Nice work if you can get it


February 27, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

WHAT should Columbia voters think about the Columbia Association presidents curious approach to her $130,000 job?

Deborah O. McCarty, on board in Columbia for 18 months, seems to have closer ties to Atlanta than to Howard County.

Currently on leave for personal reasons, she may well be in the process of deciding where she wants to live.

That decision cant come soon enough for a city that, one imagines, needs a fully engaged, day-to-day administrator.

So far, Maryland is running second to Georgia in the two-state popularity contest.

Her defenders on the Columbia Council say Ms. McCarty is competent and engaged in Columbia affairs. But she is not registered to vote in Maryland, has not registered her car here.

She recently sold her house, and leased a townhouse for six months.

She says she is actively looking for a house to buy in Columbia after her lease runs out.

She remains a member of the Georgia Bar and has charged the Columbia Association hundreds of dollars to maintain her professional standing as a lawyer.

At least two members of the Columbia Council -- quite appropriately -- wonder about the level of her commitment to the city that pays her $130,000 a year.

They may have given more focus to an assessment of that commitment by demanding an audit of her expenses -- though a majority of the council now says it is satisfied that her spending is appropriate. No further inquiry is needed, according to a majority of the council.

This may well be true. Ms. McCartys contract seems to provide for the reimbursements she collected.

But what of Columbia? Does it need and deserve a full-time executive, fully focused on the city?

As a publicly elected official from the village of Kings Contrivance, said Kirk Halpin, one of the council members seeking an audit, I believe that the public has the right to know how their assessments and membership dollars are being used.

Mr. Halpin said he is also concerned about the use of her time and its benefit to the Columbia community.

The first audit request came from Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, the council vice chairwoman and chairwoman of the Management Appraisal Committee, a panel reviewing the presidents performance.

We owe it to our community to clear that air and have an independent audit, she said. I felt there were sufficient questions raised as to the appropriateness of certain expenses.

From October 1998 to October of last year, according to Columbia Association records, Ms. McCartys travel expenses totaled $9,300. She traveled twice to California and once to Orlando, Fla., and to Atlanta for conferences, including that of the International City and County Managers Association and the American Bar Association.

A former city councilwoman and recreation and parks director in Atlanta, Ms. McCarty said the meeting at which her finances were discussed went well. She declined to give details.

The executive sessions are executive sessions, and that information is confidential, she said.

Council Chairman Joseph Merke said all questions were answered satisfactorily -- and later said the council voted 7-3 to end the inquiry. Mr. Merke said he had not approved all expenses claimed by Ms. McCarty -- but he said approval was not expected or required.

The council has every right -- and a duty -- to assure Columbia residents that their money is being carefully accounted for. But in the long run it is less important than the questions the inquiry raises about Ms. McCartys investment in Columbia.

She may be a fine administrator still in transition after her move to the Columbia job 18 months ago.

Extenuating circumstances may exist. (One of her children is ill and being treated by a doctor in Atlanta.)

But if Columbia is to be seen as a maturing city -- or even as the sort of New Town management it was 30 years ago -- it has to have a level of professionalism that does not subject it to raised eyebrows and giggling.

Some council members have questioned whether Ms. McCarty, only the second association president in 28 years, is aggressive and visible enough.

Questions have been raised also about whether the associations long-term financial health at a time when the city is nearing build-out -- when tax revenue from development slows - and when, they say, Columbia is most in need of a decisive, fully immersed executive.

Adam Rich, the council representative from the village of River Hill, put it this way: Some of the council got concerned about the overall performance of the Columbia Association, and since most corporations have one person at the top, thats the place to start with.

The council is expected to meet again March 2 to discuss Ms. McCartys performance.

That discussion ought to be as open and searching as possible - since important questions have been raised affecting the citys future.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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