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News Former county officials discuss the past, present, and future

From left, former county commissioners Sonny Burrell, Jerri Stewart, Pete Penland and Milles Gregory talk about how things have changed in county politics over the years at the League of Women Voters Forum last Thursday.League of Women Voters hosts nostalgic forum.

The League of Women Voters hosted its monthly meeting at the Tartan Hall of the First Presbyterian Church last Thursday. The public was invited to the forum that saw a variety of past Macon County Commissioners from the 1970s to the early 1990s offer up stories, advice, and overall views of the current political climate in Macon County.

The meeting was well attended by members of the community who hoped to hear from the former officials, many of whom even worked with them in one form or fashion. In a role that mirrored his first job as county manager, Ron Winecoff started the event off providing a structure that would be followed by the five commissioners in attendance.

Winecoff was not a commissioner, but he was the first county manager west of Statesville, N.C., in a time when there was only 19 county managers in the state. He was hired in 1969 and hailed from the state of New York. At the time he took his job, he was the 26th employee of the county and had a half million dollar budget to work with. At a time when there was only three commissioners, the public was not ready to pay for a position that “wasn't needed.” He began Thursday’s discussion with the year that he became the manager working with those commissioners.

“I worked with two Democrats and one Republican, but luckily, one of the Democrats and the Republican was first cousins,” Winecoff said to a laughing crowd. “We really did get along good and everybody worked really well together.”

Describing the history of the county and the differences with the landscape of today, he garnered many laughs from the audience as he described working with various officials and accomplishments of the county government at the time, like getting a new court house constructed despite opposition from some in the community.

Milles Gregory, who served from 1978 to 1986, followed Winecoff describing his goal of building stronger emergency services when he took office.

“At the time, Bryant Funeral Home had two ambulances and it was sort of a conflict of interest,” he laughed. “We wanted to improve that service. We couldn't make a deal with Mr. Neal, so we talked to Bob Scott about helping us get an EMS started. He agreed to it and to this day I appreciate that.”

At the time of Gregory's service, there were three Democrats and two Republicans, but despite their political differences, they were able to work together to get the service started.

“The county grew over the eight years I was a commissioner and even though we were a partisan board, we kept our thoughts separate from the thinking,” he said. “After we got through discussing the issues, even though we may have disagreed, we went and ate lunch together and got over it.”

This sentiment was echoed throughout the forum. Pete Penland, Sonny Burrell, Jerri Stewart, and Jerry Sutton shared stories of the issues that each set of commissioners had to tackle, often times choosing controversial paths forward.

Jerri Stewart, the first female commissioner, discussed her time in office and what it was like being the first woman to serve on the board. Disheartened by many of the things that happened with the governmental goings on, she was understandably affected when she was not invited to a budgeting session by the other county commissioners because she was a woman.

“I said, well, I've bought my own cars, I've bought my own houses, I run my own business, I've raised my kids by myself, I've been in the management world, why does that make me different when it comes to making decisions when it comes to financial problems of the county?”

At that point, the tone of her fellow commissioners changed and she was permitted to participate as any commissioner would have.

Burrell offered up words of caution for the future of the county and advice for moving forward and electing well suited commissioners.

“When I served, I was the lone Democrat with two Republicans and it wasn't an issue,” he said. “Going forward, it's become a matter of stability. It gets progressively worse in each election, especially in a small community like ours where we know each other, we shop in the same stores and we go to church together, that we allow ourselves to follow the trend of national politics and allow personal assaults to become a part of our campaigns. We need to get away from that. Going forward I think it will become more difficult to find capable, competent people to run for these offices when personal attacks are involved.”

LWV member Susan Ervin expressed her hope of assembling a similar event in the near future with additional commissioners from the past.

“Maybe next time we can get a variety of commissioners from the ’90s and up,” she said..


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