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Mecklenburg County commissioners vote to keep paying and replace Ella Scarborough

 Mecklenburg County attorney Tyrone Wade and county manager Dena Diorio discuss the process for placing Scarborough on leave.
Mecklenburg County
Mecklenburg County attorney Tyrone Wade and county manager Dena Diorio discuss the process for placing Scarborough on leave.

Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted 8-0 on Tuesday to place Commissioner Ella Scarborough on medical leave. They also decided to keep paying her and to select someone to finish the rest of her term.

The board’s votes came after an emotional debate, as some commissioners questioned how the county handled Scarborough’s absence while others used the discussion to pay tribute to her.

For most of 2021, Scarborough, who is 76, struggled to participate in virtual meetings. And when commissioners returned to the Government Center in October, she couldn’t attend at all due to health issues.

At the end of October, an email was sent from Scarborough’s account saying she would be going on medical leave. On Tuesday, board chair George Dunlap said the email likely was sent by Scarborough’s grown children, who have been helping her for the last several months.

Under state law, commissioners could have acted then to approve her leave and name someone to replace her.

Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell asked why the county waited until February to act.

“It sounds like in October it was initiated by her,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “And that’s where I’m confused about the process and how we find ourselves here today.”

County Manager Dena Diorio said county officials weren’t aware that state law allowed the commission to name a replacement when a colleague was placed on leave.

“We did receive those requests for medical leave but were not aware of the statute,” Diorio said.

When asked about Scarborough's health, Dunlap had previously said the county was powerless to act.

After voting to grant Scarborough leave, commissioners then voted 5-3 to continue paying her for the rest of her term, which ends in December. Her annual salary and expenses are about $50,000 a year. Commissioners Rodriguez-McDowell and Laura Meier questioned whether it made sense to continue paying her if she wasn’t doing the job and wouldn’t be able to return.

Commissioners then voted 5-3 that they would pick someone to finish her term. They will select a replacement later this month.

They discussed only considering former elected officials but decided to open it up to all candidates.

Commissioner Vilma Leake said the county should continue paying Scarborough. She said other politicians have also struggled to perform their duties while in office.

“Strom Thurmond down in South Carolina never was asked to leave or get off that seat in Washington,” Leake said.

Pat Cotham cried when she spoke about her friendship with Scarborough.

Scarborough was the first Black woman to serve on the Charlotte City Council, in 1987. She was elected to the county commission in 2014. In last year’s election, she received more votes than any other commissioner.

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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.