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Old Walland Highway set to be closed another month for slide repairs

An early April rock slide on Old Walland Highway has turned into a project for Blount County Highway Department at a potential cost of $300,000 to $400,000 with a time frame of another three to four weeks.

The road closed April 8 and Blount County Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick told The Daily Times then he didn’t know how long it would be closed.

At that point officials were consulting with third-party engineers to see how unstable the mountainside had become after heavy rains days before.

But Headrick told The Daily Times by phone Monday that repairs are going well, though they’ll take almost a month to wrap up.

He said that was a cautious estimation.

Engineers found the landscape at the slide was so unstable it required netting stabilization. Though netting may be hung this week, that’s only one step in the project, Headrick said.

Blount crews had to haul dirt in and build the road up so that netting crews could reach the top of the slide area. They’ve also helped with tree-clearing and generally have worked to monitor the situation.

“We’ll start taking that dirt back out, reestablish some ditch lines, clean the asphalt that’s there, it’s probably damaged, overlay it, stripe it, put a guardrail up, and then we’re done,” Headrick said.

He said he knew at first glance the slide risk wasn’t going to be easy to mitigate. It was a sudden need but it also hit Blount’s pocketbook hard.

He didn’t give an exact price for this project, but he said similar ones cost between $300,000 and $400,000.

“It hurts,” Headrick said. “You get that phone call on a Monday morning that the mountain’s slid off..”

April’s rock slide — between block numbers 6339 and 6547 — may not be the only potentially dangerous area on Old Walland Highway, Headrick said, but budgeting for the 2021-22 fiscal year is nearly over and there aren’t funds to address those needs specifically at the moment.

“Our county engineers looked all up and down that road and, yes, we’ve identified some other areas where this could happen,” he explained. “We hope it doesn’t. However, we were already so far into the budget I was unable to allocate (future) money just for potential rock-slide remediations.”

Thankfully, he added, the department was “frugal enough” during this budget year to be able to absorb the $300,000-$400,000 cost.

In coming years, he said it will be “prudent” to add potential slide mitigation to the budget, noting citizens, visitors and bikers are all top priorities for this project.

The winding road is a more residential, scenic route to Townsend and is especially popular with cyclists, Headrick said.

He’s emphasized in past interviews a concern for the “health, safety and welfare” of Blount Countians is what drives projects like this one.

“I checked every one of those boxes,” he said Monday.

Major and minor rockslides happen every year in the mountains. They are dangerous and caused one fatality in Townsend early last year. Sliding rocks and earth can bring trees and other debris with them.

Crews have to assess all this as they seek to secure steep landscape beside local roads and paths, especially after heavy rains.

Whose 'Big Lie'? Trump's proclamation a new GOP litmus test
Donald Trump and his supporters are intensifying efforts to shame members of the party who are seen as disloyal to the former president and his false claims that last year’s election was stolen

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump and his supporters are intensifying efforts to shame — and potentially remove — members of their party who are seen as disloyal to the former president and his false claims that last year's election was stolen from him.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, risks losing her leadership post amid her increasingly public dispute with Trump. In Utah, Sen. Mitt Romney, a rare Trump foe in the GOP, faced the indignity over the weekend of reminding a booing crowd that he was once their presidential standard-bearer. And in Texas, the only openly anti-Trump Republican in a crowded special election for a congressional seat finished a lowly 9th.

Trump left office nearly four months ago with his reputation badly damaged after a mob of his supporters waged a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol to prevent the certification of election results. But the recent developments suggest a revival of his political fortunes in which those who refuse to go along with his falsehoods find themselves on the defensive.

“It’s scary,” said Michael Wood, the Texas Republican congressional candidate who based his campaign on a vow to push the GOP past the “cult of personality” that is Trump. In the end, he garnered just 3% of the vote in Saturday’s special election, while two Trump supporters, including one he endorsed, will advance to a runoff.

Trump's grip on the party may only tighten in coming days.

Adding to his flurries of press releases, his powerful Facebook account could be reinstated this week if a quasi-independent oversight board rules in his favor. Meanwhile, Republicans in Virginia will decide whether to nominate a vocal Trump supporter for governor in one of the few marquee elections on the calendar this year.

An important signal of the party's direction may come on Capitol Hill, where Cheney's future is in question.

The Wyoming congresswoman, the most senior Republican to call for Trump's impeachment, has insisted that the party must reject the former president's lie that the election was somehow stolen. There is no evidence to support Trump's allegations of mass voter fraud, and numerous audits, Republican state election officials and Trump's own attorney general have said the election was fair.

But Trump has stuck to his story and issued a “proclamation” Monday attempting to co-opt the language his foes use to brand his falsehoods.

“The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” he wrote.

Cheney, who has not ruled out a 2024 run herself, fired back.

“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system,” she tweeted.

Clearly she has no intention of scaling back her criticism, even as she faces the possibility of losing her leadership post.

Cheney survived an earlier attempt to oust her from leadership, but it could be different this time. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy stood by her earlier this year, but he has declined to defend her from the latest round of attacks as he faces conservatives restive for her removal. That's a sign of McCarthy’s own calculations as he works to stay close to Trump while also trying to extend a wider tent to help his party win general elections.

While the pro-Trump Republican voices on Capitol Hill far outweigh his party critics, the detractors should not be dismissed.

In all, 10 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump for inspiring the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and seven Senate Republicans voted to convict. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to acquit Trump, but publicly chastised the former president and has privately encouraged the party to move on.

It's a different calculation for rank-and-file members of Congress, particularly those representing heavily Republican areas, where roughly 8 in 10 party supporters typically approve of Trump. Among party activists and base voters, that number is thought to be much higher.

It’s still too early to draw any definite conclusions about Trump’s success so far this year. Some Republican strategists privately suggest there are real signs that the former president’s strength with rank-and-file voters and elected officials has begun to wane.

“He becomes less relevant with every passing day, but among those who still listen to him he’s more relevant than ever,” said veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “He still matters. He’s going to matter for months and even years, but as time goes on he’ll matter less and less.”

For now, the former reality TV celebrity seems to be enjoying the ride.

“So nice to see RINO Mitt Romney booed off the stage at the Utah Republican State Convention,” Trump crowed in a series of celebratory statements Monday lauding the Texas results and criticism of Cheney and Romney. “RINO” means “Republican in Name Only.”

In Utah over the weekend, a roomful of Republicans had rained boos down on Romney before trying unsuccessfully to censure him for backing Trump’s impeachment.

“Show respect,” the crowd was reprimanded by the state party chair. Romney reminded them that he was a lifetime conservative and their presidential nominee in 2012 — and told them Republicans would only hurt themselves by attacking each other.

“If we divide our party, we’re going to be a losing party,” he said.

In Texas, losing congressional candidate Wood, a 34-year-old former Marine and two-time Purple Heart recipient, has commiserated with a handful of prominent anti-Trump Republicans, including Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Cheney, who had donated to Wood’s campaign and offered moral support.

He said Monday there’s real urgency for anti-Trump Republicans to unify against him.

“This can’t be just individuals pushing back. We’ve got to organize and show the public you can be a good Republican and not buy into all that BS,” Wood said. “This fight won’t be won with podcasts and op-eds.”

Mike DuHaime, a top Republican strategist, said the party is still grappling with its identity post-Trump, but argued that it will be better positioned going forward if it includes conservatives like Cheney and Romney.

“There are people who are playing to the base of the electorate, which is very passionate and believes the big lie about the election. And it’s enough to win a primary for Congress or Senate or governor, or even president, it seems." But, he warned, “If we stay focused on only that, it’s not going to be successful enough in the general election to win back the majority.”

"We have to at some point put this behind us if we want to be successful in a general election.”

Library director Williams resigns

Blount County Public Library Director K.C. Williams handed in her resignation letter less than a week before the library’s board of trustees was set to approve an employee survey meant in part to assess her performance.

Williams intends to serve as director until May 28 and then vacate the role, according to the letter, which she sent to the board and to The Daily Times.

It was dated April 30.

Williams said she was “excited about pursuing other career options” and appreciated “the opportunity to lead this wonderful library.”

She attached 11 pages — nearly 150 bullet points — of information about her work since she took the position in January 2014, emphasizing successful implementation of new programs and growth of services.

“I have steered the library through some very difficult times over the past seven years and have invested a great deal of time and effort into expanding the library’s service capacity across Blount County in support of building a sustainable community,” Williams wrote.

Board Chair Andy Simon told The Daily Times by phone Monday he had accepted Williams’ resignation that morning. But it also will come to the board for a vote Thursday during a called meeting at 5:30 p.m.

That meeting originally was intended to approve a new, library-specific “Culture Survey,” created to help staff assess how they felt about library operations and leadership, especially with upcoming changes following post-COVID-19 restructuring, many engineered by Williams.

Simon explained Monday that board members recently decided they wanted something other than the “County Government Performance Evaluation Process Checklist,” — a Blount County performance evaluation tool — for library staff to fill out, providing feedback on their views of the library as an institution and a workplace.

The three-page survey requests feedback on the library director’s performance specifically in seven different areas.

Simon said there are still plans to use this survey, despite Williams’ departure, which he noted was unexpected.

The next step, he said, will be to decide on an interim director and then gather a search committee to find a new director.

Williams’ resignation comes during a time when BCPL lost about 10 employees — some retired, some let go — during restructuring after COVID-19 fiscal shakeups and program alterations.

One of these changes seeks to make all staff positions full time.

Others change the way finances and programs are managed as the library moves to one day return to its pre-COVID standard of nearly 70 operational hours a week: It’s currently open just under 60.

It shaved off nearly 13 hours of operation to adapt to pandemic restrictions, but — unlike many libraries across the U.S. — never completely shut down services during the pandemic.

“I have overseen three major staff restructuring efforts during my tenure as director,” Williams noted in her letter. “It is my hope that the library will recover quickly from the restrictions placed on it by the pandemic and move forward to continue on to become a true cornerstone of the Blount County community.”

BCPL is funded by Blount County, the city of Maryville and the city of Alcoa.