Columbia Association's new president brings reputation as a consensus builder McCarty offers experience as activist, administrator

July 12, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- In one of her last public appearances here, Atlanta Parks and Recreation Director Deborah O. McCarty faced controversy over a plan to build a stone path atop a pretty knoll in historic Piedmont Park.

She could have led the meeting about the park, but stayed in the background. That was vintage McCarty, and exemplified the approach she'll bring next month to her new job as president of the Columbia Association.

In a career here that has taken her from community organizer to the City Council to chief of parks and recreation, McCarty has developed a reputation as a quiet conciliator and consensus builder.

The move to Columbia, where she will be the planned community's equivalent of a mayor, will complete a personal transformation for the 45-year-old McCarty.

"Debby came here like most of us -- energetic, idealistic and bent on changing the city," said Bill Adams, a longtime community activist and real estate agent in Grant Park, a historic neighborhood where McCarty started her political career. "Then we all had kids and moved out to the suburbs. The land of wall-to-wall carpet, mini-vans, soccer moms and sameness," he said.

McCarty said of her career: "I started out as a neighborhood volunteer and ended up as a politician, an administrator and then a mom."

Columbia Council members say the management skills she developed in running one of Atlanta's most neglected departments made her attractive for the CA president post -- a $125,000-per-year position running one of the largest homeowners groups in the country, overseeing a $44 million budget for the closest thing Columbia has to a town government.

She will replace the only president CA has ever had, Padraic M. Kennedy.

A native of Houston, McCarty graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and came to Atlanta as a VISTA volunteer.

She worked with a group trying to save the neighborhood of Grant Park. The accomplishments of those years are McCarty's fondest memories.

In 1977, at 25, she was urged by her fellow activists to get into politics.

She ran for a seat on the Atlanta City Council against an incumbent Republican black leader in her mostly black district of 35,000.

As a white woman, McCarty stood out. She developed a strategy of gaining the support of some of the community's older, respected black leaders such as Asberry Fears. A longtime activist in the neighborhood of Thomasville, Fears, now 82, turned from being a staunch supporter of the black incumbent to helping lead McCarty's campaign.

"We'd sit up all night, until 1 and 2 a.m. working on fliers and talking to get her elected," Fears remembered as he looked at pictures of McCarty.

McCarty won that election and four consecutive terms.

Among her constituents, she is most often remembered for the little things: the time she got an elderly man's trash can fixed, getting the power company out when a storm knocked down utility lines, finding out whom to call to pick up a dead dog in a front yard or getting water turned back on for a poor, elderly couple.

Her former husband, Vern McCarty, who eventually took over the district's council seat -- they remain on good terms -- said his ex-wife's popularity is something of a mystery.

"She's renowned as being popular among her constituents, but nobody really knows why," he said.

Her current husband, John R. Myer, an Atlanta attorney, said: 'She's a consensus builder. She's got an extraordinary ability to find common ground."

In 1993, then-Mayor Maynard Jackson appointed her commissioner of the Parks and Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department. "She's a really down-to-earth person," said Carol Alonza, who runs a renovated recreation center in southeast Atlanta. "What really stood out to me is that she listened."

As parks commissioner for five years, McCarty is credited with building and renovating some of the city's recreation centers, creating an endowment fund for an inner-city youth camp program and slightly increasing recreation funding from $8 million to $11 million -- even as the department's entire budget has been depleted over the years.

In recent years, McCarty's personal focus has shifted. She has three sons from her second marriage, ages 5, 3 and 7 months. She has moved from Grant Park to an upscale subdivision of newer homes. Now, she says, most evenings and weekends are spent not at community meetings and handing out fliers, but at T-ball and soccer games.

McCarty made one venture back into politics last year, quitting the parks job to run for president of the City Council. She lost, just missing out on getting into a runoff as the second-highest vote-getter when Robb Pitts garnered just over 50 percent of the vote.

The experience left her with ambivalent feelings about contemporary politics.

It also put one of the few marks of controversy on her career. After the election, current Mayor Bill Campbell re-appointed her to the parks job.

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