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Cotham dismisses criticism of her leadership of Mecklenburg commission

By Fred Clasen-Kelly
frkelly@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham said Monday that she would not step down as board leader, ignoring a fellow Democrat calling for her ouster.

Cotham told the Observer that she holds support from a board majority and is moving past last week’s divisive vote to fire former County Manager Harry Jones.

“I am focused on the future,” Cotham said.

The comments came after Commissioner Dumont Clarke sent Cotham and other county leaders an email saying she should consider taking the unusual step of removing herself as chair for making remarks he interpreted as critical of county employees.

In an article published last week, The Charlotte Business Journal quoted Cotham saying, “I see a lot of waste and I see a lot of people who are under-challenged. Why are we paying somebody $60,000 to do a $30,000 job? This is what I’m seeing (at the county) and I’m going, ‘What the hell are they doing?’ ”

Clarke wrote to Cotham that her remarks could “alienate the County’s entire work force.”

“After reading this comment, I frankly have come to the conclusion that you need to seriously think about stepping aside and letting someone else lead this county commission and speak for us.”

The exchange reflects a rare public rift among Democrats.

Democratic Commissioners Trevor Fuller, Vilma Leake and Cotham joined with three Republicans in voting to dismiss the longtime manager. Democrat Kim Ratliff and Clarke opposed the termination.

George Dunlap, another Democrat, was absent during the vote. Dunlap did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Leake said she, Fuller and Cotham have been criticized for “working together” with Republicans.

She defended the decision, saying “we’re not broken like Washington.”

Similarly, Cotham said Clarke’s email was probably payback for her vote to dismiss Jones.

She did not deny the quote attributed to her, but said the article did not include compliments she gave to county workers.

“I have heard from a lot of employees who are supportive,” Cotham said. “In fact, since I’ve been elected I’ve heard from a lot of employees who say ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ ”

Commissioners followed tradition when they made Cotham chair last year. The title historically goes to the at-large commissioner who won the most votes in the general election.

The chair, who is appointed for one year, is the board’s most high-profile member, running public meetings and helping set the agenda.

In an interview, Clarke said Cotham’s statement about county employees is “an extreme example of poor leadership.”

Clarke said he would not vote for Cotham in December when commissioners pick the chair.

The comments Cotham made show she “shouldn’t be serving as chairman and speaking for us as a board,” he said. “When you know a workforce has been traumatized, you sucker punch them.”

Shifts in top management

Also Monday, Interim County Manager Bobbie Shields announced a shakeup in top management. Commissioners voted last week to promote Shields from county general manager to interim manager after dismissing Jones.

In his first significant move, Shields named county Finance Director Dena Diorio as assistant county manager.

Diorio will continue to act as the chief financial officer, but now is considered one of the county’s four top executives.

Shields also named Associate General Manager Leslie Johnson as interim assistant county manager to fulfill his old job.

Johnson, who came to the county in 2001 to work in strategic planning, will now oversee the Land Use & Environmental Services Agency, Park and Recreation Department, Economic Development Office and Historical Landmarks Commission.

Under Mecklenburg’s commission-manager form of government, the manager makes nearly all personnel decisions.

Clarke continues criticism

Clarke criticized Cotham, saying she pressured Shields to promote two county employees. He would not name them.

Clarke said the employees are competent and deserving, but said Cotham acted inappropriately in recommending promotions.

“It looked like someone used their vote as leverage” to help the two employees get promoted, Clarke said.

He also said that Cotham pushed Shields to drop his title as tax assessor once he became interim manager. Shields refused, Clarke said.

Cotham acknowledged that the board asked Shields to give up the tax assessor title, but denied he was pressured.

She said she believed it would be difficult for him to juggle both jobs and meet demands from the public.

Cotham acknowledged that the board recommended two employees to receive promotions, including Johnson.

Commissioners made the move to assure Shields he could move back into his old job if he wasn’t hired as the permanent county manager, she said.

“We wanted him to feel confident he would have a job no matter what,” Cotham said.

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027
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