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Proposal would make all 9 Mecklenburg commissioners eligible to be chairman

Mecklenburg County commissioner Dumont Clarke was merely bowing to tradition.

It was early December 2012, before the first meeting after an election that had swept three new at-large candidates into office. Clarke said he would support new commissioner Pat Cotham for chair because she’d been elected countywide and had received the most votes. She was also in the majority party.

"Historically, that’s how it’s always been done,” Clarke said then.

Now the board may abandon that unwritten tradition, voting Wednesday on a proposal by commissioner George Dunlap that would set policy to make all nine commissioners eligible for chairman or vice chairman – no matter which party holds the board’s majority.

Clarke said he will support the proposed policy.

“My thinking has evolved,” he said. “I think to have a policy that permits the board to make its choice (for chair and vice chair) from literally anybody in any party – whether or not someone’s at-large or has the most votes – to me that’s the way to go.”

The board’s chair has always been an at-large commissioner, said Marvin Bethune, the county attorney since 1978.

When Bethune took the job, the board consisted of five at-large members. In 1986, the board was expanded to seven – with four district members elected for the first time. In 1994, it grew by another two members to three at-large and six district representatives.

The board, he said, “has always assumed that the chairman is elected from those (at-large members) elected by all the people of Mecklenburg County.”

Cotham, who chaired the board last year but was replaced in December, said it should stay that way because at-large chairs “are accountable to the whole county.”

“The district commissioners don’t have to get votes from the whole county – so they’re not accountable to the whole county,” Cotham said.

Clearing up ambiguity

Dunlap said it’s a fair argument “that the chair ought to be someone who is going to have to face all the voters.”

But, as a district representative, he said, he has not made decisions based solely on his district.

“I think of myself as a county commissioner elected from a district,” Dunlap said. “I’ve never thought of my decision-making as being based only on the interest of my district.”

Dunlap said he proposed the policy because there’s nothing in writing and he wants to prevent confusion and “the ambiguity” that has surfaced in the past when it came time to elect a chair and vice chair.

He said he raised the issue three years ago after former at-large commissioner Harold Cogdell, then a Democrat, aligned with four Republicans in mid-term to oust Jennifer Roberts, a Democratic chair who held an at-large seat and had won the most votes.

“I was upset when Harold got elected,” Dunlap said. “I felt he didn’t follow the unwritten policy.”

Dunlap researched mid-term changes of board leadership and found that it had happened four times prior to Cogdell’s selection. It happened again in December, when the board voted to replace Cotham as chair with fellow Democratic commissioner Trevor Fuller, who had finished third among the three at-large members. Clarke, in his sixth term representing District 4, was elected vice chair.

“I found that we were following a practice that has existed for some period of time,” Dunlap said. “I felt we ought to establish a policy that clarifies the practice.”

Selection methods vary

The county commissioners chairman, often the board’s most high-profile member, makes committee appointments, helps set the agenda and runs the public meetings.

The vice chair is a backup, presiding over the board when the chair is absent.

North Carolina law doesn’t specify how county commissioners select leaders. Methods vary among the state’s 100 counties. In three counties – Buncombe, Jackson and Swain – voters elect the chair. Some counties rotate chairs each year, with the vice chair becoming chair. In Graham County, with five at-large commissioners, the top vote-getter is chair.

Cotham said she’s heard concern about Dunlap’s proposal from Mecklenburg mayors.

Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor said he’d be concerned “about the absolute loyalty to other parts of the county” of a district commissioner elected chair.

He urged commissioners to hear from the public before voting on the proposal.

Chairman Fuller said he’d support putting Mecklenburg’s procedure into a written policy, agreeing with Dunlap that relying “on what we customarily do” can create confusion.

“It’s a good idea not to have these unwritten rules, so I’m in favor of codifying whatever we do,” he said. “If a different board wants to change it, they can.”

Republican commissioner Bill James, in his eighth term representing District 6, said he’s concerned that Dunlap has motives for proposing the policy and so he probably won’t support it.

“Philosophically I’m not opposed to a district representative being chair if they have the experience and want to do it,” James said. “I’m just concerned about the real motives behind it.”

He offered a warning to Democrats if the chair is thrown open to all commissioners.

“They could have Bill James as chair,” James mused. “That’d sure put the fear in them.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
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