Columbia begins again in search for leader

Contentious process left 1 of 3 finalists

January 13, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council voted early yesterday against hiring the only candidate who still wanted to run the town after bitter racial politics helped chase off the two other finalists.

At a two-hour, closed-door meeting that began late Thursday and broke up after midnight, the council voted to advertise again for a new Columbia Association president.

"I think the process has been so perverted that there's no hope of salvaging it," said Councilman Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance.

The council is trying to hire someone to fill a job left vacant since May, when Deborah O. McCarty resigned the $130,000-a-year post under pressure. Critics had questioned her leadership and commitment to the community.

Gregory C. Fehrenbach, 53, who was the last candidate remaining, said yesterday that he has not decided whether he will reapply.

"No decision, no determination at the moment," he said. "As I understand it, essentially it begins again. I'm going to have to re-evaluate [spending] that much time, effort and psychic energy."

Reopening the search will add $10,000 to $15,000 to the cost of the process, which had an original budget of $35,000, Halpin said. The extra expense is mostly for advertising and for new finalists to travel to Columbia.

The original sum included $17,500 for an executive search consultant, Mike Casey, who will not be paid extra to assist with the extended search.

Casey said it is not out of the ordinary for city councils or quasi-public boards like the Columbia Council to have to repeat the search process.

"This happens," he said.

But Donald F. Norris, professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, called the situation highly unusual.

"I've been following the local government business for 30 years or better, and I've seen an awful lot of searches for city managers," he said. "And to have a search blow up like this one is very rare. It's not unheard of, but it's very rare."

The president oversees the Columbia Association, a homeowners group that many residents in the unincorporated town think of as their local government. With a $50 million annual budget, the association provides recreational and other services to Columbia's 87,000 residents.

The council launched its nationwide search, which yielded more than 100 applicants, in the fall. Last month, the council chose three finalists: Fehrenbach, administrator for the township of Piscataway, N.J.; Michael D. Letcher, 47, city manager of Sedona, Ariz.; and Theodore J. Staton, 45, city manager of East Lansing, Mich.

Letcher had been runner-up when McCarty was hired in July 1998, and supporters said at the time that he lost out because he is black. McCarty is white, as are Fehrenbach and Staton. Letcher's supporters repeated those allegations when he emerged as a finalist this time around.

The search process began to unravel Jan. 4, when Staton withdrew. He said he was concerned that racial politics would taint the process, though he noted many factors, including other professional opportunities.

On Wednesday, Letcher withdrew, accusing some council members of opposing him because he is black.

Fehrenbach's supporters called the charges unfounded and blamed the upheaval on a political climate still raw from McCarty's ouster.

Council members said they were concerned about offering the job to the remaining finalist, Fehrenbach, because he had the backing of only half of the council in a vote Monday.

If the search goes according to schedule this time, a new president will be hired at the end of April - just before council elections. Seven of the 10 council members are up for re-election. At least two members - Adam Rich of River Hill and Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach - have said they will not run again.

At the public portion of Thursday's meeting, some residents said the current council, which has been bitterly divided over the racism charges, should not make the hiring decision.

But council members - who said they were weary but finally working together in Thursday's closed-door session - were determined to put a president in place.

"This council wants to clean up its mess," Halpin said. "It's conceivable that seven new people come in and say, `You hired the wrong person. We're going to let you go.' I don't think the community would stand for that."

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