Split leaves council `stuck'

Another vote set tomorrow in effort to pick CA president

Two finalists deadlock 5-5

Racial politics, job of a leader, internal disputes play roles

Columbia

January 10, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Racial politics, internal disputes and honest philosophical differences have left the Columbia Council deadlocked 5-5 as it tries to choose a new president for one of the nation's largest homeowners associations.

In a five-hour, closed-door meeting Monday night, the council was evenly split between finalists Gregory C. Fehrenbach, 53, administrator for the township of Piscataway, N.J., and Michael D. Letcher, 47, city manager of Sedona, Ariz.

The council is scheduled to try again tomorrow night.

"We're stuck, and what do we do now?" said Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach, summing up the mood when the meeting broke up after midnight.

Council sources said the most contentious part of the meeting centered on allegations that Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice had withheld information about a third candidate, who dropped out last week.

But yesterday, Donna Rice of Town Center said racial politics was at the heart of the split. She said some council members oppose Letcher because he is black. Fehrenbach is white.

"If he were of another skin tone, he would be a shoo-in," Rice said. "... There are some of those tendencies among some of our members, and they probably aren't even aware."

Some of Fehrenbach's supporters said their choice had nothing to do with race. Januszkiewicz called the allegations "baloney."

Sources said those voting for Fehrenbach were: Januszkiewicz, Robert Conors of Dorsey's Search, Vincent Marando of Wilde Lake, Adam Rich of River Hill and Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills.

They said Letcher's supporters were: Morrison, Rice, Pearl Atkinson Stewart of Owen Brown, Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge and Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance.

The council is trying to hire a Columbia Association president at a critical time in the homeowner group's 34-year history - as Columbia approaches build-out, faces decline and crime in some older neighborhoods and tries to bounce back from the turmoil stirred up under the last president.

Deborah O. McCarty resigned her $130,000-a-year position under pressure in May amid questions about her leadership and commitment to the community.

Several council members said the council split has to do with a difference of opinion about the president's role.

Some want a president to be a high-profile leader, acting as Columbia's "ambassador" to Howard County and to the state as a whole.

Others want a strong administrator who will focus on the nuts and bolts of running a homeowners association that provides recreational and other services to Columbia's 87,000 residents and has a $50 million annual budget.

Members in both camps generally agree Letcher would make the better ambassador. They said he is the more outgoing, regularly rubbing elbows with residents in Sedona supermarkets in a "Shop and Talk" program he created.

Members also generally agree that Fehrenbach would make the stronger administrator. At a public forum Sunday, he said he knows the workings of Piscataway's government so well he has never had to defer to a department head to answer questions at a forum.

Letcher also seems to be a strong, capable administrator, council members noted. And Fehrenbach bikes and runs through town to see and be seen.

But on the wide spectrum of administrators, Letcher is more of a glad-hander and Fehrenbach is more of a wonk, several council members said.

"I do think it's the difference between somebody who's going to be out there in the community cheerleading as opposed to someone who's a little more reserved and is really looking at the long-term health of the corporation," said Januszkiewicz, who favors the latter model.

The most contentious part of the meeting had to do with a third finalist, Theodore J. Staton, 45, city manager in East Lansing, Mich., who withdrew last week, participants said.

Januszkiewicz, Marando and Russell accused Morrison of withholding information about a fatal car accident in which Staton was involved, but not at fault, in the 1980s. No charges were filed.

Morrison acknowledged that he had known about the accident since Dec. 10 and asked Mike Casey, the council's executive search consultant, to look into the matter. He said he did not inform the rest of the council because he was waiting for Casey's report.

Casey said yesterday he was still investigating when Staton withdrew. He said there was no reason to tell the council about the accident at that point.

He said Staton told him he was upset that the accident had become a subject of gossip in Columbia. Staton said in an interview this week he told Casey about several other factors in his decision, including concern that the search was mired in racial politics.

Casey said Staton had not shared all of those reasons with him. Staton maintained yesterday that he had.

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