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Mecklenburg Commissioners Debate What To Do As Colleague Struggles To Participate In Meetings

Nick de la Canal
Mecklenburg County commissioners were surprised Ella Scarborough ran for reelection last year. She finished with more votes than any other Commission candidate.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Ella Scarborough is an icon in local politics as the first African American woman elected to the Charlotte City Council, in 1987.

But in recent years, Scarborough, who is 75, has been struggling to participate in meetings and follow discussions, according to six current and former commissioners.

They declined to speak on the record because they don’t want to tarnish Scarborough's distinguished career. They said they were surprised she ran for reelection as an at-large candidate in 2020.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Ella Scarborough
Mecklenburg County
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Ella Scarborough

She still received more votes than any other commission candidate.

“I don’t want to discuss that, and I’ll tell you why: The people elected her,” said Scarborough's colleague Vilma Leake. “She got the highest number of votes, and I’m not one to discuss her situation with the news media. I can’t do that. I can’t do that.”

Scarborough served for a decade on City Council. She won the Democratic primary in the 2001 mayoral race but lost in the general election to Republican Pat McCrory. She was elected to the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners in 2014.

Commission Chair George Dunlap said Scarborough’s situation and ability to participate in meetings is “a very delicate situation” and “tricky.”

“Well, let’s just say that she has participated,” Dunlap said. “Maybe not to the level or degree that some people should expect or would expect, but that’s not for us to judge, because each of us was elected by the public, and that’s a decision for the public to make.”

Commissioners returned to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center for in-person meetings in early May.

Scarborough hasn’t come.

At a recent meeting, Dunlap began asking commissioners whether they wanted to allow Scarborough to participate virtually.

“At this time, I have a request from Commissioner Scarborough to participate remotely,” Dunlap said during the commission’s May 12 meeting. “Again, I will remind you in order for the board member to participate remotely when the board is meeting in person, the board must approve the request. Is there such a motion? Hearing none, the motion dies for lack of a second.”

Commissioners discussed the issue last week. Some wanted to reaffirm a longstanding rule that says when the board meets in person, virtual participation won’t be allowed.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said the board should be flexible, but County Attorney Tyrone Wade told commissioners the board could be subject to legal challenges if a board member’s virtual presence was used to have a quorum or cast a deciding vote.

Though Scarborough wasn’t named when they discussed the issue, several commissioners told WFAE that her requests this month to participate remotely prompted the discussion.

Commissioner Leigh Altman made a motion that in-person attendance is required when the COVID-19 state of emergency ends. The board discussed the issue but didn’t take a vote.

Scarborough was elected board chair in 2016. Her two-year tenure was at times chaotic.

In early 2017, Scarborough had said she supported spending $44 million to help bring a Major League Soccer team to Charlotte. But in August of that year, in a critical vote, she sided with skeptics of the plan who wanted the county to have a more limited role in pursuing a team.

During that meeting, her colleagues asked publicly whether she knew what was happening.

"I thought you said you were opposed to it," former commissioner Trevor Fuller said.

"And you just voted the opposite way," Dunlap added.

Scarborough said: "No no no, I'm not opposed to it, because it does include soccer."

"No, it doesn't … this motion does not include soccer," Fuller said.

"It says we limit," said Dunlap.

The next year, commissioners made Dunlap chair instead of Scarborough.

When Scarborough won reelection last year, she did minimal campaigning. It’s unknown how much money she spent because she hasn’t filed a campaign finance report since January 2020. Mecklenburg County elections director Michael Dickerson said his office has sent Scarborough notices about missing reports and has notified the State Board of Elections. He said only the state can impose fines.

During the pandemic, Scarborough has often been silent during virtual meetings.

WFAE reviewed the minutes of commission meetings from October 2020 to March 2021, the most recent available. All meetings were virtual.

Records show Scarborough would vote and second motions. But in terms of discussing issues, Scarborough spoke three times. One was to compliment County Manager Dena Diorio in November. Another was in December to say she was pleased to have won reelection. She spoke again in January during a budget retreat about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

She said then that the county had to get involved with CMS because “if they didn’t, they would get what they currently had, which was nothing.”

WFAE tried to contact Scarborough by phone and by county email, as well as through the county’s communications department. The station also reached out to her two grown children. Her son, Troy Scarborough, has been online with her this month when they have asked the commission to participate remotely.

Even though Scarborough is not attending meetings, Dunlap says there’s no state law requiring her to come to meetings, either in person or virtually.

“North Carolina says when you are elected to office you serve that term of office,” Dunlap said. “So there are no requirements from the state in terms of how you serve, how well you serve and how often you serve. We leave it up to each individual to determine just how engaged they are.”

Most commissioners make $48,563 a year in salary and expenses. The chair makes $56,000.

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Updated: May 25, 2021 at 1:37 PM EDT
The text of this story has been modified to match the story’s audio.
Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.