Mecklenburg County commissioner Trevor Fuller called for unity among his fellow commissioners on Monday after a majority gave him a second year as chairman of the often divided board.
After a swearing-in ceremony Monday that was full of pomp and speech-making, five Democrats on the board of six Democrats and three Republicans not surprisingly re-elected Fuller to another year as chairman. Doing so, they spurned former Chairwoman Pat Cotham, a fellow Democrat who felt she deserved another year wielding the gavel because she was the top vote-getter in last month’s election.
In the end, Cotham and the board’s three Republicans didn’t vote for Fuller, who came in third among the three at-large commissioners in last month’s election but had won respect for effectively presiding over meetings that in the past could grow tumultuous. He rarely allowed commissioners to stray from the agenda for long.
The vote came after the new board was sworn in by District Court Judge Regan Miller. It now includes former commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican who won his old District 1 seat, and former Charlotte City Council member Ella Scarborough, an at-large Democrat who came in second in the November tally.
The board also re-elected Democratic commissioner Dumont Clarke for another year as vice chairman.
Fuller, who like Cotham was elected for a second term, was chosen chair despite not carrying a precinct. Traditionally, the top vote-getter has been elected chair, but commissioners passed a policy that allows any commissioner to be chair.
Hours before the vote Monday, Cotham said Fuller called her seeking unity and asked for her support.
“He said, ‘I have the votes and I want unity. I want you to support me,’ ” Cotham said. “I told him, ‘No. I’m going to nominate myself, and when the time comes to vote for you, I won’t vote for you.’ He wasn’t too happy.”
Fuller said he called Cotham because he wants to build a unified board to work on the county’s many problems. “I think it is time now to move on, because we have important business to take care of,” he told reporters. “The campaigning is over. All the politicking is over. Now we need to get to work.”
‘Bicker, berate and bully’
Fuller’s election didn’t come without a fight by Cotham. Her supporters filled several rows of the commission chamber carrying signs such as: “Pat Works For The People.” One man toted a two-sided sign. On one side: “Don’t Disrespect Democracy. Trevor Step Aside.” On the other: “Do Not Let 5 Bullies Run Mecklenburg County.”
Cotham said she didn’t organize the demonstration. She nominated herself for chair, but the voting never got to her because Fuller received a majority vote.
As the commissioners went around the dais thanking supporters and committing themselves to solving problems, Cotham in her speech made a reference to the chairman’s race. She congratulated Fuller, but was critical of commissioners “whose go-to style is to bicker, berate and bully.”
After the ceremony, she said she’d been “berated and bullied” by some commissioners because of the stances she’d taken on some issues.
That “solves nothing,” she said. “The people deserve better. They are tired of all the bickering. We all need to listen to our bosses – the people who are paying the bills.”
Since the election, Fuller said voters elect commissioners, but they don’t elect the chairman – commissioners do.
When it came his turn, Fuller said the county has too many homeless – especially veterans – and low-income families with two parents working and “trying to make ends meet.” Fuller has championed a task force that will spend 2015 finding solutions to economic mobility in the county.
“They’ve got cars they can’t keep fixed and a house to rent and don’t have any hope of purchasing one,” Fuller said. “Do you really think they care who the chairman of the board of county commissioners is? Why do we spend so much time and so much ink on these issues when we’ve got folks in our community who need our help?”
Several commissioners blamed the media – particularly “the newspaper” – for turning the chairmanship into an issue.
Puckett said he encouraged Fuller to use the vast “skill sets that sit around this dais and assign tasks based on those skill sets. If we do that, we will serve the public well.”
Commissioner Vilma Leake, in a fiery speech, said Mecklenburg could face “a Ferguson” if it doesn’t solve problems for the poor and provide good teachers for “children of color.” She was referring to turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., after a black teenager was fatally shot by a white police officer.
“Give us a chance to do our work,” Leake said. “Don’t criticize us so much. Let us work together and make sure this city and county is what it ought to be. Let’s not have another Ferguson.”
Focus on difficult work
Sunday, on the eve of the chairman’s election, Cotham emailed a letter to the other commissioners making her case for the chair.
She said voters on Nov. 4 sent a “clear and unequivocal message” when they gave Cotham 22,000 more votes than Fuller and 18,000 more votes than Scarborough. Her win was by a wider margin than in 2012.
Yet it was her style that got Cotham in trouble with Democrats on the board. She was unanimously elected chair in 2013, nominated by commissioner George Dunlap, who said then that “she richly deserves the honor.”
But almost instantly she began clashing with former County Manager Harry Jones and county staffers. She upset some commissioners by spearheading Jones’ firing in the first five months of her chairmanship. Her support further eroded after she told Jones he couldn’t speak from the dais after his high-profile termination.
Democrats criticized her for cozying up to Republicans and a year later they replaced Cotham with Fuller.
Fuller has been inclusive, too, appointing Republicans to a variety of committees. He appointed Republican Matthew Ridenhour to chair an economic development committee.
“We have a lot of work to do, and we need to focus on that work rather than the political intrigue and infighting that seems to go on,” Fuller said after the ceremony. “I try to stay out of it as much as I can, and tonight I hope it comes to an end.”