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Popular Pat Cotham is long shot for commission chair

Pat Cotham was the clear favorite among voters for Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, but she’s a long shot to retake the gavel that she wielded in 2013 as chairman.

That’s not stopping her from pursuing the role in a contest that grows more ill-mannered by the day.

As she was in the 2012 election, Cotham was the top vote-getter in the election two weeks ago – by a wider margin than in the first. Among the three at-large winners, all Democrats, she beat former Charlotte City Council member Ella Scarborough by more than 18,000 votes and current board Chairman Trevor Fuller by more than 22,000 votes.

Fuller has made it known to other commissioners that he wants another year as chairman. He has said voters did give Cotham the most votes, but commissioners elect the chair.

He or Cotham will need five votes to win the seat when the board reorganizes in December.

Cotham said she’s reached out to the board’s three Republicans, who she says have offered their support. She has not talked to her five fellow Democrats, but said she will before commissioners vote for the next chair.

Getting one more vote from any of the five Democrats will be difficult for Cotham. “I’m not sensing that I have a chance in this,” Cotham said. “I have stood for a lot of things that didn’t have a chance. I’m not going to give in.”

The key vote could come down to commissioner-elect Scarborough. Tuesday, she declined to comment on who she will support. Commissioners Vilma Leake and Dumont Clarke, the board’s vice chair, also wouldn’t talk about who they will support.

Leake and Clarke said Cotham hasn’t asked them for their support.

Yet he and several other Democratic commissioners are still upset with Cotham after she spearheaded the effort to fire longtime County Manager Harry Jones. They criticized her for aligning with Republicans and shutting them out of the discussion. So when it came time to select a new chairman for 2014, they ousted Cotham, replacing her with Fuller.

Cotham said Tuesday that she’s tired of “all the nonsense” in the chairman debate. “The people deserve better,” she said. “I’m tired of how these people are acting.”

In farewells Tuesday night to outgoing commissioners Kim Ratliff and Karen Bentley at their last meeting, Leake took to task an unnamed colleague. “We have to learn how to get along no matter who’s chairman,” she said in apparent reference to the leadership spat.

“We’re elected by our people. When you have a commissioner who says I will not work with (another) commissioner, then that commissioner should resign and go home.”

Bentley, in her farewell to the board, also touched on its leadership.

“At the end of the day, we have to learn to work together,” she said. “People are watching, even when we don’t know they are watching, and I think it’s important to set a very high bar for servant leadership.

“Some of us have learned to reach across the aisle and make it work,” Bentley later added. “Some of us haven’t, and that’s OK.”

The debate evolves

Lately the debate has evolved on several fronts, including an Internet poster with a nighttime view of Charlotte’s skyline and: “Welcome to Cotham City. Pat Cotham for Mecklenburg County Commission Chair.” A petition has been circulating in support of Cotham with at least 50 signatures.

It also has played out on Facebook, with commissioner George Dunlap calling Cotham “a snitch” on his page and accusing her of colluding with The Observer to fire Jones.

Dunlap called Cotham the media’s “go-to” commissioner. “When she was chair, the media had more information about what was going on than the commissioners, because she was (their) pipeline, and still is today,” Dunlap wrote. He wrote that Cotham campaigned with a Republican (Emily Zuyus) and against Fuller and Scarborough during the recent election – apparently to “solidify her chairmanship.”

“The problem with that strategy was that the Republican didn’t win, and both Trevor and Ella did,” Dunlap wrote. Tuesday, Dunlap’s post couldn’t be found on his Facebook page.

Last January, Dunlap drafted a policy approved by the board that makes any commissioner eligible to be chairman.

Because of that policy, Leake said she’s considering nominating herself for the position.

Tuesday, she wouldn’t talk about who she would support if she doesn’t run. But it’s clear she and Cotham, once close allies when Cotham was chair, haven’t been friends since Leake supported Fuller for chair.

Leake criticized Cotham for declining the vice chair seat after she was deposed.

“The public votes to put people on these, we select our chair and vice chair,” Leake said. “Nothing says we have to choose the person with the most votes.”

‘The people spoke’

Cotham could promote board harmony by dropping out, but she said Tuesday she won’t.

“The people spoke on Election Day,” Cotham said. “Since then I’ve gotten so many messages and calls and people stopping me at the stoplight, saying, ‘You need to run for the chair. We want you to be chair.’ ”

Amid the debate, commissioner Bill James suggested the board be reduced from nine seats to seven, with six district representatives and one at-large member who would become the chairman.

James proposed that the board discuss with state legislators the option of “direct election” of the chairman on the ballot. In four N.C. counties, candidates run for county commissioner chairman and in a fifth county the top vote-getter is automatically elevated to chairman.

“That would allow someone such as Pat Cotham to run head to head as chair against Trevor – letting the best man or woman win,” James said. He added that would eliminate the “slugfest now occurring.” Reporter Bruce Henderson contributed to this story.

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