More turmoil at CA

Rejection: After two finalists quit the race for Columbia Association president, a new search begins.

January 13, 2001

LIMPING back to square one.

After months of laborious and expensive screening, the search for a new Columbia Association president has foundered on the shoals of a flawed council structure, allegations of racial politics and differing management styles.

The Columbia Council deadlocked in a 5-5 vote over two candidates: Michael D. Letcher, the city manager of Sedona, Ariz., and Gregory C. Fehrenbach, administrator for the town of Piscataway, N.J.

Differences of opinion about Columbia's needs were to be expected, even healthy. And if the council were properly constituted it would have settled those differences by majority vote. Instead, the built-in gridlock potential in an even number of members doomed its efforts in the short run.

The costs of paralysis were levied again this week. Citing racial concerns, Mr. Letcher abruptly withdrew. The council will now embark on a new search in part because, though he was the last man standing, Mr. Fehrenbach did not command a majority.

How embarrassing and sad for Columbia, a city in which diversity and racial harmony have been touchstones of community pride.

Mr. Letcher, who is African-American, might well have been the council's ultimate choice. Surely, he wondered if winning in such an atmosphere augured well for a successful tenure. Or perhaps other factors explain his decision to leave the field.

Mr. Lechter's concerns were not unique to him. Last week, the third finalist, Theodore J. Staton of East Lansing, Mich., withdrew citing various concerns, including the allegations of racial politics.

At a public forum last Sunday, Mr. Letcher impressed many with his eager pursuit of the job.

Equally impressive was Mr. Fehrenbach, whose grasp of municipal governance and procedure led many to favor him.

These men sought to succeed Deborah O. McCarty, who left the $130,000 post under pressure last summer. Those who argued that the council was as much to blame as Ms. McCarty are nodding their heads now.

Columbians must hope their city can still find qualified candidates willing to brave the current climate.

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