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Tensions follow Mecklenburg County manager’s firing

By Fred Clasen-Kelly
frkelly@charlotteobserver.com

The first Mecklenburg County commissioners meeting since the firing of former county manager Harry Jones descended into chaos Tuesday with shouting, bickering and name-calling.

Democratic commissioners, split along their views of Jones, accused each other of unethical behavior, sexism and racism.

In one exchange, commissioner Vilma Leake, who is African-American, told commissioner Dumont Clarke, who is white, “You go back to the old time when white men sat in rooms and made decisions for poor people.”

“You called me a racist,” Clarke said.

Leake responded: “I sure did.”

The spectacle did not stop when commissioners abruptly ended the more than two-hour meeting. Commissioner George Dunlap, a Jones supporter, angrily spoke to board members afterward, telling one “that’s not how you do business.”

The raw emotions suggest that fallout from Jones dismissal last week is far from over.

Clarke, a staunch Jones supporter, and Dunlap signaled they would oppose a proposal that would help restructure top management and review the county’s operations.

The tensions raise questions about how the board – with four new members elected in November – will work together during coming debates over the budget, picking a new manager and fixing the troubled Department of Social Services.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Republican commissioner Karen Bentley sighed: “Dysfunction 101 right here.”

The commissioners voted 6-2 last week to fire Jones, the longtime manager. Clarke and vice chairwoman Kim Ratliff opposed, and Dunlap was absent.

Democrats hold a 6-3 majority on the nine-member commission.

But commissioners chairwoman Pat Cotham, commissioner Trevor Fuller and Leake have come under heavy criticism from their own party since they joined with three Republicans to vote Jones out as manager.

The specter of Jones’ firing hung over the small second-floor meeting room even before the meltdown.

“Attending my first BOCC meeting since the crucifixion of Harry Jones,” Dunlap tweeted. “The mood in the meeting is indescribable.”

A new hire?

Tensions flared over a proposal to hire retired BellSouth executive Krista Tillman to help guide the county in the search for a new manager and to lead a study on effectiveness and efficiency of government operations.

Cotham has said she suggested Tillman as “executive transition manager” because her business expertise would allow her to offer guidance to commissioners and staff.

Interim county manager Bobbie Shields tried to allay fears that Tillman would act as de facto “super manager,” saying that he had spoken with her and her role would be limited.

But with his voice beginning to rise, Dunlap demanded to know why the county needed to hire Tillman.

He said the board has traditionally hired employment search firms without a consultant. Dunlap also said that Shields could receive advice for free from business executives across Charlotte.

“Why would we pay?” Dunlap said.

Dunlap turned to Cotham and began to question her in a prosecutorial tone. When Shields tried to interrupt, Dunlap cut him off, saying, “This is a board discussion.”

Dunlap and Clarke questioned why they were not informed about the proposal to hire Tillman until after Shields was named interim manager. They said the maneuvering violated the board’s “code of ethics.”

“This is really disturbing,” Clarke said.

Cotham explained that she spoke to some commissioners about Tillman, but did not tell Dunlap, Clarke and Ratliff because they wanted to keep Jones as manager.

“So that’s the way you operate as chair,” Dunlap said. “That’s your leadership. Talk to people who agree with you.”

“You weren’t interested in change,” Cotham replied.

Tempers flare

Tension escalated when Leake began to speak. She accused Dunlap of raising his voice to Cotham because she is a woman.

On Tuesday, Leake said, “I have never seen a male in that seat be treated that way. We need to respect each other even if you don’t like us as women. … I want the public to know how you treat women.”

Asked after the meeting about Leake’s comments, Dunlap said she is using gender to avoid discussing “the real issues.”

“That’s expected,” Dunlap said. “She doesn’t have anything else. She can’t defend her actions. The real issue is about leadership style.”

Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour informed commissioners who supported Jones about Tillman’s potential hiring by handing out a written proposal.

Referring to the tension at Tuesday’s meeting, Ridenhour said, “I knew this was going to happen.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027
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