Webb phones it in for Ward

Second contentious Wake commissioners meeting gives Ward the No. 2 spot.

Staff WriterDecember 10, 2009 

— Wake County commissioners ended a heated three-day struggle about the panel's leadership posts by electing Democrat Betty Lou Ward as vice chairwoman Wednesday.

But with ailing Democratic member Harold Webb casting his vote by telephone to break the tie, the seven-member board could face continued party-line deadlocks as members deal with high-profile issues and a tough budget year.

For one thing, they will be handling proposals for major change from the county school board, which also has a new Republican chairman and a majority of newly elected members who favor ending the school district's diversity policy and shifting toward neighborhood schools.

Gurley, board 'in sync'

"My views are completely in sync with the new majority," Tony Gurley, the board's Republican chairman, said of the school board.

At less than 40 minutes, Wednesday's session was brief in comparison to the 12 hours commissioners met Monday and early Tuesday. During that marathon meeting, Republicans elected Gurley chairman after Ward left for a bathroom break without official permission. Gurley termed Ward's unexcused absence a piece of political gamesmanship Wednesday.

Ward fired back: "I have never seen anyone treated with more disrespect. That was a deliberate act to undercut my right to vote."

Webb, the previous chairman who is recovering from a late September stroke and associated speech problems and has been absent from commission meetings, voted by phone to break a 3-3 tie to give Ward the vice chairwoman position, the last of 129 votes cast since Monday on who would fill the post. Democratic members Stan Norwalk and Lindy Brown formed the rest of the majority, with Republican members Gurley, Paul Coble and Joe Bryan voting for Coble as vice chairman.

The board, with its Republican chairman and a Democratic majority, controls the purse strings on school spending, including construction money for new schools, a crucial factor in the school board's proposed shift to a neighborhood-based system. Gurley ally Ron Margiotta is the new school board chairman, heading a Republican-backed ruling majority that also wants to end mandatory year-round school calendars.

Democrats in control

But Democrats, including Webb, still hold a 4-3 majority on the board. And Democratic commissioner Stan Norwalk said the new school board members should keep in mind that county commissioners have to sign off on school board's billion-dollar-plus budget, including any new construction resulting from a neighborhood school policy.

"If they want neighborhood schools, they have nothing to do with that," Norwalk said of the new school board. "Since the 1970s, we have been building a countywide system. You can't snap your fingers and say you are going to a neighborhood system."

Claude Pope, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party and a supporter of the new school board, said Wednesday afternoon that a move to neighborhood schools would not necessarily involve major changes in ongoing school construction to meet growth.

The commissioners meeting Wednesday began with a motion from Ward to reconsider Gurley's election as chairman. Gurley ruled the motion out of order, and county attorney Scott Warren agreed, citing provisions in Robert's Rules of Order.

Jack Nichols, chairman of the Wake Democratic Party, said Gurley's refusal to allow reconsideration was improper and should be revisited by the body.

Webb stronger

Webb made no mention of his plans during his brief telephone session with his colleagues, but Nichols said he has visited the veteran politician and that Webb's health is improving through therapy. Should Webb resign, Pope said, the GOP would argue that his board-appointed replacement should only serve until next year's general elections.

Nichols said he is researching when Webb's seat would be up for re-election if he resigns. Earlier, Nichols cited state law that says commissioners "shall" appoint a replacement selected by the county executive committee of Webb's political party.

At issue, though, is how long that replacement would serve before the seat would again be on the ballot - until the end of Webb's term in 2012 or until the next general election. County attorney Warren said the law governing how a resigning member's seat should be filled is complicated and ambiguous, involving both a state law and a private act passed for Wake County in 1981.

"It depends on when he [Webb] resigns vis a vis the next general election," Warren said.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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