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Mecklenburg Co. Commission Ousts Cotham, Chooses Fuller As New Chair

Robert Lahser
Charlotte Observer

The Mecklenburg County Commission has a new chairman: Charlotte attorney Trevor Fuller. Commissioners voted Tuesday night to oust Pat Cotham, who had served in that role for the past year. Both Fuller and Cotham are Democrats in their first term as at-large representatives. But, Cotham’s leadership style ended up alienating her from some members of her own party.

Commissioner Vilma Leake has been a close ally of Pat Cotham’s. So, when Leake earnestly seconded the nomination of Trevor Fuller to be chair, it signaled the end of that alliance. Republican Bill James described it this way: "Obviously, if Commissioner Leake is seconding the motion for Trevor [Fuller], then we know that ‘the fix is in.’" 

Leake’s support has been crucial for Cotham over the past year.  The District 2 Democrat voted with the former chairwoman and the board’s three Republicans to fire former County Manager Harry Jones, following a botched property revaluation. Cotham’s decision after the vote not to let Jones speak didn’t sit well with Commissioners who hadn’t supported his firing.

Then, Cotham ruffled more feathers in searching for Jones’ replacement by forming a committee of four commissioners to narrow down the applicants. The others felt cut out of the process. Cotham says she did it to protect the applicants’ privacy.

It’s this leadership style, says Leake, that wasn’t working for the County. In fact, Leake says she herself has been criticized because of it. But she says she knows Cotham's heart was in the right place.

Others praised Cotham’s leadership style, like Republican Karen Bentley, who thanked her for getting the votes to authorize a re-do of the 2011 property revaluation.

“Without your leadership, we would not have been able to garner a majority on this board to do what needed to be done," she says.

After more than 20 minutes of comments, Cotham withdrew her name from consideration. The board took an official vote--5-4 for Fuller--and then Cotham and Fuller traded seats.

Dumont Clarke, a Democrat serving his 6th term as the District 4 representative, was then elected vice chair. Cotham turned down a nomination for the post.

Credit Mecklenburg County
New Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Trevor Fuller (D-At Large)

Newly-elected Chairman Fuller says people had been approaching him for months to ask him to allow his name to be considered for the job, but he didn’t make up his mind about it until a few days ago.

“I had to think about whether or not me coming forward would help the board work more effectively," he says, "and I concluded, modestly, that I could, and that’s why I allowed my name into nomination.”

Fuller says he hopes to be a less divisive leader. But that doesn’t mean any immediate changes to the search process for a new county manager, despite some commissioners objections to the way Cotham handled it. The full commission will now interview 5 candidates and narrow it down to two or three finalists. That’s the same way it would’ve happened under the previous chair.

The Mecklenburg County Commission doesn’t usually change leadership in between election years, but there is recent precedent for last night’s move. Back in 2011, Democrat Harold Cogdell allied with Republicans to unseat then-chairwoman and fellow Democrat Jennifer Roberts. But Cogdell went on to leave the party and register as unaffiliated.

Cotham has no such plans.