In her business life, Pat Cotham has always managed by the “MBWA philosophy” – management by walking around.
As the new chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, she’s spent weeks walking around.
And asking a lot of questions. That’s made some people nervous.
“More than 250,000 people voted for me because I told them I was going to ask the tough questions,” Cotham said. “Well, I’m asking them and they’re (county leaders) not used to that, I think.
“If people are squirming … that’s good.”
Wherever she goes – a coffee shop or carwash, in the commissioners chamber or riding the elevator to her 11th-floor government office – she reaches out to give passers-by a handshake and introduces herself as the new board chair.
She wants to know what they do, what concerns them.
Recently, she was getting her car washed and ran into four men in a waiting room.
As usual, she asked about their concerns. “One man said, ‘Oh, I don’t trust any politician. They never listen or respond – or do anything,’ ” Cotham recalled. “And I said, ‘Sir, try me. I am here, I am asking you.’ ”
The man said he’s trying to open a new business, but county permits are slow to come.
She’s heard that before. “Here we need jobs in this county and these people are trying to open businesses and put people to work, and they’re having a hard time getting county permits,” she said. “I hear it all the time: ‘the county’s not responsive.’
“I don’t see a sense of urgency with a lot of things. That’s got to change.”
At 62, Cotham’s has puppy-like energy.
Her speech and actions are rapid-fire. Her questions rarely threaten, but often probe.
That may come from always having to adapt. As a child, she always had to make new friends as her family moved around when her salesman father was transferred.
After college in 1973, she was one of the first women to sell life insurance for the Equitable Life & Casualty Insurance Co.
She’s been an executive recruiter for major corporations and she’s headed her own company. Now she’s an employment advocate at The Center for Community Transitions, a Charlotte nonprofit group. She helps people with prison records find jobs.
She finds her energy and purpose helping people “who are trying very hard to do the right thing.
“I see people who face a lot of obstacles and struggle hard to succeed,” she said. “If they can do it, I can do it.”
Recently, she found a dentist for a woman who’d had teeth knocked out by a boyfriend and couldn’t get a job.
Later, that woman showed up with a new smile and a bracelet for Cotham.
“For a person in poverty to make this conscious decision to get me a gift, to pay for it and then pay bus fare to get it to me … that was special,” she said. “More special than any amount of money.”
Creating the budget
Cotham is “walking around” not to get people in trouble, but to learn how the county spends its money and make Mecklenburg more efficient.
She’d like to see the board take more leadership in policy making.
“It appears that past boards gave a lot of that power to the county manager,” she said. “The county manager makes the budget and then it comes to the commissioners – as opposed to commissioners telling the county manager, ‘We’d like to see this in the budget.’ ”
She’s leading a board that has lost public trust because of the 2011 property revaluation debacle. The board voted earlier this month to hire an appraisal service to review property values countywide after the firm found that the last, county-managed revaluation in 2011 was riddled with mistakes.
Longtime Commissioner Dumont Clarke is impressed with Cotham’s energy and diligence.
“She’s hit the ground running for sure,” Clarke said. “She seems to be getting more comfortable in her position.
Cotham’s two predecessors, Jennifer Roberts and Harold Cogdell, had already served on the board when they were elected chairman. This is Cotham’s first elected office.
At a recent meeting, Cotham and new Commissioner Trevor Fuller tangled with County Manager Harry Jones and acting Tax Assessor Bobbie Shields, a longtime county general manager, over hiring a firm to help improve customer service in the tax assessor’s office. They wanted to delay the hire so they could question the firm’s CEO.
Jones said he’d used the firm before, and could have hired it without the board’s approval. He said he felt like he was being micro-managed.
Later, Cotham defended her questioning.
“I am here to ask the questions that the public wants me to ask,” she said. “When Mr. Jones said he felt like he was being micro-managed, I think a lot of people feel that’d be a good thing. He works for us (the board). We don’t work for him.”
She wants county workers to feel free to come to the board with ideas to make their departments more effective and efficient.
She wants to set up a hotline or website for residents and county workers to share ideas and anonymously voice grievances.
“They’re doing the work and understand what’s involved, and they want to be listened to,” she said. “That was the big failure of the revaluation. People weren’t listened to.”