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Avery Commissioners Spend Two Hours, 41 Votes Deciding on Chair of Board for 2016

By Jesse Wood

In what is certainly unprecedented for Avery County, the Board of Commissioners spent more than two hours on Monday afternoon and voted 41 times to decide who will be the chair of the commission for the next year, according to meeting minutes.

After the gridlock, Martha Hicks was eventually voted on as chair and Maxine Laws was quickly voted on as the vice chair with just one vote needed to settle that matter.

During the two-hour proceedings, Commissioners Reo Griffith, Maxine Laws and Martha Hicks were all nominated to be chair. Throughout the process, board members mixed up their votes – yet the gridlock continued in a 2-2-1 vote among the five commissioners.

In the end, Griffith decided to change his vote for a final time after the 40th vote and several recesses. Griffith, Blake Vance and Martha Hicks (voting for herself) voted for Hicks as the chair.

In the minority, Maxine Laws voted for herself and Faith Lacey voted for Griffith in the final 3-1-1 vote for the chair of the Avery County Board of Commissioners.

This instance differed from last December when the same board members swiftly voted for the chair. Last year, Reo Griffith was nominated for chair by Vance. The notion was seconded by Faye Lacey before Griffith was unanimously appointed chair by his peers.

A split vote as to who will be chair on commissions isn’t unusual. For example, in past Watauga County Board of Commissioner proceedings, the majority party will usually vote for a majority chair with the minority party voting for a minority chair. It’s not unanimous but the vote is settled in a matter of seconds.

But in Avery County, every commissioner is a Republican – as has been the case since the county was founded in 1911, according to a couple sources. For every registered Democrat in Avery County today, there are three registered Republicans.

In September 2014, before the current board was sworn in, the commissioners couldn’t agree on an interim county manager after Robert Wiseman, who managed the county for two decades, retired due to health reasons. But at the same meeting, all five members unanimously agreed to sell the old Banner Elk Elementary School to the Town of Banner Elk.

About a year and a half prior to that September 2014 meeting, former Avery County Board of Commissioner Glenn Johnson penned an essay titled “The Great Divide” – essentially pointing out that Avery County needed to evolve with the times if it was going to retain its younger generations and have employment opportunities for them. Much of his essay centered around the commissioners kicking a brewery out of the county’s business incubator located at the old school when the county owned the property.

Curious as to the state of politics in Avery County and why there is so much disagreement among Republicans and why the Avery County Board of Commissioners seem to quarrel just as much if not more than the Democrats and Republicans in Watauga, High Country Press asked Gerald Johnson, a 66-year-old native of Avery County, a lifelong Republican and chair of the Avery County Board of Elections, about the conflicts among Republicans in Avery County.

“I guess it just comes down to personalities and ideologies. You have some commissioners that seem to be more conservative and some more moderate,” Gerald Johnson said. “They just have different opinions.”