Highlands residents have both familiar and new faces to choose from for November's municipal election as four residents have filed for town commissioner and two have filed for mayor.
Only residents who live within Highlands city limits are able to vote in the election, which will be held Tuesday, Nov. 5. For mayor, residents will vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes will win. For commissioner, there are two open seats on the board, so voters will be able to vote for two candidates and the top two vote getters will be appointed to the board.
Macon County native Donnie Calloway has decided to run for Highlands Town Commissioner after a 19-year retirement from local politics. Calloway, who was born in Cullasaja but grew up in Highlands, said he considers himself a true Highlander even though his golf buddies consider him a true Maconian.
"I decided to run for town commissioner because of my love of this area for Highlands," said Calloway. "Growing up, this community did so much for me and my family and I look at serving as a community outreach and a way to give back."
Calloway and his wife of 40 years, Bitsy, have two sons, Lucas and Jarrett; and four grandchildren, Foster, Elijah, Crew and Essie.
After graduating from Highlands School, Calloway went to work in the furniture industry working his way up until he owned his own business, Finishing Touches Unlimited. "Being a businessman I think I have a unique understanding of the inner workings and operations of the town," said Calloway. "I think that will help me if elected to office."
Calloway first began his political career when he was just 26 years old. After being elected to the then Highlands City Council, he served 16 years in the form of eight consecutive two-year terms on the council. "Two of the things that I am most proud of accomplishing while in office was securing retirement for town employees and building an incredible recreation department," said Calloway. "In my second term, we were able to secure the retirement for town employees and that was really important to me. The recreation department was able to be built and improved on then and I think now it is heading in the right direction to be even greater."
During his previous stint in office, Calloway served on a town council which implemented a form of government centered around the council clerk. Today, Highlands operates under the direction of a town manager, a government change Calloway believes he can adjust to.
Fellow Highlanders stand as Calloway's favorite thing about the community. "My favorite aspect of Highlands is its people," he said. "They all have such big hearts and are just great folks. And the beauty of the area by far surpasses anywhere else I have ever been in this world."
Calloway hopes to be elected to office in order to help reassure people during difficult economic times.
"In this economic environment people are unsure of what to do and what is to come," said Calloway. "I want to work to bring stability and reassurance back to those folks. I also think something that is important to focus on is communication and the relationship between town commissioners and department heads. I do not believe in micromanaging the town manager, but I think it is still the responsibility of commissioners to have individual relationships with department heads in order to stay informed about what is going on."
"I love the folks here," he said. "My father had to leave to go find work somewhere else when he was growing up. I do not want that to be the case for people today. I want to do whatever we can to keep and bring work to Highlands."
Incumbent Gary Drake has filed for office in hopes of retaining his seat on the Highlands Town Commission.
"I am running for reelection as I like being involved in the community and making it a better place to live and work," said Drake. "I still want to make sure the uniqueness of Highlands is kept. Also there are several projects that I would like to see completed and some projects at least started in the next four years."
A Hendersonville, N.C. native, Drake has been married to his wife, Wanda, for 32 plus years. The couple have four children and four grandchildren and relocated to Highlands in 2002. Drake has been a full time resident of Highlands for eight years.
After serving in the United States military, Drake went on to work for Delta Airlines for 39 plus years in Atlanta, Ga. He is currently the co-owner of Highlands Appraisal Company, LLC and Drakes's Diamond Gallery, LLC.
In addition to serving on the Highlands Town Board as a commissioner for the past three and half years, Drake has also served the community as a member of the Macon County Tourism Development Commission and the Economic Development Commission.
The thing Drake enjoys most about Highlands is, "the ability to enjoy the Arts, the excellent restaurants, the scenery,the wonderful people and just living here."
Unlike other candidates, Drake is not running for office to change anything. Instead, he wants to serve the community for four additional years in order to have the opportunity to see projects he helped start through to their completion. "I think we are going in the right direction and I would like to serve another four years to make sure the Town of Highlands continues to have sustained growth."
Valdosta, Ga., native Patrick Taylor, 65, has lived in Highlands for the past 14 years with his wife Sallie. The couple have two children, James Taylor and Rebecca Owens and have recently became grandparents for the first time with another grandchild on the way.
"I have considered all my professional positions as an educator and as a magistrate as public service," said Taylor. "In all these roles I believed I worked for the public and for the good of the community. At this point in my life where I no longer have a full-time job and therefore flexible time and scheduling, I want to continue in public service as the mayor of Highlands. It would be an honor to be a public servant to all the citizens and stakeholders of the Highlands community." Taylor receive his undergraduate degree in art from Valdosta State College and a master's degree and a doctorate in art and education from the University of Georgia.
"I taught art in the public schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels for six years," said Taylor. " For 24 years I taught at the college and university level. Along with teaching, I was in university administration for 20 years. As an administrator, I was responsible for managing budgets, personnel, program development and assessment - all skills that are essential for an effective mayor."
For the past 10 years, Taylor has served as a Macon County magistrate primarily assigned to the Highlands area. "As a part-time employee, I was on call around the clock," said Taylor. "I was responsible for issuing criminal charges, setting conditions of release and determining bonds. I also handled involuntary commitments orders and conducted marriage ceremonies."
"As an educator I developed strong administrative skills and learned how to build effective team and support systems within an organization," said Taylor. "As a magistrate I worked with a diversity of people in the community. This professional experience developed my ability to listen and respond to multiple points of view and then make responsible decisions that were based on North Carolina law. In all my professional experience, I have endeavored to be part of decision making processes that were hopefully fair to all concerned and beneficial to the community."
Taylor is the owner and operator of Taylor Pottery in Highlands. "I am a strong advocate for the arts and crafts community in Western North Carolina as a vital component of our cultural tourism industry," said Taylor. "For the last 12 years I have operated a small pottery business. I know what it is like to work with my hands, run a small business and try to make a profit. I am acutely aware that government tax revenue comes from folks that have worked hard, made money and have paid their taxes. Elected officials have a fiduciary responsibility to spend public funds wisely for the benefit and advancement of the community."
Taylor also served three years in the U.S. Army where he received the Vietnam Service ribbon and an Army Commendation Medal.
His bid for Highlands mayor is the first elected political seat Taylor has considered, but he has served the town in other political capacities.
"This is the first time I have run for public office," said Taylor. "Nevertheless, I have served on the Town of Highlands Planning Board and the Appearance Commission for six years. I have also attended town board meetings on a regular basis for a number of years and have spoken out on many occasions concerning town issues and policy."
Besides serving on town-appointed boards, Taylor has participated in community organizations. He was the Facilities Committee cochair for the Bascom Center for the Visual Arts for four years; the Bascom Owner's Representative for construction of the new facility; served as the Bascom Volunteer Potter in Residence for two years; and is on the Highlands Affordable Housing Board. For seven years, he was on the Highlands Greenway Committee and Board, is a member of the Highlands Rotary Club and a mentor and board member of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Highlands and was one of the original organizers of the Highlands Dog Park.
"Highlands has a wonderful sense of community among our citizens," Taylor said of his favorite thing about Highlands. "I believe folks want to preserve and sustain this "can do" spirit as we face new economic, environmental and cultural challenges. Our community has a strong commitment to volunteering and helping make Highlands a great place to live. Good, responsive government has been, and should continue to be an important partner in this effort."
If elected mayor, Taylor wants to work to have a shift in representation. "The mayor has to provide leadership in creating an open and responsive government. A function of the mayor’s office is to serve as an advocate for all the people of Highlands," said Taylor. "Several years ago Highlands adopted a new form of town government. While this model in some ways has been beneficial, many people believe that communication between town hall, our residents and taxpayers can be improved. The mayor, in cooperation with the Town Board, can facilitate a reconnection in many ways to a ‘grassroots’ and a more participatory model of government. If elected mayor I would make an open government policy a top priority."
Current Highlands Commissioner Brian Stiehler, 35, wants to continue his political service, just in a different capacity.
"It is important we continue to treat the town as a business," said Stiehler of his reason for running for office. "During the last two years, I have sat on the Rec Committee, Public Safety Committee and Finance Committee. In all cases, we maintained conservative spending and at the same time made some much needed infrastructure improvements. It is a delicate balance. As the state of N.C. deals with its own financial issues, I believe municipalities will be forced to continue to fend for themselves. Highlands needs a mayor with strong business skills that can manage the town as if it were a business, which it is. I bring that to the table along with a lot of energy to work for the people of Highlands."
The Reading, Pa., native moved to Highlands in 2001 with his wife Hilary, after he graduated from Penn State University. The couple has one daughter, Anna.
"I am a graduate of Penn State University with degrees in Agronomy (B.S.) and Horticulture," said Stiehler. "I am currently employed as the Golf Superintendent at Highlands Country Club (since 2001). Prior to Highlands CC, I have worked at Augusta National GC (Augusta, Ga.), The Old Course at St. Andrews (Scotland), Oakmont CC (Pittsburg, Pa.) amongst other clubs. I have been fascinated with club politics from early on and have found it has helped me with my political aspirations. I have watched very successful people work to get things accomplished. In addition to my professional life, I served as president of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club of Highlands, Leadership Highlands, Literacy Council of Highlands currently sit on the boards of the Highlands Playhouse, The Performing Arts Center and Gilliam’s Promise. In 2010, I was appointed to the Macon County Economic Development Commission (EDC)."
Stiehler first began working in the Highlands government in 2011 when he was elected to Highlands Commissioner. "I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the public and other commissioners to make Highlands and better place and sustain the great lifestyle we have in Highlands," said Stiehler.
After living in Highlands for more than a decade, Stiehler has come to love Highlands for the natural surroundings.
"The sense of community and caring nature of its residents," he said. "Of course I love to chair the Town of Highlands Scholarship Golf Tournament for the last three years. This raised over $65,000 for the town’s scholarship fund. This is a great example of the community we have in Highlands. There is not another town that would take such an interest in our youth. As Mayor, I want to discover ways to enhance this program that has raised over $800,000 since 1975."
Stiehler sees nothing in particular he wants to see changed in Highlands if elected, he just hopes for the opportunity to continue serving his community. "Highlands is special to so many people for a number of different reasons," said Stiehler. "I come into this election with no set agenda other than to listen to folks and run the town like the business it is. I will continue to support our excellent staff. I often hear citizens talk about many of our ordinances being out of date. I think it is important to review these from time to time with outside participation to make sure they fit in the time we are living. I want to make agendas and board decisions more understandable and accessible to the general public. I plan to do this through the use of social media. I want to encourage active participation in town government. Imagine a local government that is approachable, listens and isn’t afraid of change!"