It’s hard for anyone who’s only seen the current Guilford County Board of Commissioners to believe, but the very genteel, never-raise-your-voice board that votes unanimously on almost every issue is a complete 180-degree bizzarro opposite version of the board two decades ago – which held meetings many county residents watched on TV for the drama, and which many called “The Thursday Night Fights.”

 In 2004, and for much of the first part of this century, the Board of Commissioners meetings were a constant shouting match that often went past midnight due to the number of intense arguments that took place, sometimes even over relatively minor issues.

By contrast, county commissioners meetings in recent years do not involve raised voices, verbal attacks, or even, for the most part, disagreement.

The nine-member board has two Republicans –  Commissioners Alan Perdue and Pat Tillman – who are outnumbered by the seven Democrats. The two sometimes disagree with the majority. However, their objections are always polite and soft spoken, and the two know that Chairman of the Board of Commissioner Skip Alston is always going to get his way so they are aware that resistance is futile in the end.

Years ago, when a former Republican commissioner, the late Steve Arnold, was on a Democratic-majority board run by Alston, Arnold would usually speak last on a high-priced motion that was clearly going to pass, and Arnold would rip into the commissioners supporting the move, who would often respond in kind to Arnold.

Former Republican Commissioner Billy Yow, who was beloved by his constituents and many others in the county, would tear into Alston and other Democrats and even sometimes into the companies the county was trying to attract here.

 On the current board, every commissioner always votes for incentives for businesses that come before them at meetings, but 20 years ago, when a large company came before the board asking for money, Yow would rip them apart verbally. He would ask how the leaders of a multi-million-dollar company that was raking in profits could sleep at night while coming and requesting a $10,000 incentive from struggling taxpayers.  Yow even pointed out that there was no way the company was going to make its decision where to locate based on $10,000.  It made economic development officials cringe, but it was an interesting response since the current board just gives away taxpayer money to the ultra-rich companies every time.

One time, Yow, who had a farm, out of the goodness of his heart, agreed to take two sick calves that the animal shelter had no place to keep. He fed them at his own expense and nursed them back to health. When Alston found out about that, he blasted Yow for profiting off of the shelter’s animals.  It was a completely baseless and totally ridiculous claim, but Alston was so irate that he publicly chastised Yow and called for then Guilford Attorney Mark Payne to open an official investigation.

At a public meeting that week, Yow tore into Alston and said he would be delighted to load the calves up into his truck and put them in Alston’s yard where Alston could take care of them and give them their shots. The Rhino Times dubbed the incident “Cowgate.”

Unlike the expected unanimous votes from today’s board, the board of two decades ago, which consisted of 11 members, was split with six Democrats and five Republicans for many of those years.  The board would split votes all the time.  Often, frustrated former Republican Commissioner Linda Shaw would shout out “6 to 5!  6 to 5! Everything is always 6 to 5!”

Speaking of Shaw, one time she got into a huge fight with Alston during a Thursday night meeting. Soon afterward, in an office in the Old Guilford County Court House she threw a glass of water in Alston’s face. He lodged a lawsuit against Shaw but then thought the better of it.

These days, the board is highly copacetic and Alston and the six other Democrats always vote together. And the two Republican’s don’t fight back much.

So, it is peaceful and low key – but sometimes a diverse board with some healthy disagreement and a little bit of fire surrounding the issues means that the leaders are highly engaged and  thinking independently. It’s also a sign that they have a true understanding that it’s not always in the best interest of Guilford County – and it can lead to massive debt – to go along with anything and everything that county staff recommends.