Part II: Democratic commissioner candidates

Macon County Courthouse photo by Vickie Carpenter

The March 3 primary election will feature two Democrats on the ballot, both hoping to get the majority of votes to be able to appear on the November ballot for District II of the Macon County Commission.

Olga Lampkin
Olga Lampkin moved to Franklin to be near her aging parents, to spend more time with them and assist them as they age, and because she believes it’s a much better environment in which to raise her youngest son. Lampkin was born and raised in the Redlands, a rural, south Florida agriculture-based community. She is the mother of two boys, ages 12 and 24. She has four cats, two dogs, and numerous chickens and roosters. She grows a large garden, and cans, dries and ferments what she grows so that her family and friends can enjoy it year-round.

Since moving to North Carolina in 2015, Lampkin has worked for Coward, Hicks & Siler in Sylva, handling a wide variety of issues, including DOT condemnation defense cases, miscellaneous civil litigation, estate planning, and real estate. Lampkin has worked for law offices since 1990 in south and central Florida (1990-2001), central California (2001-2015) and North Carolina (2015-present). In Florida, the offices Lampkin worked for handled real estate matters while the offices in California mostly handled water rights cases, civil litigation and estate planning, and represented municipalities.

Lampkin serves on the board of directors as secretary of The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for clean air.

“I truly think Macon County is a great place,” Lampkin said. “I chose to live here, built a house, and plan to stay. I want to be a part of keeping Macon County great, but even great things have room for improvement. That being said, I certainly don’t want Macon County to be like any of the counties where I have previously lived; I left those places for a reason. I like to be busy, I like to be involved, and I want to give back to my community.”

Betty Cloer Wallace
Betty Cloer Wallace made her living as a tree farmer planting 14,000 native hardwood seedlings and wildlife preservationist after she retired from from education and government. As a member of 6th generation Macon County farm family, Wallace received a B.S. in English and Art from California State University at Humboldt, her M.A. in Education from University of North Carolina, her Ed.S. in Administration from Western Carolina University and Ed.D. in Administration from University of Georgia.

Wallace previously served as the Associate Superintendent of Macon County Schools and the director of Western Regional Education Center. Her career in education is extensive, also serving as superintendent of Vance County Schools (15 schools, 1,100 employees) as well as Deputy
Assistant State Superintendent for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Wallace was also a U.S. Department of Education Fellow in Washington, DC and former Associate Superintendent for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. Wallace has also had a career in secondary education, serving as an Adjunct Professor at Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College.

She has served on numerous boards and commissions for industrial recruitment and school facilities planning in Macon County and Western North Carolina. In her free time, Wallace writes and is the author of “Poisoned Apple, the Bell-Curve Crisis” as well as Tuckasegee Chronicles, a historical novel set in Little Tennessee River Valley.

Although she has not held an elected position in Macon County, Wallace does have political experience. Wallace was elected to two terms as State Secretary of the N.C. Democratic Party and has served on the State Democratic Executive Committee and State Executive Council. Wallace was the first woman in North Carolina to run for U.S. Senate and first ran for Macon County Board of Commissioners in 2018.

“My lifelong experience and credentials in public service have been a lifetime of preparation for serving as a Macon County Commissioner,” said Wallace. “I want to work toward practical and sustainable change and to up-end the top-down three-person voting bloc that has controlled our Board of Commissioners for many years. We must change our current status quo economic and social trajectory if we want to keep our young families here. I’m an advocate for a strong multi-party system to maintain balance in our local government as in all other areas of our lives. At the moment, Macon County is clearly out of balance, clearly lop-sided toward the “tea party” far right while a contingent of far left “progressives” pull in the opposite direction. This extreme divergence on both extremes of our local political spectrum has split our local political parties into five distinct factions, which is hurting our ability to sustain a moderate common ground in local government that we need, and must have, to move forward as a county.”

Questions to candidates as they were asked and answered. Small edits made for clarity and length.

What do you see as being the biggest issue facing Macon County and how would you address it if elected?

Lampkin: “I think funding public education is important, but that is addressed separately. County commissioners should represent the people, not a personal agenda, so the issues that are important to me are not as relevant as the issues that are important to the other Macon County residents. Like so many others, though, I think opioids and meth are the scourge of our county. I am interested in analyzing what measures have been tried in the past, and to help us take new steps forward toward some level of success. Also, there is an obvious need for employment opportunities, but incentives are needed to encourage businesses to move to our county. The monopolies created by Duke and Frontier are appalling, and their poor customer service needs to be corrected. On a county level, the way to address that is just like on a personal level: repeated, forceful contact moving up through the business hierarchy.”

Wallace: “Jobs that pay a living wage and benefits so that we can stop the exodus of our young families is vital; therefore, an aggressive plan for economic development is crucial. Putting all our eggs in the tourism basket helps some residents, but is unsustainable for most residents. Our poverty rate (30%), median income ($39,000), needy and declining schools, children in low-income households (58%), a growing homeless population, reduced hospital and health care facilities, lack of affordable housing, lack of broadband internet access, and growing crime statistics related to drug trafficking are seriously affecting our lives and economy, since those are the main factors that prospective businesses and industries look at beyond a potential workforce. Potential employers analyzing such data are not impressed with our sporadic support for education, our “welfare queen” numbers, our crime statistics, our ‘dollar store’ economy, or our lack of broadband internet access and expansion. Macon County has fallen into a downward economic spiral as a number of large industries have closed and as a succession of storefronts are boarded up. We should develop clear and forthright industrial recruitment presentations and packages, and aggressively contact a large number and range of businesses and industries through industrial associations and commercial realtors to try to entice divisions or even headquarters to locate here. We can certainly offer tax incentives and negotiate long leases, but we should quit deeding away plots of our prime county-owned commercial land to private companies that thrive for a while, then sell the property and move elsewhere. As for our lack of economic growth, we have concentrated on development of Main Street
Franklin, the Macon Airport, recreational parks (even an expensive dog park), and retirement havens, rather than devising and carrying out a long-range plan for development of the by-pass and major arteries leading into Franklin, namely the Sylva Road and Georgia Road, and to a lesser extent the Highlands and Bryson City Roads. Thus, our tendency is toward consumerism rather than production, and it is not sustainable.”

Public Education: Commissioners are faced with more and more requests for public education funding. What is your stance on the county’s role in funding public education? Do you think the current levels are adequate or do you think they should be increased/decreased?

Lampkin: “I think the county should do everything it reasonably can to increase funding for public education. It may be trite so say, ‘I believe the children are our future,’ but they are. It behooves us all as adults, as the people who make decisions, as the people who can do something, to provide all possible opportunities to allow our children (and all Macon County children truly are “our” children, collectively) to reach their full potentials. For most families, our children spend more waking hours at school with their teachers, than they do at home with their parents. Just as our children deserve opportunities, our schools and our teachers deserve access to the finances and funding that will allow them to better serve our children. Our children deserve more, and our schools and teachers deserve more.

I have been involved in the Macon County arts movement. The problem is that we have a small set of finances from taxes that goes to pay for many teachers’ salaries, school supplies, personnel, programs, and so on. We need to generate new revenue streams, and be willing to discuss how partnerships between private businesses and public schools can develop relationships that benefit the whole community. We also need to be more thoughtful about how to spend the available resources.”

Wallace: “County commissioners are responsible for providing adequate school facilities, while the state and local school boards are responsible for operation of the schools, albeit our local school board is often reduced to begging our county commissioners for additional funding simply to stay
afloat, which is not a pretty sight. Together, these two boards and ‘we the people’ have a moral obligation to our children and grandchildren to do better, to provide schools that give every young person the best chance for a successful future. It is disgraceful that our students do not have basic instructional materials and that teachers are forced to beg for financial assistance and to spend their own money for basic student needs. It is disgraceful that the Macon Middle School was allowed to become leaky and moldy and not maintained up to standard for 40 years. It is disgraceful that 58% of our children live in homes below the poverty level, that the majority of our students qualify for free and reduced price meals (including the entire East Franklin School), and that many other families are humiliated every year when they cannot afford to pay for meals for their children. It is unfortunate that we have consolidated our elementary schools so that the majority of young students are taken out of their home communities and must commute long weary miles elsewhere. I don’t know of many adults who would suffer through such long hours of busing to get to their workplace every day, but yet our children are forced do it. It is disgraceful that decisions have not already been made, years ago, about the future of facilities at Nantahala, Highlands, and Franklin High School in a fair and equitable manner. We spend far too much time plugging holes rather than planning and setting priorities.

As our state legislature continues its juggernaut toward privatization of our public schools, we cannot simply blame the state for cutting our funds. As a county, we must fill the gap to the degree that we can financially do so, right here at home, and go even beyond the basic essentials to the degree that we can afford it. For starters, we can use local funds for all necessary supplies and instructional materials not provided by the state, and we as a county can certainly pay for meals for students who are currently paying for them in part or full, often with great difficulty. Would adults be happy going to their jobs without adequate tools and meals? In the whole scheme of our county’s total finances, paying for school supplies and meals for our children is not a large item. We could initiate long-range planning to decentralize our large elementary schools and return students to smaller community schools, while at the same time plan for reconditioning our middle and high school facilities, bringing them up to standard and expanding them. It would take time to decentralize, but that’s what long-range planning is for. And we should really look at restructuring the grade-level offerings at each school level, which is actually not as formidable as it might seem if done in conjunction with facilities planning. Macon County already has adequate funding resources for most of our educational needs if the county commissioners would plan ahead and set priorities with educational needs at the top, rather than continue to engage in authoritarian knee-jerk piecemeal governance by ad hoc special interests. Our basic education needs should supersede all other aspects of our county finances, if we expect to meet our moral obligations and prepare our children for a future here in Macon County or elsewhere, depending on what they want to learn and do. Having the basic education to allow for choices is the most important legacy we can provide for our children.”

Macon County is in the middle of a large space needs analysis project to address infrastructure needs. What are your thoughts on the current direction the county is taking to address these issues?

Lampkin: “Most road repairs and upgrades are handled by DOT. Ideally, DOT would consider the actual communities in which it seeks to address infrastructure needs. However, I’m involved in the Highway 107 projects in Sylva and know firsthand that DOT drawings and projects are prepared by people who seemingly have no idea what would be beneficial for the communities. We need to be proactive with DOT from early stages of projects to ensure that our needs are being taken into consideration and met. As a community, we need to be open to new ideas, even if they might take some getting used to. For instance, I support the installation of the traffic circles in Franklin. They are ‘difficult’ because they are new and uncommon but, if used properly, they will ease traffic congestion at the intersections where they were installed. I also support putting utilities lines underground. Not only would it cut down on power and phone outages caused by downed trees, but it would be more pleasing to the eye.”

Wallace: “The $300,000 ‘space needs’ study recently completed was preordained to fit our existing programs and services – except for promotion of a new and wildly expensive courthouse and detention center. School facilities were not included in the study; therefore, the study was actually not a study of our comprehensive needs but a rubber stamp of the status quo and special interests. We do need a review of our comprehensive needs, along with projected costs for each capital item, but not another study to justify special interest projects. We should set priorities for the entire county and continually review them, including long-range planning for a civic center large and complex enough to house high school graduations and events such as arts and crafts fairs, gun shows, automobile shows, and assorted conferences. We should put money into our schools (both facilities and operation) and services for the growing population of retirees, rather than continuing to expand recreation, entertainment, and the airport; and every large project requiring large expenditures and ongoing maintenance should be decided by public referendum, by a direct vote of the people, fully participatory and fully transparent.”

Any other issues or information you would like to include for your voters.

Lampkin: “I have many skills that I believe can be useful to Macon County residents. I am hardworking, energetic and open-minded. I am always open to reasonable compromise, but I can stand my ground when needed. I believe that the issues that come before the county commission should not be dealt with in a partisan manner, because what is good for Macon County is good for all of us.”

Wallace: “The most important offerings we have here to entice business and industry are (1) relatively cheap land with large open spaces, (2) a willing workforce, especially young people who want to stay here or who have moved away and want to come back home if they had jobs, and (3) access
to transportation systems in Atlanta, Asheville, and Knoxville. But we have to take the initiative to look for new businesses and industries and to let them know what we have to offer. We should support and encourage home and property ownership, rather than overburdening home and property owners with unnecessary local regulations, which are out of control and growing worse all the time.

“We should renovate and expand the detention center, even to auxiliary sites, and quit sending, at great expense, our inmate overflow to Cherokee and Clay counties. We should create more accurate and more streamlined flow of information between our local government and the public, and most of all, build public trust by being transparent with the problems of law enforcement and the court system at all levels. We need more rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenders; and a separate ‘drug court’ to relieve our overloaded court system would be helpful, since we have seen the positive implementation of drug courts in other states, including our neighbor state of Georgia. We should also work to change our laws regarding marijuana use that is clogging our law enforcement and court systems and preventing our citizens from obtaining the benefits of medical marijuana. We must do better at caring for our disabled citizens and our homeless population (now estimated at 300) with provisions for safe and secure houses for those who need them, through foster care, group homes, and other individual arrangements. We should consider creating and investing in a ‘permanent fund’ that will return dividends to the citizens over the long haul rather than patting ourselves on the back for our ‘borrowing power’ that allows us to engage in ongoing indebtedness.
We should consider merging major aspects of our county government with our municipal governments to eliminate inefficiency of overlapping responsibilities and unnecessary duplication, to avoid confusion about who does what and where the buck stops, to create a streamlined governmental structure that people can understand and know whom to contact for needed information, to create more financial efficiency and accountability to our taxpayers and other citizens, and to provide more equitable representation for citizens no matter where they live. A major point for us to consider locally is that only a few hundred people vote in Franklin elections, but thousands vote in Macon County elections, while the services and responsibilities of town and county are inexorably intertwined with many decisions made by the small Town of Franklin that affect the entire county, i.e. the tail wagging the dog.  The same intertwining applies to the relationship between Highlands and Macon County to a lesser degree, but the Franklin/Macon overlap is far more convoluted because of proximity and Franklin being our county seat. Additionally, the unincorporated community of Nantahala is routinely overlooked and receives far fewer basic services than do communities elsewhere in the county – primarily communications technology, law enforcement, and healthcare. Further complicating matters is that so many people live one place (town or county) but vote according to the location of their residence. As a result many people who live out in the county
but have businesses in town (which might be the majority of business owners) do not have any representation or vote regarding their businesses.

I do not think we should lower taxes, nor should we raise them to any great degree, nor should we continue to misrepresent what ‘revenue neutral’ means as if that is a golden rule. Quite simply, when our individual property valuations take a hit as has happened in recent decades, our county government should be curtailed to the same percentage through systematic downsizing, and vice versa. ‘Living within one’s harvest’ is a workable goal for Macon County, and we can do so if we set more realistic priorities with our expenditures. Within our current taxable means, our county commissioners should set priorities according to systematic input from the citizenry. How long has it been since the people voted on any large capital project? We should put referenda on the ballot every election to determine the will of the voters regarding how and when our tax money is to be spent. We must begin to insist on open public discussion of significant issues that affect us all,
forthrightly and transparently, and we must work toward government that bubbles up from ‘we the people’ rather than continue to passively accept top-down authoritarianism closely held by a small voting bloc who push their own special interests and grease the squeaky wheels. Review of county government employment practices and salary schedules should be carried out regularly to ensure that we can employ and retain excellent employees in a manner comparable to similar counties, and all county employees should have adequate health insurance and other benefits commensurate with their positions. The practice of ‘no compete’ contracts (unadvertised) is questionable and has drawn significant criticism for allowing favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism under the guise of any number of questionable reasons for awarding such contracts. All county government positions should be advertised and offered to the most highly qualified applicants; and the entire county personnel salary schedule should be reviewed and made available to the public.
And finally, our future needs for water and sewerage in the Franklin plateau are looming large and will not go away. The possibilities and opportunities for Macon County are endless, but we must look for them, take action, and move forward with courage and conviction.”

Voters will have a chance to meet both Democratic and Republican candidates for Macon County Commissioner on Thursday, Feb. 13 at the Macon County Public Library beginning at 4:30. The candidate forum that will feature a Q&A with commissioner candidates and will also have introduction from candidates running for various offices including District Court Judge and Congress.