As dissension brews, Columbia is not amused

Residents say dispute tarnishes community

March 19, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In Columbia, where people move to raise their families on streets with serene names like Peace Chimes and Drowsy Day, residents and community leaders are dismayed by the street fight that has broken out in their 90,000-member homeowners' association.

Residents have been shocked and, many say, embarrassed by the dispute involving the association's president, some of her senior staff and the elected board to which the president reports.

Residents say the contention is tearing at the very fabric of the planned town, calling it "insanity" and "disgusting."

Columbia, whose symbol is a tree of people joining hands, was designed more than three decades ago to be inclusive and orderly. Neighborhoods -- meticulously planned -- were always to be run smoothly. People of all shapes, sexes and sects were supposed to get along.

"In the circles that I run in, everybody's talking about it, and it's a scandal," said Jean Moon, who has lived in Columbia since 1971.

Moon said her friends and neighbors are irritated that the Columbia Association has not been reflecting the community's values.

"And if the values of the community are that you treat people kindly and with compassion and without any anxiety-producing behavior, then this looks shocking to you," Moon said. "In this community, we take it personally because not only would I not approve of this in another community, but I certainly don't approve of this happening to my friends and neighbors."

The association, which is governed by the elected Columbia Council, operates facilities and provides services for community residents with a $50 million budget.

Community-wide elections will be held next month, and though they usually attract scant attention, meetings have become packed with angry people demanding answers, accountability and reform.

The dispute -- which had been building since last month -- exploded last week when six association vice presidents were ordered to submit letters of resignation. That development capped a month of unprecedented rancor, during which association President Deborah O. McCarty's leadership and commitment were questioned, two Columbia Council members were the targets of proposed censure motions and angry letters -- and accusations -- were traded.

Two Columbia Council members, Earl Jones and Kirk Halpin, have called on McCarty to resign. McCarty said yesterday she does not plan to step down. Dave Zeitzer, who has lived in Columbia since 1969, urged Columbia Council members in public testimony recently to "lock yourself in a room" and "end this insanity."

Resident William Taylor testified that he has been "appalled" and "embarrassed" by the support his Long Reach council representative, Cecilia Januszkiewicz, has given McCarty.

At a public forum attended Thursday by 175 people, including former association President Padraic M. Kennedy, some people called for McCarty to step down. Others said the council should be held responsible, too.

"The Columbia dream is over," said Rick Burk of Owen Brown. "The nightmare has begun."

Nick Mangraviti, once chairman of the Town Center Village Board, said he is bothered by recent events.

"I do think that we have a very unfortunate situation, and it's creating acrimony around town among people who really care about Columbia," he said.

When Mangraviti moved to Columbia, helping the town's founder, James W. Rouse, develop a harmonious, multicultural community, he thought it was a brilliant idea that the homeowners' association would run facilities and provide services to residents.

"I never had any idea that it would grow to the enormity that it has," Mangraviti said. "Nor did I ever foresee the political complexities that we're facing now."

Robert Tennenbaum, one of the planners of Columbia, said that if Rouse were alive he would be "really hurt" by the Columbia Association's actions.

"He would've been very, very upset. Extremely upset. I'm not sure what he would have done," Tennenbaum said. "I think it's just disgusting. That's about the best word I can figure out."

Rouse created Columbia in 1967 as a place where people could grow "in character, in personality, in love of God and neighbor and in the capacity for joyous living."

He said that his vision was that Columbia would be a diverse place where people recognized that "building a community together is a more demanding but rewarding task than recognizing division and separation. Where hate is truly overcome by love."

Mangraviti said the Columbia Association and the elected body that governs it, the Columbia Council, don't seem to remember that part of Rouse's dream.

"Jim Rouse was always a man who was prepared to deal with changing situations and to respond to them and make them better," he said. "They're [the council and the association] not solving problems. They're reacting to problems, and that is not what Jim Rouse would have done.

"I don't think that they're living up to the promise."

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