their case

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Nov. 1—As the monumental Waynesville election heads into the home stretch, undecided voters hold the town's future in their hands as they weigh their options: stick with the current leaders, get behind Team Waynesville or split their ticket between the two camps.

All five seats on the town council are up for election, including the mayor. Mayor Gary Caldwell is facing Team Waynesville challenger Joey Reece and little-known challenger John Barrett. Both Caldwell and Reece claim they have the experience needed to lead Waynesville, though for different reasons.

Caldwell points to his 28 years on the town board, the last four as mayor.

"I am the man you know and the leader you can trust. A public official needs knowledge of government and its processes. I have been tested in seeing it through," Caldwell said, also citing his institutional knowledge of the town.

Reece points to his 34 years in law enforcement — from the Waynesville Police Department to N.C. Highway Patrol to Drug Enforcement Administration. There, he served as a classified special ops agent fighting international narcoterrorists, rose in the ranks to section chief at DEA headquarters, and eventually became Assistant Agent in Charge for the state of Mississippi overseeing a budget of $20 million a year and nine enforcement groups.

"I have the ability to administer multimillion dollar budgets, I have the ability to lead people, to interact with media and political figures, and solve problems," Reece said.

Reece and Caldwell have very different views of where Waynesville is headed. Caldwell believes Waynesville is heading in the right direction, and wants to continue the progress witnessed under the current leadership.

"I have continued to take pride in the many accomplishments that have occurred in our beautiful town," Caldwell said.

Caldwell cited a litany of examples, including so-called "community enhancements" like parks and recreation and environmental preservation. Accomplishments also include the nuts-and-bolts of town operations, like buying land for a new fire station in Hazelwood, rebuilding the antiquated sewer plant and hiring a grant writer to aggressively pursue free money for town projects.

Reece, on the other hand, believes Waynesville is headed in the wrong direction.

"Waynesville needs a lot less Asheville and a little more Mayberry in it," Reece said, calling himself a center-right conservative.

Meanwhile, Barrett's candidacy has been a mystery, with few having heard of him before his mayoral bid. Barrett has made two public appearances during the campaign — once at a Haywood Chamber of Commerce meet-and-greet and then at The Mountaineer forum.

"We need to fix these roads and sidewalks," Barrett said, citing his top campaign platform. "We need to take responsibility for what we are doing instead of just taxing and taxing. I think we need to change directions in Waynesville."

Homeless, drugs and crime

Reece ran for a seat on the Waynesville town council four years ago with a campaign platform centered around the homelessness issue. While he narrowly lost, he shed light on a growing homeless population and its spill-over effects.

It's once again part of his campaign. Reece said the "trifecta of drugs, homelessness and crime" seen in Asheville is going to swallow Waynesville.

"We are headed down that road, and we have to stop that," Reece said.

Caldwell disagrees, however.

"Waynesville has no crime crisis. Crime in all the parts of Waynesville has come down," Caldwell said, citing the just released 2022 crime statistics. "We still have some problems with drugs and stuff in our midst, but the police are working very, very hard to take that out of the picture. I am proud of the police department and the service they are providing to the citizens of Waynesville."

Team Waynesville began the campaign season claiming Waynesville is plagued by high crime rates, but the latest state crime stats that came out a few weeks ago have taken the wind out of those sails to some extent.

"Overall offenses decreased 57% in 2022," Caldwell noted.

Reece questioned that.

"That's not the stats I see. I see our property crimes are out of sight. And property crime is a quality of life issue, which is what people see and feel every day," Reece said.

Reece agreed progress has been made, however, taking credit for sounding the alarm bells four years ago.

"I led the fight for Frog Level to clean it up. I was the one that started that," Reece said.

Reece's comments about Frog Level came in response to a question during The Mountaineer candidate forum when asked to name something he's done to make Waynesville a better place.

While Reece was answering, Caldwell shook his head in disagreement. Reece told Caldwell to stop shaking his head. Caldwell responded by telling Reece to stop running his mouth and shoved Reece in the shoulder — much to the alarm of the audience and an astonished Reece.

When it was Caldwell's turn to answered the question about what he'd done to make Waynesville a better place, he cited the skatepark, which he championed.

"I have kids who are still today coming and thanking for pursuing that because we built them a state-of-the-art skate park down there. I think that helps keep the kids off the street and maybe off drugs," Caldwell said.

Caldwell also cited his lobbying efforts with the Department of Transportation for street improvements, from repaving Main Street to getting a redesign of South Main Street back on the to-do list.

Barrett, meanwhile, said he didn't have any accomplishments.

"I hadn't done nothing in Waynesville because I'm a good citizen. I'm not a politician — yet," he said.

During the forum, candidates were asked to name something the town did that they agreed with at the time, but have since changed their mind about, and Reece circled back to homelessness.

After losing the election four years ago, Reece got appointed to a town-led homelessness task force, which he saw as a positive outcome of the issues he raised during the campaign.

"I initially agreed with the decision to form a homelessness task force. But none of the goals and objectives addressed the damage that homelessness and crime did to the citizens and the town," Reece said.

He fought for amending the goals and objectives to include mitigating the spillover effects of homelessness.

"They refused to do that. I realized it was a foregone conclusion and left the task force. It fell apart after a year-and-half with nothing done," Reece said.

Caldwell said he couldn't think of anything he would have done differently during the past four years.

"We have one of the best town boards I have ever worked with in 28 years. I can't think of anything we would have done different that we have already made progress on," he said.

Barrett said he would change taxes and regulations.

"Let them do what they want to do on their own land. And ease some of the taxes," he said.

Coming this weekend: Growth and development, along with affordable housing, is one of the top issues in the Waynesville election. See a story on where the candidates stand in the weekend edition.