It's almost as though they were scrapping for an immunity idol. But unlike on Survivor, there wasn't a million-dollar jackpot at stake at Monday's meeting of Durham county commissioners—just local political power, prestige and influence over the county's agenda.
As required by state law, the board was scheduled to elect its chair and vice chair at its first December meeting. But left without their current chairman to break a tie—he was on a cruise, colleagues said—the four commissioners tried stubbornly to wait each other out in a three-hour standoff. They couldn't agree on whether to elect the positions or to delay voting until they had five members.
If they waited until Chairman Michael Page returned from vacation, commissioners Becky Heron and Ellen Reckhow contended, the full board would have input and they wouldn't get stuck in a tie.
That argument worked when it came to choosing a chair. Commissioner Brenda Howerton eventually let go of her nomination of colleague Joe Bowser for chairman and agreed with Reckhow and Heron to delay the selection until the board's next meeting on Dec. 13.
But when it came to the second matter, electing a vice chair, Bowser and Howerton were more steadfast. Bowser demanded to see a vice chair elected immediately and nominated Howerton, the board's newest member.
The commissioners voted more than 30 times to either name Howerton the vice chairwoman, delay the vote or adjourn the meeting altogether. Each vote failed to reach a majority, further defining the board's 2-2 split.
Perhaps akin to Survivor cast mates, the commissioners joshed about who would cave in—or slip up—first.
"We could do like Wake County did—they waited for someone to go to the bathroom—and then vote," Bowser said, referring to a similar stalemate among Wake commissioners late last year. Bowser then announced he would stop sipping his coffee.
"I understand that people get tired," Bowser later quipped to Heron. "Anyone can leave."
"Goodbye, Joe," Heron fired back.
Heron, the board's longest-serving member and the eldest, at age 83, reiterated repeatedly that she wouldn't be outlasted. "I've already asked Duncan to come bring me a cot down here," she said, referring to her husband.
But Heron did get up briefly to talk with an assistant county manager. She was about 15 feet from her seat when Bowser launched another nomination for Howerton as vice chairwoman. Reckhow swiftly called Heron back to her seat in time to vote: "Nay."
"Thought I had you," Bowser said.
"I wasn't going anywhere," Heron replied.
Even with a short recess early in the meeting and a couple of other impromptu conversations, the commissioners failed to reach a consensus. Into the third hour, commissioners dismissed county staffers who had other duties to tend to. Lowell Siler, the county attorney, had to stay and preside over the vote.
Then Heron reminded her colleagues that Siler's mother was gravely ill and said that their inability to agree was costing Siler precious time with her. That's when Howerton gave in.
"I understand what it's like to deal with a mother's illness," Howerton said. She lost her mother her first year in office, she said. "I would not want to be responsible for [the county attorney] missing out on being with his mother." Howerton said she wasn't giving up her quest to become vice chairwoman, though.
Page's absence might have spared him the extended bickering of his fellow board members. But the issue will still be on the table upon his return.
It's clear neither Heron nor Reckhow will support Bowser in his bid for the chairmanship, but instead they will promote Page for a third year as the board's leader.
Whether Reckhow will hold onto the vice chair position seems less certain. At one point during Monday's meeting, Reckhow told Bowser she would support him for vice chair. But in earlier statements to the Indy, Bowser said he wasn't interested in returning to the vice chairman role he once held for two years.
The stakes will be higher at that 7 p.m. meeting on Dec. 13, when commissioners finally decide. It's televised, elevating the visibility of any internal division over which commissioners are best suited to lead. Regardless of the members' sportsmanship, though, no one may be voted off the
island board until 2012.