Just before the end of Tuesdays Mecklenburg County commissioners meeting, commissioner Vilma Leake asked to be heard.
In an empty chamber, Leake looked into the Government Channel cameras and said current board members, including board Chair Pat Cotham, were humiliated by a former board chair (she didnt mention a name) after a luncheon last Friday.
During that 15-minute meeting, Leake said the former chair whom she later identified as Parks Helms turned on her and told her to shut up.
I said nothing, Leake said. I had not indulged in any communicating. And Parks Helms proceeded to put his finger in my face and told me to shut up and dont say anything.
On Wednesday, Helms acknowledged he and Leake had words, but was adamant that he didnt tell her to shut up.
The meeting came after the Good Democrats luncheon at Charlotte Country Club, the yearly invitation-only gathering of Democrats that Helms co-hosts.
Helms said hed asked Cotham to meet with him and other former commissioners to talk about obvious friction between the current board and County Manager Harry Jones and his team of managers.
I simply wanted to tell Pat that she could best serve as chairman if she has a good working relationship with the management team, Helms said.
Helms said Jones and his general managers have confided theyve tried unsuccessfully to meet with Cotham on certain issues.
The tensions, Helms said, have driven wedges between some board members and top county managers.
After the Friday luncheon, Cotham said she asked the other Democratic commissioners (Leake, Dumont Clarke and Trevor Fuller) to stay and meet. Helms assembled former chairpersons Jennifer Roberts and Harold Cogdell and former commissioners Dan Murrey and Lloyd Scher.
I wanted us to give Pat some suggestions and advice about how she might avoid what I call unhealthy tension, Helms said. But, frankly, we never got to have that discussion.
Its certainly not the first time theres been tension between commissioners and top county managers.
During high-profile problems with the 2011 revaluation and the countys troubled social services agency, much of the publics criticism was aimed at a perceived lack of oversight by Jones and his managers.
Tension between Jones and the board grew after commissioners denied Jones a pay raise in November. Jones is still upset about that, some commissioners say.
Then earlier this month, commissioners were caught off guard when the state transferred oversight of millions of dollars in Medicaid money from the countys MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare to an out-of-county government agency.
To MeckLINKs objections, the state Department of Health and Human Services said the county agency wouldnt be ready by a Feb. 1 soft launch deadline. The county is fighting that decision.
Cotham took over as board chair last month determined to restore trust in county government.
She promised to ask tough questions in her campaign, and shes doing it ruffling feathers along the way.
A bad start
The post-luncheon Friday meeting got off to a bad start, with Roberts asking why Cogdell, a registered independent, was attending. Helms told her he asked Cogdell to attend the meeting.
That answered, Helms did the talking. He said he encouraged Cotham and others to improve working relations with Jones and county staff.
They have to understand the role of county commissioners as policy-makers and the role of the manager as the implementer of policy, Helms said. I was trying to say that the public perception of how you conduct meetings and business is very important. The reports were hearing indicate that the public does not have a good perception of what youre doing.
Cotham and others took it as criticism.
I told Parks I think you have the wrong information, she said. As a board, we are getting along very well. Im working with the Republicans. All these problems have made us gel real fast.
I told him if we keep doing things the old way were going to get the same results.
Cotham said Leake sat next to her and said nothing. But when Helms tried to get the conversation back on his topic, Leake said something.
Cogdell said he never heard Helms tell Leake to shut up or raise his voice. At no time did I hear Parks speak to commissioner Leake in what I consider a derogatory or disrespectful manner, he said.
Roberts said Helms face got red. I do remember him saying something like wait a minute, let me explain Roberts said. I do think Parks was sincerely trying to help.
So does fellow commissioner Clarke. He said Helms was expressing his heartfelt concerns and beliefs.
As for the Helms-Leake confrontation, there was a strong exchange of words between them. Clarke said. I dont recall him using the specific words shut up.
Cotham does remember those words, and says Helms owes Leake an apology.
Leake was determined to expose the Helms incident at Tuesdays commission meeting, surprising Cotham and others.
Im glad I did I was hurt, Leake said. I couldnt believe that in 2013 a white man would put his finger in my face and tell me to shut up.
Helms said he has nothing to apologize for.
I never said shut up, he said. We had words and I probably pointed at her. I speak with my hands It was a testy meeting and words were said. I regret that we never got to the discussion that I wanted to have because of the (arguing) that took place.