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Mecklenburg Commissioners And County Staff Get Counseling

Lisa Miller

The new Mecklenburg County commission and county staff members haven’t gotten off to a good start.  Improving that rocky relationship was at the top of the agenda of a three day planning session that kicked off Wednesday.

Commissioners and County Manager Harry Jones are locked in a marriage of sorts.  Right now, it’s not a good one.  Everyone agrees communication could be a lot better.  For that reason, Jones decided the planning session would begin with a sit down. 

“In any relationship, building trust is a tough thing to do.  For this board and any board I work with and staff, I want them to believe they can trust me and that I’m being honest and open with them in my deliberations with them,” says Jones. 

He brought in a few relationship-therapists to help.  First, Carl Stenburg, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill School of Government talked about the commission-manager form of government. 

“The manager’s job is to be your trusted advisor, to propose policies and advise you on matters where appropriate,” Stenburg told the group.    

Jones listened intently.  He has avoided bringing some issues to the board because he says commissioners already set the policy and they don’t require a vote. It’s up to him.  

“The manager seeks to prevent commissioners from being surprised,” said Stenburg. 

That got a nod from Chairwoman Pat Cotham.  She feels Jones isn’t keeping the commission in the loop.  For example, she was surprised to learn the state was having second thoughts about MeckLINK.  Cotham says lately there has been a breakdown in credibility between the county and the public.  She wants to repair that.    

“People were not happy with the reval.  They were not happy with a lot of things and we’re trying to rebuild trust and the best way we can do that is to ask questions,” says Cotham.  “But that’s new for the staff.  They’re having a learning curve with us and we’re more focused on what the people elected us to do.  And we’re here for the people.” 

Cotham has been open with reporters about her frustrations.  And that’s irked some county staffers who feel she speaks out without listening.  A couple weeks ago, former chairman of the county commission, Parks Helms, even tried to step in and mend the relationship.  But that only stirred things up more.    

Two facilitators with the Lee Institute promised the group they wouldn’t get too “kumbaya” with the group, but they did want everyone to get to know each other better.  So there was some sharing.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller learned something new about veteran commissioner Vilma Leake.

“The one thing people don’t know about her is that she can sing like a mockingbird and dance like…” said Fuller, trailing off.

“Beyonce,” piped in Leake to laughter. 

But then everyone got back down to serious talk.  County staff and commissioners began putting together a working agreement, which could be a first for county government.

They voted on their expectations for each other.  At the top of the list: minimal surprises for commissioners and for county staff. 

Trust was also among the considerations suggested by county staffers.  But when it came down to it, no one voted to put that on the agreement. 

When “trust us” came up for a vote, Cotham noted that could be dangerous.

“A lot of people go to jail because of that,” said Cotham.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.