Let’s give Mecklenburg County commissioner Kim Ratliff some benefit of the doubt. Her recent comments about not wanting to hire a white male to replace fired county manager Harry Jones? They probably weren’t the product of racism, as critics have howled all week. They were just reckless.
There’s been some confusion about what Ratliff, the board’s vice chair, actually said about the next county manager. Initially, WBTV reported that Ratliff said she wanted to hire a “non white male” for the job, which seemed to indicate that she wanted a minority male to replace Jones, a black man who was dismissed last month. But in the same interview, Ratliff seems to clarify. “Someone outside of that, whether it’s a black female or a Hispanic female, but just someone who is not a white male,” she says.
That’s not a whole lot better.
If you’re a county commissioner – or any boss, really – you don’t get to say who you demographically prefer not to hire. It’s exclusionary. It sets the wrong tone for the process, not to mention for people who might be contemplating whether to raise their hand for the position. And if the skittishness of County Attorney Marvin Bethune is any indication, Ratliff’s remarks might also have put the board in a legally uncomfortable position.
As for that benefit of the doubt? We’d guess there are a lot of people in Mecklenburg County who agree that diversity is something to be valued, and that a manager who recognizes that might have a head start on serving our county well. On Friday, Ratliff told the editorial board that’s part of what she was trying to get across, that she merely wanted a big pool of diverse applicants. But that’s not what her words said.
So yes, it was wrong, and Ratliff apologized Friday for offending people, although she suggested it was product of “editing.” But her words also are part of a pattern in which she regularly says (or types) what she thinks without appearing to take much time to really think about it. In doing so, she’s become one of the more divisive commissioners – no small feat given the board’s recent and long history of dysfunction.
Most often, Ratliff’s stumbles happen on Twitter, where she regularly falls victim to the casual, conversational nature of the platform. She tosses barbs at other commissioners, often from the dais. Some are just plain petty. At one budget-centric board meeting this month, she typed of Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour: “For the record, Comm Ridenhour is a Charlotte native but attended private school. He doesn’t have the pride and joy of being a CMS graduate.”
Replied Ridenhour: “That was a cheap shot.” He was right, but Ratliff seems oblivious to the consequences of her words. An example: After months of sniping at chair Pat Cotham – “The chair has a problem with me looking at her. She should be happy to be seen by anyone!!!!” went one tweet – Ratliff was lost this month as to why Cotham didn’t place her on a committee to recommend Jones’ replacement.
All of which is nothing new to Mecklenburg residents, who grew accustomed long ago to shaking their heads at board infighting and other embarrassments. But Ratliff can do better. Her other tweets show a smart and engaged commissioner, one who gets out in the community and takes time to understand complex issues.
We had hopes that a slate of new commissioners would bring some fresh maturity to the board. Ridenhour and fellow first-year commissioner Trevor Fuller have done just that with a collegiality that transcends policy disagreements. Vice chair Ratliff is capable of doing the same. But so far, she’s just bringing the board’s childishness into the digital age.
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