RALEIGH — After 75 minutes and 14 split votes Monday, Tony Gurley and the GOP regained the top spot on the Wake County Board of Commissioners - on a tie-breaker achieved only when member Betty Lou Ward took an unexcused bathroom break.
Her absence gave the board's Republican members a temporary 3-2 majority they used to vote Gurley into the chairman's seat held by Harold Webb, the octogenarian Democrat who is recovering from a stroke. Many thought Webb would appear in the chamber just to cast a ballot to pick his replacement, but the board made its annual leadership vote without him.
When Ward, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of the board, returned from the restroom and found Gurley sitting in the chairman's seat, she said: "Wonderful. Thanks, guys."
With that, the board launched into more than five additional hours of wrangling about a new vice chairman - taking the meeting far into the night and featuring dozens of 3-3 ties between Commissioner Paul Coble and Ward. At one point, Commissioner Stan Norwalk made a motion to order sandwiches, citing his diabetes and need for nutrition. The sandwich vote passed 4-2 with Commissioners Joe Bryan and Coble voting "No." After 8 p.m., with Norwalk coughing loudly, they mulled dinner possibilities and chatted about a range of topics, including the women's championship soccer team from UNC-Chapel Hill, missionaries they knew and the Taco Bell dog.
At 11 p.m., the board had voted more than 100 times on a vice chairman, deadlocking 3-3 each time. Republicans voted for Coble and Democrats voted for Ward. The board waited 2-1/2 minutes between votes, lapsing in to silence between votes as the evening wore on. Republicans voted down motions to recess or adjourn the meeting.
"The retirees we were going to honor have all gone home," Gurley noted.
Citing health issues, Wake County commissioners agreed early this morning to recess the meeting until 10 a.m Wednesday to resume voting on the election of a vice chairman.
Shortly after 2 a.m., Commissioner Stan Norwalk asked for the recess because he had not gotten his insulin shot Monday evening.
Norwalk, who has diabetes, said he was worried about his health if he waited longer to get the shot.
"I will not sit here and put Mr. Norwalk at risk," said County Commissioner Paul Coble, who along with Commissioner Betty Lou Ward are vying to be named vice chairman.
The vote was 5-1 with Gurley as the lone dissenter.
At one point, Gurley proposed having a recess so that insulin could be delivered from an all-night pharmacy.
Gurley said he voted no because Norwalk took back his offer to skip Wednesday's meeting in case former Chairman Harold Webb shows up. Webb's attendance would give the Democrats the ability to pick Ward as vice chairwoman.
Gurley accused Norwalk of trying to delay the meeting. Ward said that Gurley shouldn't accuse Norwalk of trying to commit a political ploy. Gurley responded that Norwalk tries to make everything a political ploy.
The commissioners control the purse-strings for the Wake County schools, and the GOP's parliamentary maneuver to power comes shortly after Republican-backed candidates swept into school board positions with the promise of ending the county's diversity policy. Last week, the school board's new majority elected a new chairman, Ron Margiotta, and made the first moves toward ending the diversity policy of North Carolina's largest school district.
But the commissioners vote for a new chairman and vice chairman at this time every year, regardless of outside events. Both Norwalk and Ward called the vote underhanded.
"Using parliamentary tricks to push their votes, if it's legal, it's not ethical," said Norwalk, a Democrat. "It brings a lot of shame on this board. That's what happened. There were parliamentary tricks to elect Mr. Gurley."
Bryan reminded him that rules were not only followed, but also verified by the county attorney. When Ward left the room, Commissioner Lindy Brown asked attorney Scott Warren for guidance, and he explained that the vote could take place. With that, Bryan made the motion to elect Gurley, a former chairman when Republicans controlled the board, and Ward's vote counted toward the 4-2 victory.
"If you do not ask to be excused," Bryan said, "your vote is in the affirmative."
Ward later said she didn't expect the board to be such sticklers and that she simply needed a brief break.
"It happens in the world of politics," she shrugged. "There's no need to get bent out of shape over it."
Where was Webb?
Webb was elected chairman last year after Democrats won a 4-3 majority on the board. But since his stroke in early October, he has been absent from meetings, and the board is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Prospects of a deadlocked commission will be heightened no matter who sits as chairman unless Webb returns or resigns and a replacement is selected.
Should Webb decide to resign from office, state law says the board of commissioners "shall appoint" a replacement recommended by the county executive committee of Webb's party, the Wake County Democratic Party, as long as the name is forwarded within 30 days of the resignation.
"If there is a vacancy and the Republicans try to block our nomination, I will file a lawsuit," said Wake County Democratic Chairman Jack Nichols, a former county commissioner. "There will be tire tracks down the middle of me before I will let that happen."
Night wears on
With Gurley as chairman, the board spent nearly two more hours debating a vice chairman before voting to take up the rest of the agenda. The audience had dwindled to about a dozen people from the original 40 or 50.
Every vote split 3-3, Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. Members made repeated tries at delaying the vote for a month, then two, then three - all of which failed.
Norwalk made several requests to wait until Webb could vote, at least by phone. Gurley ruled out a phone vote.
Gurley and Norwalk had several testy exchanges. Gurley ruled Norwalk out of order at least four times, once calling him a "liar." Norwalk accused Gurley of trying to start the meeting without Ward a second time when the board returned from a recess, and he said Webb was probably watching the meeting from home, heart-broken.
"This has nothing to do with the fact that Mr. Webb was not here," Gurley said.
"It has everything to do with it," Norwalk shot back.
Gurley reminded him that Webb was vice chairman in Gurley's last stint as chairman, and the two worked together to pass a $970 million school bond.
"The working relationship I've had with Mr. Webb is just great," Gurley said.
He vowed to stay past midnight and asked for a blanket.
Staff writers T. Keung Hui, Eric Ferreri and Jim Nesbitt contributed to this report.
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