CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Pat Cotham knows a lot about being new kid on the block.
As a child, she started kindergarten in California and finished it in Florida. First grade began in Iowa and ended in St. Louis, Mo. – the family following her salesman father from city to city.
“We moved around a lot,” Cotham said. “We lived in Philadelphia four times, and in St. Louis four times. I was always the new kid, always having to make new friends.
“I think it made me more outgoing, more interested in people. I think that’s why I’m good at networking and building relationships.”
Now 62, Cotham will have to unveil all those skills after Mecklenburg commissioners elected her chairwoman of the often-bickering board during a swearing-in ceremony Monday night.
She takes the gavel at a time when the county is trying to recover from two high-profile disasters: a countywide taxpayer revolt over the 2011 revaluation, and problems in the Department of Social Services.
By electing Cotham, the board bowed to convention. Historically, the at-large commissioner with the most votes is usually elected chairman. That was Cotham, who was in her first run for elected office.
She is among four new board members on a board that has a 6-3 Democratic majority and is made up of four women and five men.
Fellow Democratic at-large commissioners Kim Ratliff, who was elected vice-chairwoman, and Trevor Fuller were also sworn in. Republican Matthew Ridenhour, sworn in two weeks ago to fill the remaining term of the late Neil Cooksey, took the pledge again. Republican incumbents Karen Bentley and Bill James officially were given new two-year terms, along with Democrat incumbents Dumont Clarke, Vilma Leake and George Dunlap.
At the swearing in, Dunlap nominated Cotham, saying that it was fitting that she be elected chairman.
“Will she be perfect?” Dunlap said. “She will not. Will she make mistakes? She will. And I’ll be the first one to get on her. But the fact is, I think she richly deserves the honor.”
In an interview Monday, Cotham said she was ready to lead the board – prepared by her many years of working in the corporate, nonprofit and political worlds, and building relationships in all three.
“I’m not nervous about (chairing the board),” said Cotham, whose daughter, Tricia, is a state House member from Matthews. “I’ve been in leadership positions before. The voters gave me the lead, and if the voters want me to be the chair, that’s a strong endorsement.”
She said she believes she can help bridge differences.
“I’ve worked with all different kinds of people,” Cotham said. “I’ve always gotten along with people. A lot of it is treating people with respect and building consensus. We won’t agree on everything, but their constituents wanted them on the board, and I respect that.”
Ready to lead
In many ways, she’s been preparing for the job for most of her life:
As a kid who moved around a lot and had to make quick friends. As the faithful worker in other candidates’ campaigns. As chair of the Uptown Democratic Forum for 12 years and three-time president of Mecklenburg Democratic women. As a member of the Democratic National Committee. And as president of her own company and working in management for large corporations.
She now works with people with prison time as an employment advocate for the Charlotte nonprofit, A Center for Community Transitions. She prepares and helps them find jobs. The 35-year-old nonprofit works mainly with men, but also guides 30 women in work-relief programs.
“We help them transition back into society,” Cotham said. “I’ve had men cry in my office and say, ‘Ms. Pat, I am not a man unless I have a job and I can take care of my family.’
“These people are trying to do the right thing, and just need extra help and direction.”
Restoring lost trust
Cotham’s priority as chair ultimately will be restoring trust lost after the public criticism over the botched 2011 revaluation and problems in the county’s DSS.
“We need more transparency, more oversight,” she said. “I’ve sat in on (commissioners) meetings since I began my campaign, and the board members seemed not to be happy that they’re not made aware of things. We need to be more aware. People want us to be more aware. The more people are aware, the more often things are better.”
The DSS and revaluation problems highlight a need for better communications and board oversight, she said.
DSS Director Mary Wilson was fired in September, and the next month the Observer reported on a 2011 consultant’s study that found dysfunction in the child welfare division.
Monday, Dunlap told a Charlotte Chamber breakfast of local elected officials that the new board will rethink how it oversees DSS.
“We’ll probably not be a board that micromanages, but we’ll be more hands-on,” Dunlap said. He said the board will ask to hear more presentations on how the department is running.
Cotham said the board needs to be “kept in the loop.”
“We can’t be surprised,” she said. “We need to know the good, the bad, the ugly. … We are stakeholders, and we need to be more engaged and involved.”
She said she’ll urge DSS workers to speak up about problems.
“The people on the front lines know more about what’s going on,” Cotham said. “We’ve got to listen to them. We’ve got to bring water to the troops and ask: ‘How can we help you be more successful in your jobs?’ ”
Customer service is crucial
The board, she said, needs to keep listening to concerns about revaluation. Cotham said the issue is a long way from being resolved despite several “positive” actions last week by the outgoing board. After more than a year of taxpayer complaints, an outside firm hired to review the revaluation found dozens of inequities and a problem with customer service by the county.
Coming from a business and corporate life, she sees customer service as “crucial.”
“We are going to have to improve communication going forward,” Cotham said.
Yet she wants to let measures adopted by the board do their work.
She declined to say whether she’d push for a refund to overtaxed property owners.
“I think the previous board accomplished a lot before it finished its work,” Cotham said. “We have to wait and see (how those accomplishments work), and keep moving forward to get things in good shape with future revaluations.
Meantime, she’ll push the county to improve relations with taxpayers.
Cotham has other priorities. Among them: helping to steer and fund Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and drawing more jobs to Mecklenburg.
“I’m very much an optimist and I’m not waiting for some company to come in and rescue us,” she said. “We’re going to rescue ourselves.”
‘I’m ready to do this’
Cotham backed into running for office.
As she did before many elections, she was recruiting candidates one Friday in February, when a woman told her: “If you feel so strongly about people and about these issues, why don’t you run?”
The next Monday she filed as an at-large candidate.
Recently, preparing for the swearing-in ceremony, Cotham discussed the moment with a woman she’s helping find a job.
“She said, ‘Ms. Pat, this is your appointed moment in time,’ ” Cotham recalled. “That really resonated with me. And I thought, ‘You know, I’m ready to do this.’ ”