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Tuesday’s winners can change the county commission’s tone

Mecklenburg County had the opportunity Tuesday to give its dysfunctional Board of Commissioners an injection of maturity. The new board faces critical issues involving social services, revaluation and education. Commissioners need a collaborative thoughtfulness their predecessors didn’t often possess.

The board faced big changes Tuesday regardless of election results, with three at-large members – Jennifer Roberts, Jim Pendergraph and Harold Cogdell – choosing not to run for reelection. District 5 representative Neil Cooksey died last month after a battle with cancer.

While Cooksey was a reasonable voice on the contentious board, Roberts, Pendergraph and Cogdell often found themselves in the middle of commissioner spats.

What will the new board look like? It now has a 6-3 majority of Democrats, reflecting a county that’s demonstrably turning left. The board also will continue to be bookended by divisive forces, as District 2 Democrat Vilma Leake and District 6 Republican Bill James handily won as expected. District 3 Democrat George Dunlap, also too often ready for battle, ran unopposed in District 3.

James, whom the Observer endorsed, has managed one of his longest stretches without uttering or emailing the kind of inflammatory remarks about gays and blacks that has set the board reeling in the past. We’re hopeful that will continue.

Also encouraging: District 1 Republican Karen Bentley, who was often a sensible bridge between the board’s more combative members, retained her seat.

As for the new members: Three at-large Democrats – Pat Cotham, Trevor Fuller and Kim Ratliff – earned their first public office Tuesday. Ratliff declined the editorial board’s requests to talk about her candidacy, but we like what we know about Cotham and Fuller, who will bring a reasoned, analytical approach to issues. The same is true of conservative Matthew Ridenhour, who beat Democrat Paula Harvey in District 5.

Such level-headedness will be critical as the board confronts several urgent issues, including a Department of Social Services that’s suffering from accountability and oversight deficiencies. The board also will hear later this month a report from auditors who have examined the county’s troubled reevaluation process. If the report highlights inequities, commissioners could face difficult decisions about whether fixes should look forward, backward, or both.

Commissioners also can improve on a fragile relationship with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and the Board of Education. New CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison has pushed hard to establish a dialogue that goes beyond the annual budget tension between the two bodies. Commissioners should reciprocate.

All of which will call for thoughtfulness, not childishness, from commissioners. We’re encouraged that voters may have delivered a board that can meet that challenge.

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