Columbia's absentee president

Leadership gap: City deserves leadership unequivocally committed to the community.

February 29, 2000

IS COLUMBIA just an easy-going progressive community with no real need for government of any kind? The curious status of Deborah O. McCarty, the city's chief executive officer, might lead to that conclusion.

Ms. McCarty is president of the Columbia Association, the unincorporated city's governing entity. She's as close as Columbia gets to a mayor.

Amid various questions about her leadership, two Columbia Council members now seek an audit of her travel and other expenses. They are certainly right to demand an accounting -- but that should be the least of their concerns.

Ms. McCarty seems to be having a crisis of place: Does she live in Columbia, or is her real home in Atlanta, where she was once a city council member? Her husband is a lawyer there and one of her sons goes to school there.

We're in the year 2000, to be sure, and many different permutations of work and family life are permitted to the mutual benefit of employee and employer.

But if one is to be the chief executive officer of a city or town, the threshold qualification has to be commitment to that place. Ms. McCarty may be failing the test. She has no Maryland driver's license. She is not registered to vote in Maryland. Her car is not registered here. She recently sold her home in Columbia and moved to a new town house with a six-month lease.

The voters of Columbia may find this arrangement perfectly acceptable. But if the city can afford to grant a two-month leave, maybe it doesn't need an association president at all. Perhaps, the council would be able to find other uses for the $130,000 it now pays Ms. McCarty.

Just slightly beneath the surface of this controversy is the old fundamental question: Should Columbia grow up and elect a mayor and city council? More episodes like the current one will only make that question more compelling.

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