McCarty is ready to take her post Association president thinks community has reached crossroad

October 12, 1998|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Deborah O. McCarty, new president of the Columbia Association, calls herself a "Post-it person" and has little yellow stickies all over her desk to prove it.

It's an apropos metaphor, the Post-it, for the role that the 46-year-old former director of the Atlanta Parks and Recreation Department will play.

If Padraic M. Kennedy, her predecessor as the unofficial mayor of Columbia, was the visionary who charmed James W. Rouse's planned community through its first 30 years, then McCarty is the manager who's going to examine its financial and physical infrastructure into the next century.

"I see my role as implementing the policies established by the Columbia Council," says the Texas native and mother of three young sons, sitting in her new -- and still largely unadorned -- office overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi at Town Center.

In an interview last week, McCarty explained that Columbia, which has quickly grown to nearly 90,000 residents, is at a crossroads.

Among her first tasks in the $125,000-a-year post is to oversee the budget process for fiscal year 2000, the first year the association will have a spendable surplus.

Any previous budget surpluses had been applied toward reducing the association's $28 million accumulated deficit.

But now, for the first time, McCarty and the 10-member Columbia Council will have to decide what to do with the money: Reduce the fees paid by homeowners that some residents complain are too high, or improve and increase the number of services the association provides.

"I think it's too early to tell" which course to take, she said.

Another of McCarty's goals is to improve property maintenance for facilities, including the community centers, pools and gyms -- particularly in the older villages. After 30 years, she said, it's only natural to make structural improvements or upgrades to prevent deterioration and disrepair.

A 16-year veteran of the Atlanta City Council and former VISTA volunteer, McCarty said she also wants to re-evaluate the relationship between the association and the 10 villages that make up Columbia. She described Columbia's two branches of "government" -- the elected Columbia Council and the largely volunteer village boards -- as representing the "best of both worlds."

"The Columbia Council is the entity to look at the broader vision of Columbia," says McCarty, a lawyer by training. "The villages are the closest link to the community."

Many community leaders haven't gotten a sense of how the new president will approach her job, and what mark she'll make on Columbia. McCarty has yet to attend any formal village board meetings, something she intends to do over the next few months.

"We don't have much to work with," said Henry Dagenais, a member of the Long Reach Village Board. He described McCarty -- only the second person to hold the top post in Columbia -- as a "practical manager."

McCarty, who was chosen during the summer as Kennedy's replacement by the Columbia Council from among more than 100 applicants, hasn't fully made the personal -- and professional -- transition to Maryland yet. Three unpacked boxes sit in the corner of her second-floor association office, and more are stacked in the garage of her Dorsey's Search home. (The family's Oldsmobile and minivan are parked in the driveway because the garage is full.)

McCarty religiously uses a map to find her way through Columbia's maze of roadways. She says she finally realized how much of a small-town community Columbia is when an association employee recognized her in the grocery store even before her first day of work.

At one recent community forum, a resident asked whether he could approach her with a problem or concern if he saw her

exercising at the gym.

The way McCarty sees it, Columbia "has in fact become the city of James Rouse's dream. It's worked. It's maintained a balance of housing. It's maintained a diversity of population. What hits me most coming from a city is, Columbia's really in pretty good shape."

This outlook suggests that McCarty might turn out to be more of a tinkerer than a reformer.

But beware of reading too much into those little yellow Post-its: Inside every good manager, McCarty said, is a visionary, too.

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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