A meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners Tuesday turned into a series of heated exchanges between commissioners with accusations of ethics violations, sexism and racism. It was the board’s first public meeting since it fired county manager Harry Jones.
The tension among commissioners has been building for several months and has gotten worse since the board voted to fire Jones last week.
Dumont Clarke was one of two commissioners who voted against that decision, and George Dunlap was absent for the vote. Since then, Clarke and Dunlap have sent emails criticizing chairwoman Pat Cotham to the board and the media.
That was the backdrop for Tuesday's meeting, which started with a productive discussion of how the county oversees health services. But things turned during a report by interim manager Bobbie Shields.
"Now I want to spend some time talking with you a little bit about the need for the employment of Ms. Krista Tillman, and also exactly what the scope might be," Shields said.
Shields laid out the reasons why the county could hire Tillman as a consultant to help search for the next city manager, and he said Cotham encouraged him to contact Tillman.
That infuriated Dunlap.
"Madam chairman, with all due respect, it is a board of nine," Dunlap said. "My question to you is, when did the board meet and make that decision?"
Cotham told Dunlap the board hasn’t made a decision yet, but she had talked to other board members who were supportive of Tillman.
Clarke jumped in on Dunlap’s side, telling Cotham she may have violated the board’s code of ethics.
"I heard you say the other day how important it was for the people to know what’s happening in their county government," Clarke said. "It’s equally important for those of us on the board."
Commissioner Vilma Leake eventually came to Cotham’s defense.
"I have never seen a male that sat in that seat to be harassed and dealt with as has happened here today," Leake said.
"So now it’s harassment?" Dunlap asked.
"I’m not talking to you; I’m talking to the body," Leake snapped. "And we didn’t ask you any questions."
Leake went on to accuse Dunlap of criticizing her behind her back, and then she said Dunlap and Clarke think they’re the board’s law and order.
(For the record, Dunlap is African-American and Clarke is white.)
When Clarke finished his point, Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour spoke up.
Ridenhour said he knows the commissioners who weren’t involved in the conversation about the consultant are frustrated, but he respects the way Cotham handled it because there are some on the board who choose not to work with others.
And that’s how the meeting ended. Afterward, Clarke asked one of the people who videotaped it for the county if he could get a copy of the tape. He said he may need it but didn’t say why.