McCarty looks to Columbia's future

Comment

April 23, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

LAST weekend's village center elections were regarded by some residents of Columbia as a referendum on the Columbia Council and, more specifically, on the 20-month tenure of Deborah O. McCarty, who serves as Columbia Association president and CEO of the city.

The controversy began when some members of the council questioned Ms. McCarty's leadership style, her commitment to Columbia and the validity of her expenses.

It flared dramatically when the council asked for resignation letters from the association's six vice presidents.

In response, voters picked four new council members, possibly changing the balance of power on the council. Time will tell.

Ms. McCarty says she expected substantial change - and an even more challenging time at the helm. She agreed to a question-and-answer session with The Sun on the origins and significance of the problems:

What's at the root of all this?

It started with the questions about money. The board met for five-and-a-half hours and went through everything. They said it was all consistent with things they expected or told me to do. There's nothing to any of this. The matter's closed.

Then the critics said it's really not about money, it's about leadership. We're concerned about leadership issues.

And positive achievements never got covered - the achievement of the AA bond rating. We went to New York and made a very aggressive case. We brought the rating houses here and took them on a tour. We wanted to tell our story.

Yes, we probably could have had that bond rating five years ago if someone had made the case. My emphasis has been trying to improve financial and legal management.

What about the vice presidents?

The majority of the board knew for a long time that there needed to be changes. But I didn't think I had the power to make those changes. The board wouldn't back me.

Is there a structural problem there?

I think if the CEO can't hire and fire, it's a problem.

The board decided later to go ahead and ask for the resignations, hoping that would calm things down. They felt they should have done it before I arrived. But just because they hadn't done it then didn't mean it wasn't still needed.

Yes, but why ask for all to resign?

I think it was presented in the appropriate way. It's customary for government or business to ask for these letters and you don't ever plan to accept them all. It's an empowerment. It's giving into the hands of the CEO the power to accept them or not. [One of the five resignations was accepted. One didnt submit the letter. Four are still on board.]

When you arrived from Atlanta, did you have immediate thoughts about changes?

I had no immediate changes in mind. My style is to listen and learn. I knew we had a hybrid: private non-profit but government-like entity.

We have an elected board with sometimes conflicting fiduciary duties. So, they have to relinquish some of those public official duties to preserve and keep confidential the financial and legal interest of the corporation. Some of the people want to behave as if they don't have those duties to the board. They want to talk about anything, anywhere.

A basic reason why you often dont tell people whats going on?

Yes.

What other structural problems do you see with this hybrid system?

We have constant transition on the council, given the way the terms run. There is no accountability. It's not like being elected to a four year-term in a major city where you know you have to live with the consequences of your actions. Nor is there the sort of collegiality that develops over time, relationships forged that will last. And in terms of my role, the board that hired me wanted one particular style and the one that followed wanted another style. Again, these are structural problems. They keep the organization in constant turmoil. They prohibit long-term planning. Don't you also need a charter or government study commission? I've been told by people who've studied it that it's almost legally impossible to have an incorporated city.

Whatever is done, I would still want a strategic planning process to start this summer. The government part would take longer.

A planning or study commission would still be needed, right?

That would be part of the strategic planning process. Where are we going? What changes are needed to get there?

Do you have any models in mind?

Reston [Va.], Montgomery Village, places in Colorado and California. Were looking for facilitators whove worked with governmental models.

What other challenges do you see? How do we engage newcomers? People are living here because its a good place to live. You find them on the soccer fields, the t-ball fields. They need to provide discrete bites - so they can come in and spend a few hours and get out. If you have careers, you cant spend so much time. We need to encourage more participation from younger, newer residents. You have a core of very involved people but then you have another 85,000 that are just out there.

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

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