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Pat Cotham: Unafraid, unapologetic and under fire

By Peter St. Onge
pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

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    One person with courage can make a difference. I can be an easy-going, friendly person but I can also be a fierce advocate for the people and for what is right. Pat Cotham


Twenty-two hours before she told Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones he was fired, Pat Cotham typed up an e-mail about herself. A reporter had asked her earlier that day about her leadership style, and she was dissatisfied, apparently, with her answer. “If I could ramble a bit…” her e-mail began.

“If I get hit by a truck after the meeting, I would want my tombstone to say ‘Courage was her only choice.’”

She is 62 years old, a longtime Charlottean. She’s also a longtime player in the Democratic Party, and last November she was elected to the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, getting more votes than any at-large candidate. In part that was because she ran as someone with a blend of business experience and passion for the disadvantaged. She also, to many, seemed a rather safe choice – almost matronly in dress and voice and beauty shop hair.

But in less than a half year, the commission chair has done what many officials in Charlotte couldn’t do, and many others didn’t dare. She has not only fired the Mecklenburg manager, but is shaking up a scandal-prone county government that’s smirked at from here to Raleigh.

(District 6 commissioner) Bill James says my relationship with Harry is like Truman and General McArthur. Since I am from Missouri and I was born when Truman was president I like that analogy. Others say “David and Goliath.”

She is a county chair unlike any Mecklenburg has seen, frenetic and headlong, her words and thoughts spraying as she veers from one issue to the next. “A Jack Russell terrier,” one Charlotte political observer says, and it’s why some dismiss her as something between flighty and loony.

“I think some folks misinterpret her,” says Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour. “She seems to have a lot of things up in the air. Really, she is laser-focused on getting things done.”

Tom Derham, who was active in reval, led the Citizens Review Board, told me I was like a "mongoose," which did not sound to good to me but he said people underestimate the mongoose and then the mongoose pounces! I think I will stick with the Truman analogy.

She is openly despised, mostly by members of her own party. She’s been mocked during board meetings, and party veterans have taken their shots, too. Some Democrats on the commission say she is meddlesome at best, and likely unethical in her maneuvering to fire Jones. “No one in their right mind can question that Pat Cotham is an ineffective leader,” says commissioner George Dunlap.

Says Cotham of those critics: “They don’t volunteer to help. Instead they throw rocks.”

And: “Screw ’em.”

Yes, Pat Cotham said that, and she would say it again, publicly or privately, because there’s little difference between the two, say the people who see both. She is, they say, funny and friendly, dogged and stubborn. She’s idealistic about public service and wily about getting things done. She’s the kind you cheer when you agree with her and squirm when you don’t. Now some are beginning to squirm either way.

Not Cotham. For better or for worse.

I’m no hero. I am a leader with courage who will do what is right.

‘She sticks to her guns’

Twenty-nine days before she shushed a fired Harry Jones, Cotham took an extraordinary midday drive to Raleigh. There, she met Gerry Cohen, special counsel for the N.C. General Assembly, to talk about the best way to dismiss a county manager.

County staff, including attorney Marvin Bethune, didn’t know she was meeting with another attorney to discuss county business. Some of her fellow commissioners didn’t know, either. For someone who had campaigned just months before on transparency in government, it was the first of several covert maneuvers regarding Jones.

But to Cotham, it was simple. By then, April 8, she had made up her mind that Jones had to go. Like any follower of Mecklenburg government, she’d long been aware of Jones’ rocky tenure as manager, but as a candidate for commissioner in 2012, she’d learned intimately about one of the county’s biggest failures: the botched 2011 property revaluation. Cotham attended all but one of the county’s reval meetings with citizens, which came after Jones had resisted an independent audit that ultimately found significant problems.

“I thought, ‘Well, that was a major screw up,’ ” she says.

Once in office, she butted heads regularly with county staff and Jones, whom she felt had forgotten that he had bosses, including her. (Jones declined comment Friday.) The tipping point: Before a commission meeting in January, Cotham spoke with Mecklenburg general manager Michelle Lancaster about a rumor that the county’s MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare agency had lost oversight of millions in Medicaid money to Kannapolis-based Cardinal Innovations Solutions. Cotham says Lancaster and another staffer told her the state was only “encouraging” MeckLINK to work with Cardinal, but at the meeting, Lancaster said that MeckLINK had in fact lost the Medicaid oversight.

Lancaster, who did not return a message from the Observer, has since told others that she told Cotham the same thing she said to the board as a whole. “I was lied to,” insists Cotham, who felt it was part of a pattern from county staff and Jones. “There’s a culture of secrecy there. We get no reports. We make decisions in the dark all the time, which scares the tar out of me.”

Later in January, she asked for a discussion in closed session about the county manager’s contract. “Everyone was like, ‘What the hell is she doing?’” she remembers.

It was, say those who’ve known her, what she’s always done: attack an issue head on, often on her own, and often in her own way. And if people are put off by that? Well, this was the person who, shortly after affirmative action opened up jobs for women, took a recruiting job at Avon and put her daughter in daycare, despite the eyebrows that might have raised in 1970s York, S.C. This is the person who told that daughter, now N.C. Rep. Tricia Cotham, not to ever accept bullying as a school girl. Even now, the daughter remembers the words the mother hammered into her: “Stand up for what you believe in. Even if you’re the only one standing.”

Cotham worked for Avon in four different cities but came back to Charlotte to management positions at Wal-Mart and Harris Teeter while she cared for an ailing mother in-law. Eventually, she found a career path in social services, which aligned with her Catholic faith and desire to help the disadvantaged. “She was a very, very strong advocate,” says Ken Herring, a coworker at the Center for Community Transitions, which helps convicts rebuild their lives. “She would give people her phone number and say ‘Call me. The hours don’t matter.’ She would pull money out of her own pocket for them.”

And also, Herring noticed this: “She sticks to her guns. She always sticks to her guns.”

A surprising coalition

Pat Cotham needed five county commission votes, including hers, to fire Harry Jones. Her initial assessment: Republican Bill James would join her, as would Democrat Vilma Leake, who had clashed with Jones and county staff in the past. Newcomers Matthew Ridenhour, a Republican, and Trevor Fuller, a Democrat, would need convincing before making such a significant move. Same for Republican veteran Karen Bentley.

As for the other three – Democrats Dumont Clarke, George Dunlap and vice chair Kim Ratliff? They would fight Jones’ removal, Cotham thought. “I could see they were more status quo, the get along to go along.”

By the early spring, Cotham had built relationships with several on the board – not for the purpose of firing Jones, she says, but because she believed Democrats and Republicans needed to work together. Ridenhour was struck that Cotham took the time to have coffee with him one weekend afternoon to talk about guns in county parks, an issue he felt strongly about. Bentley found it refreshing that Cotham called for her perspective on issues. “As a Republican in the minority, to have a Democratic chair engage me in dialogue,” Bentley says. “That hasn’t really happened.”

Cotham also encouraged her fellow Democrats to expand their political circles. One afternoon in January, she found Leake in the commission offices and talked her into driving to Cornelius, where Republican Jeff Tarte was celebrating his swearing-in for the N.C. Senate. The two Democrats walked into the room of 300 or so Republicans, who gaped a little but were, as Cotham predicted, gracious.

“They were very welcoming,” says Leake, who stayed with Cotham for dinner afterward. “I said, ‘They have fried chicken.’ And Pat said: ‘Vilma, Republicans eat fried chicken, too.’ ”

In April, after Jones and his lawyer met with commissioners to get his contract favorably revised, Bentley was on board for his dismissal. She drove with Cotham on her second trip to Raleigh to meet with the lawyer, Cohen. Ridenhour joined the coalition, too. Fuller, who had expressed an inclination to support the firing, had concerns about timing and was being lobbied aggressively by Jones supporters.

Cotham had five votes, maybe six. From there, it was choreography. At the meeting, on May 7, she was to present Jones’ firing in closed session, but direct all conversation to happen in open session, in front of the public. There, James would make the motion to dismiss Jones, and Leake would second it. They would listen to objections from Clarke, Dunlap and Ratliff, who knew nothing of the plan. Just in case things got out of hand, Cotham had talked to Mecklenburg Sheriff Chipp Bailey about security.

That didn’t happen, but there were a couple of hitches. Leake had eye surgery earlier in the day and was late. Dunlap, who had no idea what was to happen, had left town. Commissioners waited more than hour until Leake arrived. One of them texted what was happening in the closed session, and so Jones knew his fate before the commissioners finally came out to the dais.

There, in front of a stunned room, the county manager was fired. When he began to ask to speak, Cotham cut him off and told him, coldly, that he was no longer an employee. That also was part of the plan, although perhaps not the harshness of it. “Pretty awkward,” says Ridenhour. “I told her afterward that she should have let him speak.”

Says Cotham: “Harry knew he could’ve spoken from the podium as a citizen. He chose not to do that. I did everything I could to dot my i’s and cross my t’s. It may not have been pretty, but it was the way it was supposed to be done.”

Overreaching her role?

What was most troubling to some commissioners was not the tone-deafness of Jones’ firing, but the rest of Cotham’s script, which went largely unnoticed.

Along with promoting general manager Bobbie Shields to interim manager, Cotham lined up personnel moves, including bringing in retired BellSouth executive Krista Tillman to help the search for a new manager and lead a study on efficiency. Also, two lower-level employees, both black women, would be promoted to senior positions.

Cotham said the women are extremely qualified and were being wasted in their positions. The moves, including Tillman, also had a political motive, she admits. “I have to think about different groups,” she said. “I have to think about the business community. I have to think about the African-American community. I have to think about getting reelected.”

Other commissioners say Cotham has overreached, that personnel decisions should be made by the county manager, and jobs should be posted for all candidates, not orchestrated by a commission chair. “It undermines the authority of the county manager,” says Democratic commissioner Clarke. “It also immensely increases the risk that decisions get made on the basis of political favoritism.”

Dunlap, who says he has no particular objection to Tillman, is concerned that her hiring has already been decided despite the board not discussing her duties and whom she reports to. “You make decisions without having included all the voices,” he said. “It violates our code of ethics.”

Both Dunlap and Clarke say the episode is part of a pattern in which Cotham inserts herself too intimately into policy. That includes meeting privately with representatives of Wilson-based Pearson’s Appraisal Service, which conducted the audit of Mecklenburg’s revaluation. She even was involved in one discussion about whether county cars were washed too frequently, says Clarke.

“Her tendency is to go way too far into the weeds,” says Clarke, who wonders if that might discourage strong manager candidates from raising their hand for Mecklenburg’s open position.

All of which has even some supporters uneasy.

“I do think she wants what’s best for the county,” says Fuller. “I want to make sure that things are done the right way. Even if we’re right, there’s still a process to follow.”

Cotham says she does, and she swings back at the criticisms. It is Friday afternoon, 10 days after Harry Jones was fired, and she is alone again in the decision, the focus of those unhappy with it. “I did everything I could to make sure I was following the statutes of North Carolina,” she says, on the phone in her car. “I don’t know what else I could have done.”

And: “I’m like ‘Bring it on,’” she says. “If you want to attack me, bring it on. Because I’m not going to stop.”

And: “I am not going to change. I am for the people. I work for the people. They’re happy with me. They’re telling me all day long, ‘Give ’em hell, Pat.’”

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