Columbia council near meltdown


March 26, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

IN THE matter of Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty, the Columbia Council did the right thing in refusing to fire her forthwith.

A motion to terminate, offered in frustration by one of the council members last Thursday evening, was rejected as it should have been.

A process for evaluating Ms. McCarty's curious stewardship must be adhered to. Fairness and protection of the city's treasury surely dictate that approach.

"What this motion says is `Let's throw out any semblance of fact-gathering and vote up or down like she was a Roman gladiator.' I think this motion brings shame on us," said Jean S. Friedberg Jr., the representative from Hickory Ridge.

Six other members joined him in defeating the motion, 7-3.

Another member, Adam Rich of River Hill, said he, too, would resist what he called mob action and vote to retain Ms. McCarty.

"Debbie McCarty is asking the right questions and getting run out of town for it," he said.

Others said, without offering specifics, that Ms. McCarty is an agent of change who has drawn criticisms from defenders of an earlier administration.

But what questions is she raising? What disruptive change is she advocating?

As correct as it was to resist firing her peremptorily, the council was derelict when -- once again -- it failed to explain itself to a wondering populace. How did the proud city of Columbia, Ms. McCarty and the council arrive at a point where Councilman Earl Jones of Oakland Mills felt compelled to offer his amendment? He is by no means alone in desiring change at the top.

Indeed, the council seems caught off-guard by the controversy it now presides over. When a room full of critics showed up Thursday night, Council chairman Joseph Merke wanted to prevent them from speaking.

All the other members wisely voted to add a "resident speak-out" segment.

Citing a "community crisis," Councilman Jones said Ms. McCarty should be dismissed for failing to provide "the quality and style of leadership" Columbia needs.

Several residents who attended last Thursday's meetings vociferously agreed.

Several members of the council insist, however, that Ms. McCarty is a talented and courageous administrator who is doing what she was hired to do.

It is precisely because she is advocating and engineering change, they say, that she must be allowed to remain in her job.

But what changes are they talking about? Ridding the Columbia Association staff of unproductive or disloyal workers? The council and Ms. McCarty have been silent on these questions, invoking the confidentiality required in personnel matters.

They've failed at that, too.

Not all the vice presidents will be asked to leave, apparently. But forcing resignations from all has damaged morale in the rest of the staff.

Columbia's voters have been rather quiescent, but these matters may not be so easily finessed -- particularly when Ms. McCarty herself faces increasing questions.

Her job security became precarious when it appeared to some that she had stronger ties to Atlanta than to Columbia.

Her husband practices law there. She is licensed to practice law there -- and was once a member of the Atlanta city council. One of her children is receiving medical care there -- and she is living there during a family leave granted by the Columbia Council.

In all of this, public business is tightly tangled in personnel matters. Where does one problem (personnel) end and the other (the public's business) begin?

"There have been some personal things," said Gerald Davis, a 27-year-resident of Wilde Lake, "and the personal thing involves everyone in Columbia." He blamed himself and his neighbors for being less involved than they should be.

"I've been satisfied with everything that goes on here. Eighty-five thousand people have let things get to where they've got. They're running to Washingon and to Baltimore or taking the kids to soccer thinking everything will be all right."

Now, though, several speakers said, some people are wondering if they made the right decision when they moved to Columbia or persuaded their business associations to locate in the community.

Someone has to sort it all out, separate the strands of personnel from those of policy -- and make the policy parts public. Soon.

Perhaps that is why the council decided late last week to hire an independent outsider to mediate and conciliate various matters for a cool $25,000. Odd that such a consultant would be needed -- but surely something is.

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

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