Power shifts on Lincoln County Board of Commissioners; county manager dismissed

A power shift on the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners sets the stage for more openness in local government, some officials say.

On Monday, after two newly elected members were sworn in, the board picked a new chairman, Carroll Mitchem; a new vice chairman, Bill Beam; and then voted 3-2 to fire county manager Tracy Jackson.

In a 4-1 vote, the board approved the appointment of former county planning director Kelly Atkins as interim county manager.

Jackson, a former deputy county manager of Iredell County, got the Lincoln County job in 2013 after manager George Wood retired.

Alex Patton, who’d chaired the board for six years, and commissioner Cecelia Martin voted against firing Jackson.

“It was uncalled for,” said Patton. “He was doing a good job and had just got a good evaluation. It was unfair to terminate him.”

Mitchem said the dismissal was a personnel matter and “I’m obligated not to discuss it.”

But he said with two new commissioners – Beam and Martin Oakes – being sworn in Monday, “we thought it was better if he (Jackson) moved on.”

Mitchem, 57, of Vale thinks a shake-up on the board is needed.

“We want to make sure county departments serve the people directly and be more citizen-friendly,” he sad. “They are the taxpayers.”

Currently serving a third term on the all-Republican board, Mitchem lost a re-election bid in 2006, but was top vote getter in 2012.

A full-time farmer and restaurant owner in western Lincoln County, he describes himself as “a realist.”

“I’m direct. I don’t call a duck a dog,” Mitchem said. “I’ve always been outspoken and I’ve been criticized for it. But I tell you how I feel about things. When you talk to me you’ll get a straight answer. You may not like it, but I’m going to tell you.”

Despite past disagreements, Mitchem feels he and Patton can work together “if he chooses to.”

“With five people together on a board, there will always be disagreements,” Mitchem said. “Everybody will bring different ideas to the table, and we need to listen. Hopefully, we can agree to disagree in a civil manner.”

Mitchem said that with 23 years of experience in county government, Atkins will do a good job as interim manager.

“I think he’ll end up being an asset,” Mitchem said. “He’s not someone you have to tell where Cat Square is at. He’ll hit the road running.”

Mitchem said the board will work to keep the tax rate down, recruit business and industry and take on such issues as renovation of the old hospital for the health department and county offices.

Along the way he wants to make sure “all the board members are informed,” Mitchem said. “Be straight up – it’s better that way.”

Beam, 64, of western Lincoln County, is former chief deputy with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. His focus on the board of commissioners will be on emergency services “because of my expertise,” he said.

Meanwhile, Beam agrees with Mitchem on the need for transparency. Under past administrations, Beam said, the county manager worked solely for the county commissioners chairman and others “weren’t privy to what was going on.”

“Basically, they weren’t allowed to get items on the agenda,” he said. “I want to make things as open as possible.”

Oakes, 67, the second newly elected commissioner, has lived in Denver 18 years. He ran for office because “I have granddaughters who live here, and I want to leave the place better off than I found it,” he said.

An issue he sees coming up is the continued growth in eastern Lincoln County, where 2,400 new housing units have been announced.

“That’s a rate of 20 percent,” Oakes said. “With a build out of three to four years, there will be strains down here.”

As the board deals with the issues, he doesn’t think the public needs to worry about the power shift.

“One reason I was elected was that I promised to shake things up,” said Oakes.

Looking ahead to future board meetings, Patton said “things are going to be different.”

“What concerns me, if they fire the county manager on the first meeting what else will they do as a knee-jerk reaction?” he said.

While he’s disagreed with Mitchem in the past, “to me, it’s not personal,” Patton said. “It’s his approach sometimes I don’t like.”

Whatever changes occur on the board, Patton said, “I’ll vote the way I think is right, regardless.”

First-term commissioner Cecilia Martin thinks Mitchem will do well as chairman.

“His businessman side will come out,” she said. “He’s funny and jovial, and you know where he stands.”

She feels the commissioners can work together.

“I think we’ll be an interesting board,” Martin said. “Sometimes we’ll be a funny board. But the bottom line is we’ll make the right decisions in our own minds.”