The challenges of Deborah McCarty


April 09, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

SOME COLUMBIANS, no doubt, harbor sympathy for the embattled president of Columbia Association, Deborah O. McCarty.

But after this week's Columbia Council action on pay raises or bonuses for Ms. McCarty -- and her comments during that discussion -- the balance could tilt away from her.

"She hasn't sold herself well to this community," one voter said recently. "Does she need to go? It may be that it's too far gone." She had made, said another, some "colossal bad moves."

Add to that list now the "pay fiasco."

How could she talk about raises and bonuses -- and assert even conceptually that someone in her position should be making $200,000 a year?

Nor is it easier to see how she could have allowed the council to discuss a raise or a bonus without her vociferous protest. She did, though, and four members of that 10-member body voted "Yes" on a bonus of $5,000.

Six voted no, killing the ill-advised motion. On the question of a $15,000 pay increase, the vote was 9-1 against.

Ms. McCarty may well be worth more money -- bonuses and raises, too. But not now. She has a lot to prove -- and by many accounts knows it full well.

For reasons not entirely within her control, she's had a difficult time getting traction in Columbia. But to assert now that she deserves $70,000 more a year seems about as impolitic as anything could be -- handing more ammunition to her opponents.

Not what she needed. She might well have gained credibility by standing to oppose a raise, asking that it be put in abeyance. She might have done that to spare members of the council, some of whom are seeking re-election, further embarrassment. She didn't.

In the end, the council released a statement announcing that while Ms. McCarty "generally" met performance goals, it had voted against a bonus.

That matter was within her control. Some other problems have not been.

Ms. McCarthy took over from the first and only previous municipal boss in this city of 90,000. Any successor would have faced institutional inertia, residual loyalties to the departed leader and fears of a new style.

Then, before all of those difficulties were resolved, she had to leave for a few weeks to attend the needs of a sick child. Then, her defenders say, vestiges of the ancient regime rose up to bedevil her.

A veteran of 16 years on the Atlanta City Council, she might have had the skills she needed to negotiate these currents. Instead, her municipal kayak now appears headed for the rocks of outraged public opinion.

Those who are sympathetic may be outnumbered by the many who wish her truncated tenure to end forthwith. She wants to show that she is an able and adroit leader -- a good politician as well as a good manager. But she has a tougher row to hoe now. For reasons not entirely of her making, Ms. McCarty heads into the last half of her second year in her $130,000-per-year job with heavy weight to carry. Just back from a medical leave --and still smarting from criticism leveled at her recently -- she may face problems as yet undefined.

She made the task more difficult by asking for resignations from all six of the vice presidents who were running the city in her absence. The Columbia Council supports her -- and says it ordered her to do the firing. That act alone earned her and the Columbia Council what passes in this genteel city for an uprising.

Citizens throughout the city are organizing for the elections next Friday and Saturday with a zeal rarely if ever seen here. Some of the work is being done by people who want to alter the balance of power that keeps Ms. McCarty in office. If the "right" combination of challenger and incumbents wins, the balance could change. (The complete line-up of candidates and village center elections appears today elsewhere in the Howard County section of The Sun.)

In a sense, Ms. McCarty's difficulties could turn into a boon for Columbia, stirring its citizenry to a new interest in their government. Should she survive, moreover, it would be a boon to her. The city has a wide and deep vein of dormant talent. It has people who were here at the creation, people who revere the dream of Columbia's founder, the late Jim Rouse. After 33 years, the dream and its operational mechanisms may need re-tooling.

The prospect of an exciting period in which the city decides how to confront the future is an opportunity -- but some of the affected parties need to get out of their own way. Ms. McCarty and her allies need to begin by explaining what they're doing: Why they fired the vice presidents, for example, and what changes they have in mind.

Whatever the outcome of this week's elections, Ms. McCarty and the board should be forewarned: Columbia wants a council and an association president it can be proud of.

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

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