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Watch: Jackson County Commissioners candidates discuss platforms in forum

Candidates for Jackson County Commissioner and Chair sit on stage together at Western Carolina University.
Courtesy of Western Carolina University
Candidates for Jackson County Commissioner and Chair sit on stage together at Western Carolina University.

Jackson County Board of Commissioners and Chair candidates met on October 11th for a forum hosted by Western Carolina University, Blue Ridge Public Radio and Smoky Mountain News.

Candidates for Chair Brian McMahan (D) and Mark Letson (R) sat alongside Commissioner candidates Boyce Deitz(D), Gayle Woody (D) and John Smith(R). Candidate Todd Bryson was unable to attend because of a family emergency. Host Chris Cooper, head of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University read a statement from Bryson at the start of the event.

Moderators Lilly Knoepp of Blue Ridge Public Radio and Cory Vaillancourt of the Smoky Mountain News asked the candidates questions on issues ranging from how they would spend opioid settlement funding and improve housing availability to how they would work with the local sheriff’s department and encourage development in Jackson County.

Western Carolina University students recorded and uploaded the debate to YouTube.

Early voting has already started and will continue through November 5th . Find out your polling location and hours here. Find your sample ballots here.

Here is each candidate's two-minute opening statement.

Todd Bryson, Republican Commissioner Candidate(Bryson was unable to attend the event. His statement was read by Chris Cooper of WCU.)
My name is Todd Bryson, candidate for District One County Commissioner. If I am elected the county commissioner, I would like to see all the communities in the county get what they deserve, whether it be infrastructure improvement, entertainment facilities, or adequate public safety. I would like to collaborate with our next sheriff to have an adequate number of deputies on patrol to ensure our community's safety as well as the safety of our law enforcement officers. I would work with other commissioners to support law enforcement financially, to reduce turnover, and ensure proper staffing levels. Our county has also experienced a rise in drug-related deaths. I plan to support our next sheriff with any efforts made to reduce the loss of lives through drugs that are filtering through our county. Surrounding counties have venues and fairgrounds, allowing their residents to come together and enjoy themselves with family friendly activities. I would like to see fairgrounds or a similar venue in Jackson County. This will bring entertainment to our county as well as needed revenue. As a commissioner, I want to encourage family, restaurants and new businesses to come to our county. We need to work with TWASA (Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority) and other entities to expand our infrastructure. This will help recruit restaurants and businesses to Jackson County. Making these improvements will increase the county's revenue and allow our residents to eat and shop locally. It is time for Jackson County to catch up with neighboring counties. I appreciate your support.

Brian McMahan, Democratic Chair Candidate
I'd like to thank Western Carolina University, Smoky Mountain News and Blue Ridge Public Radio for hosting this event tonight. In the years after the Civil War, my great-grandfather who was born and raised here in Jackson County, lived at Balsam and Okra Hill communities. [He] raised 16 children in that North end of the county and had no formal education. [He] never learned to read or write until he was an adult. In trying to help support his family, he walked across through Soapstone Gap down into what's now known Cullowhee, and helped lay the very first bricks for this, what is now today, Western Carolina University. So, I always put that into perspective when I'm here on-campus at Western Carolina University. And to think, he would've never dreamed that his great-grandson would be a graduate of this university with a degree in political science, state and local government focus. And also, that I'm sitting on the stage here tonight as a four-term chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners participating in this debate, having served our community. And just like my great-grandfather laid those foundational bricks here for this university, which has become one of the great institutions in our state, I have been able to be so fortunate to work with many of our boards, county commissioners - Democrat and Republican - over the last 20 years to lay the foundational blocks that we have used to build this county to where we're at today. They uniquely place us in a position to not only be successful today but be successful going forward into the future. And I hope that tonight we can talk about some of those great achievements that we, as board members, have been able to accomplish over the last 20 years. So, I look forward to the debate tonight and thank y'all for coming.

Boyce Deitz, Democratic Commissioner Candidate
I would like to also thank Western Carolina University. I really, everything that I have, I owe [to] this university, more than anything else. The people that kind of took me under their wing back in the late sixties when I was a student here, Dr. Hamilton, Dr. Spelter and Dr. Flitch and all those fellas. I think they knew I was kind of [an] old country boy from down in Sylva. So, they helped me out just a little bit and I ended up doing well and had a good career. When I started to run for county commissioners, it was for one reason to start with: I loved these mountains and there was some kind of a problem about the Balsam Mountain range and maybe we were going to build on some of the slopes there and on the mountain tops. And I didn't want it to look like it does when you go over past the Walmart in Waynesville and see all those houses built on the side of those mountains and we've been able to preserve - through several groups - preserve the Balsam Mountains. That's real important to me. This is a hard job being a commissioner. There's Tom sitting there. Once you get in there, you find out there's a lot more to it than you thought Jack. And there's a lot of things that we do. Whether it's recreation or whether it's our sheriff's department, our fire department. All these things that you get involved with - you don't know it all about when you get in there - or I didn't - but you start learning. And we [have] so many people that are working for the county - several hundred. And they do a fabulous job of keeping the county looking good and sharp and mowed and all of that. And I support them real heavy. And that's one of the reasons I'm running. And I thank y'all very much.

Gayle Woody, Democratic Commissioner Candidate
I see my role as a county commissioner on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners as an opportunity to serve. I want the same things that most everybody here wants. An opportunity to live in a safe community, a place where our natural resources like our mountains and streams and rivers are protected, where our heritage is celebrated, and where our children are educated in excellent schools. My family started coming to Jackson County in 1958 when my father became a seasonal naturalist for the great Smoky Mountain National Park. And I've lived in Jackson County every summer growing up and began living here full-time in 1974 when I got my first teaching job at Almond School. I learned at early age to value the beauty of God's creation and to practice good stewardship of our environment. My parents, along with the day family, ran Holly Cove Campground on Pine Mountain Road from 1961 until 1982, and I worked there every summer. Carol worked there one summer as well. Eventually paying for my college education, a Bachelor of Arts in Art and Education. And I graduated in 1974. My husband, Phil, and I have four grown children that were born and raised in Jackson County. Next month we'll have been married 47 years. We bought our first home in 1980 in Cullowhee. And I've served this community in many ways, both professionally and as a volunteer. I'm committed to serving Jackson County and to listening to all our citizens. It's been a great honor to serve these past four years. And with your vote, I can continue to serve.

Mark Letson, Republican Chair Candidate
Thank you Western. Thank you, Blue Ridge Public Radio, and also Smoky Mountain Times. I don't have the long story of how my family came to this place. I know how I came here, and that was I got tired of heat - just like everybody else. We moved up here in 2006 and my wife and I purchased the pharmacy from the Zachary family. And we've been there for eight years. I've been fulltime with Trillium Links up in Cashiers since 2006. We chose Jackson County because of its uniqueness, its beauty, its natural wonders. We are fortunate to live here, and I thank God every day that I'm here. Everyone has their agendas and I think we can all agree that they are pretty close to the same. It's how you pursue that goal and how we want to make this place better. And while I know that we have a lot of progress that has been made, we still have a lot of progress that can be made, and it takes proactive leadership to do that. I want to thank everyone for coming out tonight, and I look forward to this wonderful debate, this forum. Thank you, guys.

John Smith, Republican Commissioner Candidate
I'm afraid I won't need two minutes, but I came here about 21 years ago, married a local girl. [Here’s] part of my background: I served in the military for a little over seven years. [I] worked on the Operation Desert Storm and the Cold War back in the late eighties. Since coming here, we've raised three children. My wife is a local. I've been working mostly out my home for the past 12 years, but I've worked on the Qualla Boundary at Cherokee for an electronics company down there. [We] wired most of the casino, good or bad. And yeah, again, I think we all want to do the same thing around here. We want to grow Jackson County and make it a great place for our children and our kids to grow up and maybe grow their families and have grandkids and, you know, see if it all goes right. I haven't seen a lot of growth since I've been here. We've got two big retailers in 21 years since I've been here: Lowe's and Tractor Supply and everything else is, you know, off and on. So that's all I have. Hope you vote for me.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.