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Fluent in local government, Laughter also connected with farm culture

When Jaime Laughter started her job as the Mills River town manager eight years ago, she was a 26-year-old with braces on her teeth and no experience in local government administration.

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That changed.
At the end of her last meeting as town manager, Laughter teared up as she thanked the board for an experience she said was the most rewarding of her professional life.
"I don't think I'll ever have the opportunity again to build what we've built in Mills River," she said. "I owe you a lot of gratitude for that. All the good advice you've given me. Everything I do moving forward is because you took a chance on me."
Laughter's valedictory prompted council members to reminisce about the day they hired her and their time together. All but one council member were on board when the town hired her.
"Our fund balance, our balanced budget, our overall financial situation — most of that goes right back to her," Mayor Larry Freeman said. "We set policy, she's been the manager that's kept it going."
When the council faced challenging decisions over money or zoning, the discussion on a few occasions became contentious and meetings dragged on.
"But we wouldn't be a family if we couldn't fight once in a while," Laughter said. "The only thing I've never had a smidgen of regret over is picking comfortable chairs for the council meeting."
If Laughter lacked experience as a manager, she had intangible people skills that meant as much as budgeting or dog park management. Councilman Shanon Gonce said Laughter's natural way with people and core understanding of the culture made a big difference when Mills River added zoning and a town tax for the first time.
"I knew when you got here you'd speak their language," he said. "We were fortunate to have that. You were able to communicate well."
Gonce recalled that at a farewell reception two weeks ago Laughter told him, "Thank you for taking a chance on me. I said, 'Jaime, hush your mouth. I didn't take a chance on you.' I knew she could do it."
The Town Council has hired Lee Galloway as interim manager. A retired Waynesville city manager who also served as Hendersonville's interim city manager for five months, Galloway is making $55 an hour plus mileage to cover town administration two days a week.
Laughter said on Monday she would work until 5 o'clock on her last day in Mills River.
"I'll be at my new office at 8:15 the next day," she said. "That's just me."