Process to select Columbia leader flawed


July 12, 1998|By Harold Jackson

THE IDEAL that Columbia represents isn't the reality that the planned city has become. Few ideals live up to every expectation.

America isn't all that its founders wanted it to become. It's not all that its residents today desire. But it's a much better place to live than whatever ranks second.

With its flaws comes the ability to correct them, which adds to our nation's allure.

From that perspective, the Columbia Council must do more than simply defend itself against recent charges of racism.

It should examine why it is believable to some people that a panel said to represent the very spirit of diversity that birthed Columbia might be racist.

Where flaws are found, the council ought to fix them, especially those easy to correct.

White woman hired

Accusations of racism resulted from the council's decision to hire a white woman instead of an African American to be the new president of Columbia Association.

Michael Letcher, the black city manager of Sedona, Ariz., was a finalist. But Deborah O. McCarty was chosen to head the giant homeowners' organization that runs Howard County's unincorporated city of 90,000 people.

It was a good choice. So much of what the Columbia Association does revolves around the parks and swimming pools within its purview. Ms. McCarty has been commissioner of parks, recreation and cultural affairs in Atlanta, Ga., since 1993. Her department runs 42 recreation centers, 22 swimming pools and more than 3,000 acres of park land.

She has the credentials to be a leader in a town committed to diversity. Before becoming recreation commissioner, Mrs. McCarty represented a city council district for 15 years that is 85 percent black. "She's a consensus builder," said Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who is an African American.

Such a candidate to replace Padraic Kennedy, who will retire next month after 26 years, shouldn't have sparked charges of bias. That she did points out the real problem, the flawed process used to select her. The rules were there were no rules.

At the July 1 announcement of Mrs. McCarty's appointment, Columbia Council Chairwoman Norma Rose said the search began in October and 170 applications had been received by May. Seven of those applicants were selected for interviews. But then Mrs. McCarty's application arrived.

Ms. Rose said she and other council members were so impressed with Ms. McCarty's background that they reduced the number of finalists to be interviewed to four and included the Atlanta woman among them.

Cecilia Januszkiewicz, who represents Long Reach Village on the council, said that if anyone received special treatment, it was Mr. Letcher. His interview was delayed 11 days because of a schedule conflict.

But being the last applicant to speak with the selection committee didn't give Mr. Letcher an advantage. In fact, the subsequent hiring of Mrs. McCarty could be seen as evidence that the council had already made up its mind.

Mrs. McCarty said she didn't consider her application late. She said the consulting firm hired to help the council told her that applications would be accepted up until someone had been selected for the job.

Rooted in racism

By not setting specific procedures and timetables to be followed in naming a new CA president, the council opened itself to allegations of unfairness. The African American Coalition of Howard County said that unfairness was rooted in racism.

It certainly appears that candidates who dutifully applied and responded to the council within a reasonable period of time shouldn't have gone to the trouble.

The unstructured way in which the council went about replacing Mr. Kennedy smacks of the same loosey-goosey approach to business behind some of the fiscal problems reported within CA.

A Columbia Association audit revealed that $100,000 may have been misappropriated from Dorsey's Search over several years.

The audit revealed that CA knew little about what happens to the $1.3 million it gives annually to the 10 village centers in Columbia. Until this year, it had no uniform standards and procedures for handling the money.

One of the tasks awaiting Mrs. McCarty will be to implement sounder fiscal policies. She also must soothe the bad feelings stirred by her appointment.

The council didn't bend the rules to give her the job. There were no rules. That has left a bad taste in the mouths of some Columbia residents who think minorities should hold more leadership roles.

If the council had adhered to a clear process leading to Mrs. McCarty's appointment, there would be no reason to conclude that anything other than merit led to her being hired.

The governing body of a town that is supposed to be sensitive to appearances should have known better. It should have known the perception of racism often can be as damaging to a community as the real thing.

Harold Jackson is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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