After weeks of speculation, divided Mecklenburg County commissioners Tuesday removed Pat Cotham as chairwoman and elected fellow Democratic commissioner Trevor Fuller to take over the board’s top post.
Initially, Cotham, in her first term as an at-large commissioner, withdrew her nomination after it became clear the vote would go against her. Yet the board ultimately voted 5-4, with Cotham winning support from the board’s three Republicans, Bill James, Karen Bentley and Matthew Ridenhour.
Democrats Dumont Clarke, George Dunlap, Kim Ratliff and Vilma Leake backed Fuller. Leake was seen as critical since she’d been a close Cotham ally for the past year. In the end, she broke off from what had been a tight-knit, bi-partisan coalition forged by Cotham that included the three Republicans.
Commissioners also elected Clarke, a Charlotte lawyer and six-term commissioner, as vice chair.
After the vote, Fuller, also a Charlotte lawyer in his first term as at-large commissioner, traded seats with Cotham and spoke for the first time as chair.
He expressed concerns that the board is “lacking in a clear and coherent direction” and regretted that transparency had been missing on issues.
“It is imperative that we huddle together and chart a new way forward,” Fuller said. “... There is an expectation across North Carolina that Mecklenburg County is going to lead the way. We need to reclaim that place, because there is a sense across the state that we have faltered.”
He called his decision to run against Cotham difficult because “I personally like Pat very much. We campaigned together and worked on issues together. ... We’ve differed sometimes, but there’s never been any question about whether Pat’s heart is in the right place.”
Cotham was known for reaching out to her Republican colleagues on the Democratic-majority board, and Fuller said he’d do the same.
“You should have no worry that you will be excluded,” he said.
The commissioners chairman, often the board’s most high-profile member, makes committee appointments, helps set the agenda and runs the public meetings. A year ago, the board bowed to convention when it elected Cotham as chairwoman. Historically, the at-large commissioner with the most votes has been elected chairman. Fuller finished third among the board’s three at-large members.
Yet changing chairs in mid-term is not unprecedented. Two years ago, Democrat commissioner Harold Cogdell unseated Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts, also a Democrat.
The dynamics of the two shake-ups, however, are different. Cogdell secured support from that board’s four Republicans to win the chair and was criticized by Democrats as a opportunist. He would later leave the party and register as unaffiliated.
Fuller was supported by members of his own party.
Cotham’s leadership criticized
Some say Leake was pressured by Mecklenburg’s African-American faith community to look beyond her friendship with Cotham and support Fuller.
Cotham had upset many in the black community – including board members Dunlap and Ratliff – after she spearheaded the successful vote to fire longtime County Manager Harry Jones last May.
Some leaders charged in public and during commissioners meetings that Cotham had been disrespectful to Jones when she wouldn’t let him speak after the vote and told him to leave the dais. They said Cotham would pay for her actions.
Fuller, who voted to fire Jones, was also upset at the treatment and chided Cotham publicly for it. After that vote, he distanced himself from Cotham’s coalition and recently began to openly criticize her leadership of the search for a new county manager. Cotham chaired the search committee.
That search is ongoing, though commissioners are set to interview five final candidates (one dropped out) in mid-December.
During the voting, James said he hoped that Fuller wouldn’t try to recall the list and get the board to consider a new one. He and Dunlap argued after Dunlap said he’s upset there are no African-Americans on the list, a fact that was supposed to remain private.
Earlier in the county manager search, Ratliff, then the board’s vice chair, drew criticism after saying she preferred a white man not be hired. Ratliff later said she misspoke and meant she hoped that a diverse group would apply for the job.
Cotham’s actions also upset many Democrats, including some board members, who have criticized her for siding with the board’s Republicans too much.
Leake told the board that she’s “enjoyed” Cotham’s friendship, but it was time for a change in leadership. She said she respects all that Cotham has done for Mecklenburg and asked her friend “not to feel any degree of rejection. You’re still here with us. Don’t back down.”
Leake also said she hopes that the shake-up won’t lead to more divisions among commissioners. “I am hoping and praying that we’re going to get along and we’re going to make things happen right for our staff, for our people,” she said.
James invoked the O’Jay’s 1972 hit song “Back Stabbers” when describing what had happened to Cotham.
‘Made some difficult choices’
Cotham took the gavel a year ago with the county still trying to recover from two high-profile missteps: a countywide taxpayer revolt over the 2011 revaluation, and problems in the Department of Social Services.
The state legislature passed a law requiring the county to fix the revaluation and refund over-billed property owners and the county hired a new DSS director who is only months into her new job.
Cotham created another firestorm when she worked to remove Jones.
She’d said she wanted the chairmanship for another year. Tuesday, she took the defeat in stride: “Politics is a messy business,” Cotham said in an interview. “I feel I made some difficult choices – that others didn’t make in the past – to take the county in a better direction.”
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