Mecklenburg commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham may face challenge for post

dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.comNovember 25, 2013 

After a year of tumult that has some questioning Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham’s leadership, a move is quietly afoot to persuade commissioner Trevor Fuller to challenge Cotham to lead the board next year.

Some commissioners, including George Dunlap and Kim Ratliff, the board’s vice chairwoman, have made it known publicly that they’re not pleased with Cotham’s leadership and want her replaced.

They could nominate Fuller – who, like Cotham and Ratliff, is a Democrat and at-large commissioner – to vie for the board chairmanship at the Dec. 3 meeting. Customarily, the chair and vice chair are elected for the next year at the first Tuesday meeting in December.

Monday, Fuller did not deny or confirm his interest in the job.

“Many people are anxious about where we are as a county and where we’re going,” Fuller said. “I am thinking hard about the best way forward for the commission and for our county. Those thoughts will inform how I’ll approach the issue of who should be our chair and vice chair for the next year.”

Cotham, the top vote-getter in 2012, has said she wants the chairmanship for another year. She said she’s done a good job of leading the board as she’s tried to change what she called a culture of secrecy and lack of accountability in county government molded by former county manager Harry Jones, whom the board fired in early May.

Cotham counts Jones’ removal, bringing more transparency to county government and leading “the fix” of the flawed 2011 revaluation as examples of her “positive leadership.”

She’s been deliberate about building a bipartisan coalition of Democrat Vilma Leake and the nine-member board’s three Republicans – Bill James, Karen Bentley and Matthew Ridenhour. She spearheaded Jones’ removal largely using that majority.

Dunlap, Ratliff and Democrat Dumont Clarke were visibly upset about Jones’ firing. Though Clarke was more diplomatic in his criticism of Cotham, Dunlap and Ratliff openly chided her during board meetings and public forums.

At a town hall-style meeting hosted by Mecklenburg Democrats in June, Dunlap complained that Cotham had excluded the other three Democrats from conversations. He said the Democrat-controlled board under Cotham doesn’t function like one because “two of the Democrats (Cotham and Leake) are always helping Republicans control the board ... When the leadership chooses people to work with and excludes others, it makes it difficult for the Democrats to work together.”

Ratliff chided Cotham during that town hall meeting and at board meetings for not letting her chair the search committee for a new county manager. Cotham not only didn’t let her chair the committee, she left Ratliff off of it altogether.

Cotham’s pursuit of Jones and the direction she’s taking the board angered Democrats such as Parks Helms, a former board chairman. Helms and other Mecklenburg Democrats questioned Cotham’s Democratic credentials, saying she’s too cozy with Republicans on the board.

Credentials ‘very strong’

Yet Cotham reminds them that Mecklenburg Democratic women honored her in August at the Doris Cromartie Reception, an annual fundraiser. She’s chaired that group three times, and continues to chair the Uptown Democratic Forum that she has organized for 13 years.

“I think my credentials as a Democrat are very strong,” Cotham said. “But I believe if we’re going to fix the problems we face we’ve got to do it together. I mean look at Washington – they can’t get anything done there because of the partisan politics.”

Fuller and Cotham – and Ratliff – came on the board together for two-year terms last December as at-large members, with Fuller finishing third among the three.

In the early going, Fuller tended to side with Cotham, Leake and the three Republicans.

But after Cotham refused to let Jones speak the night he was fired – sending him home – Fuller said the treatment was wrong, and began to move away from that coalition.

When the Cotham-led committee searching for a new county manager began interviewing candidates, Fuller made it known that he thought the full board should be engaged in those interviews.

Cotham said she felt then he was making a push to run for chairman. Yet she appointed Fuller to chair a committee on MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare. “I get criticized, but I don’t publicly criticize – that’s not what a strong leader does,” she said.

If Fuller runs for chairman, Dunlap, Ratliff and Clarke likely would side with him, though Clarke said Monday that “I’ll go with whatever the majority on the board decides.”

The three Republicans would likely vote for Cotham.

That would leave Leake as the swing vote. Monday, she said no one’s approached her about any challenge to Cotham.

She wouldn’t say if Cotham had her vote but did praise the chairwoman’s hard work.

“No one has said, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about this,’ so I don’t know what way I want to go,” Leake said. “Pat’s asking questions, and the people in this community don’t want you to ask questions. You’re a troublemaker if you do. She works hard. She’s out there, listening to the issues.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061

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