Hunt nears end at forum

Public gets chance to meet candidates to lead association

Council could vote tonight

Hopefuls make case for being best able to serve community

January 08, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The two men competing for the Columbia Association presidency made their pitches directly to the public yesterday, one day before what appears to be a closely divided Columbia Council might try to choose between them.

Appearing at a public forum that attracted about 80 residents were Gregory C. Fehrenbach, 53, administrator for the township of Piscataway, N.J.; and Michael D. Letcher, 47, city manager of Sedona, Ariz.

A third finalist, Theodore J. Staton, 45, city manager of East Lansing, Mich., took himself out of the running last week, citing personal reasons.

The forum came one day after the candidates were interviewed by the Columbia Council, senior Columbia Association staff and a 10- member citizens committee.

The association staff and the citizens committee recommended that the council hire Letcher, though they spoke highly of both candidates, sources said.

Letcher and Fehrenbach are vying for a post left vacant when an embattled Deborah O. McCarty resigned from the $130,000-a-year job in May after 20 months.

The president of the Columbia Association oversees one of the nation's largest homeowners associations, an organization with about 200 full-time employees and a $50 million annual budget. The association provides recreational amenities and enforces housing standards for the community of 87,000.

The candidates addressed the crowd separately, each for about an hour.

Fehrenbach opened with an overview of his educational background and career -- a path he said was inspired by a visit to Columbia in 1968 while studying government and economics at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He earned a master's degree in urban affairs from the University of Wisconsin in 1970.

Fehrenbach said he was impressed not only by the planned community's design features, like its village centers, but also by its goal of racial integration. He recalled seeing interracial couples walking hand-in-hand in Columbia -- not a common sight elsewhere in 1968, he noted.

"Unfortunately, this country is still dealing with so many of those issues," he said.

Letcher made a much shorter introduction, saying he would skip talk of his background and focus on the "higher calling of Columbia."

The planned community was founded in 1967 as a place where people of all races, religions and income levels would be welcome.

"You can really find anyone to manage Columbia," Letcher said. "You can find someone with the right skills. But what is in that person's heart? ... This community has a light that cannot be dimmed. If we cannot make it work here, where will it work?"

At the University of Kansas, Letcher earned an undergraduate degree in history and political science in 1976 and a master's degree in public administration two years later.

The candidates answered a series of questions submitted in writing by residents, then took a few more from the audience.

One of the most direct came from Carole Conors of Dorsey's Search, wife of Columbia Councilman Robert Conors. She asked Letcher if he worried about making the leap from a community of 10,000 to one nearly nine times that size.

"Do you palpitate in the middle of the night?" she asked.

Letcher, who spent three years as an intern in Kansas City, Mo., said he was "trained to be a big-city manager."

Letcher oversees 100 full-time employees and a $38 million annual budget in the Arizona resort town of Sedona, which attracts up to 4 million visitors a year. In Piscataway, a township with a population of about 50,000, Fehrenbach oversees a $35.5 million budget and 260 full-time employees.

Fehrenbach's answers tended to be longer and more detailed than Letcher's. Asked about his ideas for addressing problems in Columbia's aging villages, Fehrenbach spoke at length of the "broken-window theory" -- taking care of minor problems before they become larger ones.

Responding to the same question, Letcher said he would look at how other communities had tackled similar problems and try to adapt those solutions to Columbia.

Like Fehrenbach, Letcher started at a table and chair on the stage of the Jim Rouse Theater at Wilde Lake High School.

But Letcher stood up after a comment about the bright stage lights prompted Council Chairman Lanny Morrison, the moderator, to note that Letcher's microphone was portable.

Letcher stayed on his feet for the rest of the program.

Fehrenbach commented on the lights, too, jokingly comparing the setting to that of a police interrogation. But he remained seated.

That made an impression on some audience members.

"The other gentleman had a problem with the lights, too, and he just sat there. That says something about his character," said Ken Jennings of Harper's Choice, a vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County.

The council will meet in closed session tonight to examine the comment cards residents submitted after the forum. Council members said they might vote afterward.

Several council members said they anticipated a close vote and expressed concern that the matter could get bogged down in racial politics.

Letcher was runner-up to McCarty two years ago, and some of his supporters have said he lost because he is black. McCarty is white, as is Fehrenbach.

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