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County Manager Jones’ ouster was months in making

By David Perlmutt
dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.com

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How would you rate Harry Jones' performance as Mecklenburg county manager?

The effort that ultimately led to Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones’ firing from a job he held for nearly 13 years wasn’t as swift as it seemed Tuesday – but began weeks before the November elections.

That’s when a slate of new candidates for county commissioner began campaigning for a different direction in county government.

After months of acrimony over the botched 2011 property revaluations and lingering problems in the county’s social services and mental health agencies, candidates that included Democrats Pat Cotham and Trevor Fuller and Republican Matthew Ridenhour campaigned on restoring trust to county government.

There were promises for more transparency and accountability – yet Jones, they say, wasn’t the focus then.

“Harry Jones was not the topic of my campaign,” said Cotham, who got the most votes Nov. 6 and was elected the board’s chairwoman. “When I was campaigning, I went from meeting to meeting … and I’d hear the same thing – people had lost faith in government.”

Fuller said he also didn’t make Jones a part of his campaign.

“I wasn’t thinking about getting rid of the county manager,” Fuller said Wednesday. “Our county government needed more … accountability, and we weren’t getting that.”

Still, longtime Republican commissioner Bill James said he felt three of the four new commissioners believed they were elected to fix the problems in county government.

“They felt that to address the problems, they needed to replace Jones,” James said.

Immediate strain

The start of the incoming board was chaotic. It had four new commissioners and a chairwoman trying to learn her job, in addition to absorbing the complexities of property revaluations, social services and other issues.

“There was a lot going on,” she said. “We were trying to work as a team, building relationships. Harry was a minor piece in the beginning.”

Then Cotham and Jones got off to a bad start, their relationship straining more as the months continued.

After taking office, she said it took the four new commissioners weeks to get computers and phones in their government offices. Cotham said when she asked for information about issues, there was pushback.

In early January, Cotham got a tip that the state was reassigning the county’s oversight of millions of dollars in Medicaid money from the county-run MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare to a Kannapolis-based agency.

Cotham asked General Manager Michelle Lancaster and a county attorney about the tip and Cotham said they “assured me it was no big deal.”

That night, at a commissioners meeting, Jones announced the oversight had indeed been reassigned – and that the county would fight that decision.

Cotham sent out an email that she was “livid” that the board had not been kept apprised and that commissioners had been “blindsided.”

Lancaster responded by sending what Cotham called a “blistering” email, explaining the MeckLINK situation. The next day, Jones met with Cotham.

“I truly expected Harry to come in and apologize for Michelle,” Cotham said. “Instead, he said … I needed to apologize to her.

“I said, ‘Let’s go over this. The board works for the people. You work for the board, and Michelle works for you. She is your subordinate, and she insulted your boss – and you’re saying your boss needs to apologize to her.’ It gave me pause.”

Jones and Lancaster could not be reached Wednesday.

Future in doubt

About that time, the board began discussing Jones’ future.

Cotham said she asked her fellow commissioners about their thoughts on how Jones was doing.

Some, she said, thought “things were running great with the county. They said, ‘This is how we do it.’ I said that’s not good enough for people who have lost trust.”

Cotham said she got a clear impression from the early meetings – mostly in closed session – that veteran commissioners George Dunlap and Dumont Clarke and newly elected Vice Chairwoman Kim Ratliff, all Democrats, were in Jones’ corner. Cotham, one commissioner said, “kept them out of the loop” because she was concerned they would “act as obstructionists.”

So she began to lobby the other five, including Ridenhour and veteran Republicans James and Karen Bentley.

In early April, she began making trips to Raleigh to gather information from Gerry Cohen, special counsel to the North Carolina legislature about how to dismiss a manager.

The second time she met with Cohen, she took Bentley with her.

“I was concerned about doing everything properly,” Cotham said. “I wanted to protect the county.”

Cohen, she said, led her through the process and gave her the appropriate state statutes to look up and study.

Asked to retire early

During closed sessions, the board asked Jones to retire earlier, one commissioner said. They told Jones he needed to be gone before the next election in 2014. The commissioner said Republicans wanted to negotiate a settlement.

But they switched to terminating him, the commissioner said, after Jones hired Charlotte lawyer John Gresham in late March to revise his contract.

Clarke, a Jones supporter, said he thinks commissioners who voted to terminate Jones hoped “that their discussions about his employment would lead him to make life easy for them” and agree to retire earlier.

But Jones remained adamant about staying on until November 2015, when he would be 65.

Weeks later, the board hired Charlotte lawyer Felicia Washington to represent the county in the contract talks.

Fuller ‘lukewarm’ for a while

Cotham was determined to take up the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, two weeks before Jones was to present the 2013-14 county budget.

She explained afterward that if the board had waited until after the budget process, that meant a new county manager would not be hired probably until January. That, she said, would create problems with the next budget.

Cotham knew she had the support of the three Republicans and Democrat Vilma Leake. She wasn’t sure about Fuller.

Since January, Fuller said he’d been “lukewarm” on the idea, concerned it would cause “too much upheaval.”

At a strategic planning session in early February, he told the board he was tired of “putting out fires” and not getting county business done. Still, he said he was ambivalent for weeks about firing Jones.

“I didn’t know whether this step needed to be the first step,” he said Wednesday. “Perhaps there were other steps before that – like ‘tell the manager what you want him to do.’ Whatever it was, it wasn’t getting done.”

He said he began to strip away the emotions and came to a decision two days before Tuesday’s vote. He determined the county needed a new direction. “I came to believe for a number of reasons that wasn’t going to happen with Harry as the manager.”

Tense meeting

Tuesday’s closed session was tense, commissioners said.

Dunlap, a staunch Jones supporter, was absent. Leake had undergone cataract surgery that day, and Cotham told her to stay home, thinking she had the necessary five votes to fire Jones.

The remaining seven board members went over their only options with Washington, their outside lawyer, that included keeping Jones, terminating him or negotiating a settlement. One commissioner said no one voted to keep Jones.

At one point, Fuller suggested they delay the vote until a full board was present for such a big decision. Cotham got concerned and called Leake to come to the meeting.

They waited 45 minutes for her to get there.

When Leake arrived, the board took a straw vote – 6-2 to fire.

They went into open session and took the same vote.

In the end, Fuller voted for termination. “I felt this decision had to be made, as difficult and unsettling as it was,” he said. “Now we have to deal with the emotional aftermath and finding a new county manager in addition to a new tax assessor, new DSS director and a new health department director.

“We still have a lot of work to do.” Staff writers April Bethea, Fred Clasen-Kelly and Tim Funk contributed.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
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