The search for a new Columbia Association president collapsed yesterday as the second of three finalists bowed out, complaining about the community's racial climate and threatening to sue over an alleged attack on his integrity.
The surprise withdrawal of Michael D. Letcher came less than a week after another candidate, Theodore J. Staton, dropped out, also citing racial politics as a factor.
That leaves one finalist in the running to oversee one of the nation's largest homeowners associations. The withdrawals have created a sense of disarray and acrimony in the planned town, which was founded in 1967 on ideals of social harmony.
Letcher's departure left most Columbia Council members at a loss for what to do next - start the search process over or offer the job to the final candidate, Gregory C. Fehrenbach, 53, administrator of Piscataway, N.J.
"He's the last man standing. I would give it to him," said Councilman Adam Rich of River Hill. "The worst he could do is fail, and then we start again."
But most on the 10-member council said they were unsure how to proceed. The Columbia Council has spent thousands of dollars in its search for a successor to Deborah O. McCarty, who resigned under pressure in May. Critics questioned her leadership and commitment to the community.
Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach said it could be a mistake to hire Fehrenbach - even though she favored him - because only half the council backs him.
"I'm concerned because there will be people who will begrudge him the job, and it won't help him succeed," she said.
Fehrenbach said yesterday that he still wants the job, which oversees an organization that has a $50 million budget and provides recreational and other services to Columbia's 87,000 residents.
"My status doesn't change," he said.
Letcher, 47, city manager of Sedona, Ariz., was runner-up when McCarty was hired in July 1998. Some of his supporters claimed at the time that he didn't get the job because he is black. McCarty is white, as are Fehrenbach and Staton.
Letcher's return as a finalist recalled those allegations and reopened wounds related to McCarty's ouster. In recent weeks, council members bitterly accused each other of a range of offenses - from leaking or withholding candidate information to being racists and plotting an 11th-hour attack on a candidate.
The search process began to unravel last week when Staton, city manager of East Lansing, Mich., withdrew his candidacy, saying he had other options. In an interview Monday, he said racial politics, constant turnover on the council and questions about the job's compensation package also played a role in his decision.
With two finalists left, the council met Monday in a closed-door meeting for nearly five hours. The vote split 5-5 on Letcher and Fehrenbach.
The council had hoped to break its deadlock at a meeting tonight before receiving word yesterday of Letcher's withdrawal.
"I do not want to subject my family or myself to the current political environment and racial politics in Columbia," Letcher wrote in a letter to Columbia Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice. The words "racial politics" were printed in bold italics.
The now-derailed search process had been debated in minute detail: Council members spent considerable time at one meeting discussing whether the whole council, or just a few members, would take the candidates to lunch when they came to town for interviews. The council budgeted $35,000 for the nationwide search.
That it disintegrated into charges of racism and petty personal politics is particularly painful to some longtime Columbia residents, who flocked to the community where developer James W. Rouse welcomed all races, religions and income levels.
"I think it's absolutely devastating for the Columbia community," said Padraic M. Kennedy, the Columbia Association's first president who held the job for 26 years until 1998. "I think it's hard to quantify how much time, energy and hope has been focused on this search, and now all that has been dissipated."
In his letter to Morrison, Letcher said: "In my heart I know what has happened over the past few days is not Columbia.
"My prayers are that Columbia will find itself again and be the city that Mr. Rouse envisioned."
Earlier this week, Councilwoman Donna Rice of Town Center accused some council members of opposing Letcher because he is black. Yesterday, she said she was heartsick about the whole situation. "I am sick to my stomach about this," she said. "There's so much bad stuff here. We need some healing."
In his letter, Letcher accused Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills of attacking his integrity during Monday's closed-door council meeting.
The issue involved contact that Letcher reportedly had with Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson Stewart of Owen Brown, who supported him over McCarty in the last search. Some council members saw the alleged communication as an attempt to give him an advantage over other candidates.