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As pandemic restrictions ease and elected officials return to in-person meetings, one key leader has been noticeably absent at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center this month.
Democrat Ella Scarborough, an at-large county commissioner, has requested to participate remotely three times this month, while other board members have returned in person. Each time, her fellow commissioners have not allowed her to join remotely, effectively preventing one of nine elected board members from having a say in county deliberations.
It’s unclear why Scarborough is asking to participate remotely.
But the debate over remote participation has become pretext for larger concerns about Scarborough’s diminished mental faculties, according to several commissioners. This comes at a crucial time, as commissioners fine-tune a nearly $2 billion budget for the next fiscal year and deliberate on key investments for schools, affordable housing and racial equity.
Several current and former commissioners, who asked not to be named to speak freely about a delicate issue concerning a revered colleague, recalled witnessing episodes before the pandemic when Scarborough, 75, appeared confused about her surroundings, struggled to find her way to meetings or could not follow conversations.
Commissioner Vilma Leake on Tuesday refused to discuss Scarborough’s “inabilities and abilities.”
“Scarborough has been elected by the people of Mecklenburg County to serve and she received the highest vote,” Leake said in an interview. “And that’s all I need to say. She is a commissioner. I cannot speak to her well-being because that’s not my job.”
Some in county government have inquired about options for her removal from office but were told there isn’t a mechanism to do so, the commissioners told the Observer. The matter, they say, is up to Mecklenburg voters. The next election is in 2022.
At issue most recently is the idea of remote participation — a policy question that’s up to county commissioners to decide, especially when the local emergency declaration for COVID-19 expires.
“An individual board member does not have an automatic right to participate if he or she is not physically present,” county attorney Tyrone Wade told commissioners in an email shared with the Observer last week. He advised that “due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns there might be reasons for the Board to consider allowing, in limited cases” remote participation.
But, Wade said, allowing members to participate remotely could open commissioners up to legal challenges if physically absent members cast a deciding vote or their presence is necessary for a quorum.
Commissioners tabled a vote on the matter last week.
‘Appears to be struggling’
After years of quiet concerns about Scarborough’s abilities, the procedural question about remote participation has forced commissioners to confront publicly a sensitive topic they’ve skirted for months.
Scarborough, who has been a commissioner since 2014, is also a former Charlotte City Council member, U.S. Senate candidate and two-time Charlotte mayoral candidate.
Her request to stay home during meetings has created a delicate situation for her colleagues, some of whom have held quiet, years-long concerns about her ability to keep up with the demands of the job.
Those concerns have been largely shielded from public view, especially during a year of meetings when public officials were able to govern from behind a screen. Most are reluctant to use any medical terminology or divulge if Scarborough has received any type of professional diagnosis.
Still, Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell acknowledged what many of her colleagues will not publicly: Scarborough “can’t really weigh in” on county business and that “she appears to be struggling.”
“She is a legend and she has an amazing legacy, and she is a woman who has given so much to the community,” Rodriguez-McDowell told the Observer in January. “It’s a loss for the community if she’s not able to carry out her position, her duties. It’s a loss for the people of Mecklenburg County.”
Scarborough has rarely participated in board meetings in recent months, often not responding to a roll call vote where her silence is tallied as a yes vote, or saying “no comment” when commissioners take turns to speak on an issue. Her most frequent addition is to second motions up for a vote.
Calls to Scarborough this month were not returned, and a reporter could not leave a message because her voicemail was full. Attempts to reach her adult children, who have been helping her with the technology to join remote meetings, have been unsuccessful.
In a brief phone call in January, Scarborough did not respond directly to a reporter’s questions about using technology to participate in remote meetings or larger concerns about her ability to engage with the job, and appeared confused by the questions.
Commissioners’ chairman George Dunlap told the Observer earlier this year that the board does not have the authority to replace a colleague.
He also said people tend to become less engaged as they get older. As for Scarborough, Dunlap said, it is “totally up to her” for “what degree she should or should not be engaging.”
“I’m not a medical doctor so I’m not in a position to say what her fitness is,” Dunlap said. “I will say this: She was the top vote-getter in Mecklenburg County. And so if there’s a concern about her fitness, the citizens of Mecklenburg County would have to address that. That’s not an issue for the county commission.”
Even before Scarborough joined the Board of County Commissioners, she had a long, barrier-breaking history in civil rights, business and as an elected official.
A teenage Scarborough and hundreds of other Black students in Sumter, S.C., were jailed in 1963 for trying to walk through the doors of a segregated movie theater.
As a student at South Carolina State University she was on campus during the effort to integrate the town of Orangeburg’s only bowling alley where South Carolina Highway Patrol officers fired into the crowd after an officer was struck. Three people died in what’s known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
When Scarborough won a seat on the Charlotte City Council in 1987, she was the first Black woman to do so, and served 10 years as a district and at-large representative.
In 1998 she unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate and twice ran for mayor in Charlotte. She had a 22-year career with Duke Energy, in a time when few Black women were welcomed in the corporate world.
And in November she was re-elected as the top vote-getter in the at-large county commissioner race.
This week on Facebook, fellow at-large County Commissioner Pat Cotham described Scarborough as a trailblazer.
“I have missed seeing her during the pandemic!” Cotham wrote. “I am blessed to have her as my friend and colleague.”
‘Equal member of the board’
While most discussions have been behind closed doors, Dunlap pushed the issue into daylight in a January meeting and email to his board colleagues.
On Jan. 5, Commissioner Leake unsuccessfully tried to get an item added to the agenda with Scarborough as a co-sponsor.
Dunlap refused to hear the item, and later in the meeting told Leake “that I will not allow anybody to take advantage of a commissioner who does not participate in our meetings and use them as a person to sign on to an agenda item.”
Then in a Jan. 10 email to commissioners and Scarborough’s adult children, Dunlap chided his peers for discussions about replacing her.
In the email, obtained by the Observer, Dunlap wrote he had “a good conversation” with her children and they would help her use technology to access meetings, during a time when all members still joined remotely.
“It is expected that she will be treated as an equal member of this board,” Dunlap wrote. “While her family recognizes that she has a few challenges with using technology, the expectation is that she would be extended the same courtesies that would be extended to any person who might have a disability, per the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Future of remote work
While Scarborough was not invoked directly during discussions about remote participation going forward, her absence loomed large.
Before the pandemic, there was a general expectation commissioners would attend meetings in person, said Wade, the county attorney.
Dunlap said the board needs to be consistent, and Commissioner Leigh Altman said in-person attendance should be mandatory once the emergency declaration lifts.
As leaders navigate a return to normalcy, though, they can preserve some of the benefit gained through remote meetings, Cotham said. She asked her colleagues to show compassion in extenuating circumstances, including personal and family emergencies.
“As Democrats, we have always been the ones who have offered accommodations to people,” Cotham said during a meeting last week. “Sometimes people do have difficulties.”