People flay council over failed search

Process to select a president appears to lie in shambles

Meeting lasts into today

Anger, frustration erupt after 2 finalists for post withdraw


January 12, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Dozens of angry residents confronted the Columbia Council last night over its derailed attempt to hire a new Columbia Association president, saying they were embarrassed and outraged by a process that unraveled with the withdrawal of two finalists.

The panel later met behind closed doors to try to determine whether to hire the one candidate left or start over. The council was still in session early this morning.

About 70 people crammed into the council room to blast the council for how it handled the hiring process, which fell apart this week amid claims that some council members did not back finalist Michael D. Letcher because he is black.

Letcher, 47, city manager of Sedona, Ariz., withdrew Wednesday. A week earlier, Theodore J. Staton, 45, city manager in East Lansing, Mich., also pulled out. Both men noted racial politics as factors.

Their withdrawal leaves Gregory C. Fehrenbach, 53, administrator for the township of Piscataway, N.J., as the only person in the running to head the Columbia Association, which provides recreational and other services to the town's 87,000 residents.

The council is trying to fill a job left vacant since May, when Deborah O. McCarty resigned the $130,000-a-year post under pressure. Letcher was runner-up when McCarty, who is white, was hired in July 1998. Some supporters said at the time that racism cost him the job, an allegation repeated when Letcher emerged as a finalist in the current search.

In a closed-door meeting Monday, the council deadlocked 5-5 between Letcher and Fehrenbach.

Harry Dunbar, a former council member from Oakland Mills, called for the resignations of the five council members who backed Fehrenbach, who is white. They are Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, Robert Conors of Dorsey's Search, Vincent Marando of Wilde Lake, Adam Rich of River Hill and Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach.

"The five of you have turned [Columbia developer James W.] Rouse's dream, his dream of inclusiveness for the residents of this city, into a nightmare," Dunbar said.

Many of those who spoke were upset that some of Letcher's supporters - including Councilwoman Donna Rice of Town Center - had accused the council members of racism.

The allegations were upsetting enough to draw Shelley Stout to her first Columbia Council meeting to defend her father, Marando.

"It disgusts me," she said, describing her father as someone who has never told a racist joke. "I've been truly sick to my stomach."

Sharon Dehaney of Owen Brown asked if she should be considered an "Uncle Tom" since she is a black woman who favored Fehrenbach based on his performance at a public forum Sunday.

Evelyn Richardson of Dorsey's Search said she was dismayed by the racial allegations as well, though she and the citizens committee she worked on endorsed Letcher.

In remarks to the public, Rice said she was sorry if she offended anyone but stood by her allegations. She said newspaper accounts focused on the racial issue to the exclusion of other matters related to the search.

"I don't back down on that," Rice said. "It was not an attempt to cast aspersions on anyone. It just seems to me out of a very elaborate explanation [to the press], one thing just stuck out like a light bulb."

Several council members, including Pearl Atkinson Stewart of Owen Brown and Russell, said the council needed to find a way to move away from personal attacks.

Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge said he thought the council could have broken its deadlock and agreed on a candidate if information from Monday's meeting had not been leaked to newspapers, prompting Letcher's withdrawal.

"I think we would have had tonight a president if we could have kept out of the newspapers," he said. "We've got to learn to work within [the council] and not through the press."

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