Council mulls final choice for president

Panel reportedly deadlocks 5-5 in late session

2 candidates remain

3rd finalist, Staton, who dropped out, noted other options


January 09, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The official explanation for why one finalist for the Columbia Association presidency dropped out last week was simple enough: Theodore J. Staton has other options.

He is a contender for a similar job in Shaker Heights, Ohio. And in East Lansing, Mich., where Staton is city manager, officials are doing what they can to keep him.

That's part of the story - the only part some Columbia Council members say they were told. But that's not the whole story.

Racial politics, constant turnover on the Columbia Council and questions about the job's compensation package also played a role in his decision, Staton said in an interview yesterday.

With Staton's withdrawal, the Columbia Council has two candidates to choose from: Gregory C. Fehrenbach, 53, administrator for the township of Piscataway, N.J.; and Michael D. Letcher, 47, city manager of Sedona, Ariz.

The council ended an almost five-hour executive session early today without picking a new president. A source said the council had deadlocked 5-5 but planned to vote again this week.

Last month, Staton also expressed concern that a personal matter he disclosed in an interview with Columbia Association staff - a fatal car accident in which he was involved but not at fault - had become the subject of gossip.

He declined to comment yesterday about whether that matter played into his decision.

"There's just a whole variety of factors that people have to consider, how supportive the staff will be, how much continuity there will be among elected officials ... and in addition, the compensation," said Staton, 45.

The president oversees one of the nation's largest homeowners associations, which provides recreational amenities and enforces housing standards for the community of 87,000. The last president, Deborah O. McCarty, resigned from her $130,000-a-year job in May after 20 months.

Staton stressed that there was no single reason why he chose to bow out. He said he is interested in a potential offer from Shaker Heights and also is tempted to stay in the college town of East Lansing. But Staton also said he was concerned about racial politics swirling around the selection process in Columbia.

Letcher was a runner-up when McCarty was hired two years ago, and his supporters alleged that he lost out then because he is black. McCarty is white, as are Staton and Fehrenbach. African-American leaders, who have been publicly pushing his candidacy, repeated the allegations when Letcher emerged as a finalist last month.

"It's certainly not the reason I withdrew, but it would have to be concern to anyone as long as that issue is being discussed, `Why candidate A or B was or was not chosen,' " Staton said. "You don't want race to be a factor in why you were chosen or why you weren't chosen."

Staton said he was worried about working for the Columbia Council because of its size and turnover. The council has 10 members, and terms for some are as short as a year. Seven members are up for re-election in April.

East Lansing's council has five members, and Shaker Heights has seven. Terms are four years in both.

Staton also expressed frustration that he had not been allowed to see McCarty's employment agreement. While her salary had been made public, Staton said he wanted to know about benefits and performance objectives detailed in the document.

"I never could obtain a copy of that after several requests," he said, adding that he assumed the material was not confidential since the council asked during his interview if he would object to such disclosure if he got the job.

In an interview last month, Staton expressed dismay that a personal story he had shared during his interview with senior Columbia Association staff had become public gossip.

Asked about any ethical challenges he had faced, Staton told the story of a car accident he was involved in while working for the city of Dayton, Ohio. Staton held a variety of positions there, including assistant city manager, from 1979 until 1995, when he went to work for East Lansing.

In 1985 or 1986, an intoxicated pedestrian lunged in front the car Staton was driving, was struck and died, Staton said. Staton said he was not at fault and was not cited. Because the police department fell under his jurisdiction as a city official, he called for an independent investigation, which he said exonerated him.

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