It's December, but the year's end could mean the beginning of new leadership on Durham's Board of County Commissioners—and perhaps further illuminate the power struggles and politics among some of its members.
The board is scheduled to elect its chairperson and vice chairperson for 2011 at its 9 a.m. meeting on Monday, Dec. 6. The chairperson sets the board's agenda, runs meetings and serves on the front lines of public accountability.
Current Chairman Michael Page has guided the board through the past two years as commissioners have trudged through divisive issues, from budget cuts to the controversial rezoning of the Jordan Lake watershed.
"Regardless of how I have had to vote, I have tried to be fair to everyone," said Page, who will be out of town for the meeting.
On Monday, the board could continue the trend of the past two years, re-electing Page as chairman and Ellen Reckhow as vice chairwoman. Or the leadership could drastically change.
Commissioner Joe Bowser, an often candid and sometimes brazen member of the board, is vying for the chairman spot. Bowser is perhaps best known in Durham politics for initiating the 2004 firing of veteran county manager Mike Ruffin, who was rehired months later when Bowser lost his re-election bid.
"I would like to lead, as everyone else has," Bowser said.
Each of Bowser's fellow commissioners, except newcomer Brenda Howerton, has served as vice chairperson or chairperson—some for several years, he pointed out.
"In my opinion it's not fair to the other members—when we all are elected by the people and given that vote of confidence by the people—for one person to hog up all the leadership positions."
During a previous term, Bowser served as vice chairman for two years—but only after a stalemate with Reckhow in 2002 during the board elections. A split board took three recesses and voted without a majority four times in that December 2002 meeting before Bowser withdrew his nomination and supported Reckhow.
Reckhow has spent 11 years as vice chairwoman and served as chairwoman from 2002 to 2008.
Page succeeded Reckhow in 2008 after having spent a year as vice chairman.
According to her website, Commissioner Becky Heron was a board chairwoman or vice chairwoman for 14 years. Before becoming mayor, Bill Bell was chairman of the commissioners for 12 years. Former commissioner Mary Ann Black chaired the board for six years.
Bowser said Howerton, who has been on the board for two years, wants to be vice chairwoman. Howerton said she hasn't officially asked for a nomination.
"It's up to the board whether I move to another level of leadership. I would not shy away from that," she said.
It's unclear how the vote will go—or if it will be held at all.
Page's absence will leave just four members to vote. If Bowser is nominated for chairman, he might not earn the three votes he needs to win—but he also might hesitate to accept the chairmanship without the backing of all of his colleagues, he said
"I think it's important for everyone to support the chairmanship," he said.
Heron said she would like to see Page and Reckhow continue their leadership. Howerton said she couldn't predict the outcome. If the board can't reach a simple majority of 3-2, it may continue the meeting until Dec. 13, when Page is scheduled to attend.
With a board that has been stubbornly split on several issues, the next chairperson may find himself or herself trying to serve as a consensus builder for the commission. And as politically tricky issues such as taxes, budget cuts and development continue to arise, the public will increasingly be looking to the chairperson for transparency and accountability.