Columbia is ready for a big change


March 19, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

SOME pain was inevitable when the ancient regime gave way to the new one 18 months ago.

But that discomfiture need not be permanent and it may yield opportunities for change.

When Deborah O. McCarty took the Columbia Association reins from Padraic M. Kennedy, one of the founding fathers of government in the New Town of Columbia, some predicted a rough ride.

Few thought the difficulties would be quite so severe: Ms. McCarty's need to take a leave before she had everything under control is part of the problem. Part of the problem stems from the very structure she was asked to command. And part of it has been thrown in by players who seem to think they can cope with their problems in a vacuum of self-protection.

Pat Kennedy presided with enough institutional momentum and authority to move the ship through difficult times with ease. Ms. McCarty is so new -- still -- that she remains unsure of support from those whose knowledge and understanding she needs.

So unsure, in fact, that she asked all six of her vice presidents to submit their resignations. So, 18 months into the Kennedy-to-McCarty transition, the transition starts anew. Or so it would seem.

"The Columbia dream is over," said one of 175 people who met to discuss the firings and Ms. McCarty last Thursday evening. "The nightmare has begun. To me, when an association's chief executive demands personal loyalty, that organization has lost its mission or the chief executive has lost her mind."

Without agreeing with everything in that assertion, many in Columbia are surely wondering what has happened in the odd little governing structure maintained in part to protect Columbians from politics.

It's time for the city to grow up. Everything about the existing structure is political, has been political and always will be political in the broad sense. Politics is problem solving and it can be done under different structures.

The one in Columbia needs a lot of professionalizing, rationalizing and democratizing at this moment. Speakers at the Thursday meeting said they found the council out of touch and called for it to resign along with Ms. McCarty.

Others wanted more open-ness.

"I'm totally opposed to this proliferation of these types of (closed) meetings and I don't think hiding behind a general statement that this is personnel serves the community well," said Earl Jones, a member of the council representing Oakland Mills.

Ms. McCarty did not attend the meeting. An appearance there -- with good answers to legitimate questions -- would have strengthened her position and given some sense that she and the council care what people think.

Ms. McCarty has had a majority on the Columbia Council until recently at least. Seven members have supported her reliably while some other council members asked for an audit of her expenses.

Unfortunately, that tugging and hauling occurs against Ms. McCarty's absence on a family health leave. Even as her $130,000-a-year job is threatened, she is living much of every week in Atlanta where she was once a member of the city council and parks commissioner.

Oddly enough, though not in day-to-day operational control of the association right now, she returned to Columbia last week to request a mass resignation.

Ms. McCarty suggests, and her supporters agree, that her problems stem from difficult financial, personnel and legal decisions left behind by the old administration.

She said as much last week during a meeting with staff which followed her request for across-the-board resignations. Not surprisingly, that action sent a shock wave through the offices of the associations, leaving more than a few uncertain about their own employment status. Not a recipe for loyalty -- even if the objective is to weed out enemies.

While she sought to allay these fears, it is likely she failed. A degree of uncertainty is a likely part of the atmosphere now and for the foreseeable future -- until the council and Ms. McCarty decide how they will proceed.

An unfortunate aspect of the current imbroglio is the cloak of secrecy that virtually all the players throw over everything. Ms. McCarty, for example, declined to comment on her extraordinary request for resignations, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters and of various Columbia Association meetings. She cited an "enormous amount of erroneous information" -- but then declined to say what was erroneous.

Members of the council who have been critical of Ms. McCarty's activities have asked for an audit of her expense reimbursement requests. They've been outvoted on the council -- and then threatened with censure for asking questions.

What is needed here, soon, is a public airing of everything but the most privileged personal and personnel information. Employee concerns will not be eased, Ms. McCarty's record will be clouded and the work of the council will seem suspect until the citizens of Columbia know the complete truth about how their city is being run.

Anyone who thinks a better process would put Columbia more directly in the U.S. system of governing might imagine that now is a good time to start a revolution.

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

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