Bitter fights mar search for CA chief

Council's efforts fall apart as two prospects withdraw

Racism made an issue

Criticism continues despite pledge to end animosity

January 14, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | By Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Columbia may strive for Utopia. But lately, it stands for U-turn.

Within the space of a week, two of the three men competing to run the town decided they didn't want the job.

The abrupt withdrawals caused the search for a new Columbia Association president to collapse last week. They also capped months of poisonous personal politics on the Columbia Council.

Most recently, some council members accused others of racism because they backed a white finalist over the black one.

But for months, council members have been sniping at each other for withholding information or leaking it to the press.

Such is the level of distrust that Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice has, according to several council members, threatened to booby-trap confidential information provided to them -- secretly marking it so he can identify who leaked what to the media.

Morrison will say only that he has repeatedly warned the council that leaking can have "consequences."

Council members pledged to try to put the bad feelings behind them after a meeting Thursday, when residents blasted them for bungling the presidential search.

But even as the meeting was breaking up, Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach was criticizing Morrison for not turning over copies of legal bills related to a taxation issue.

"It really reflects on the politics of personal destruction of some of the council members," said Padraic M. Kennedy, Columbia's first president, who held the post for 26 years. "It leaves me baffled and depressed, and I think it leaves the community diminished."

Governing structure

Some say the town's quirky governing structure has contributed to the current upheaval.

The Columbia Association provides recreational and other services in the planned community that developer James W. Rouse designed to promote social harmony among people of all races, classes and religions.

Many people in the unincorporated town of 87,000 think of the organization as their local government, though Howard County provides traditional municipal services such as schools and police.

"Because this isn't a government -- it is a homeowners association -- there is no political accountability," said Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"So Columbia Council member `X' doesn't get elected for another one-year term -- big deal. Is that a penalty? If this were a real city with four-year terms of office, some community stature involved, maybe a little compensation, the possibility of influencing public policy -- real public policy -- the responsibility of delivering real public services, and the possibility, if they're interested, of going on to higher office -- then what you'd see is a different caliber of behavior."

Racial politics

Some current and former council members see the strife as a continuation of the political battles that erupted under Kennedy's successor, Deborah O. McCarty.

McCarty resigned under pressure in May after 20 months, amid questions about her leadership and commitment to the community.

One of the finalists in the most recent presidential search -- Michael D. Letcher, city manager of Sedona, Ariz. -- had been runner-up when McCarty was hired in July 1998. Some of his supporters said at the time that McCarty got the job because she is white and he is black.

African-American leaders and some council members made the same charges against council members who did not support Letcher this time around.

The other two prospects -- Gregory C. Fehrenbach, administrator for Piscataway, N.J., and Theodore J. Staton, city manager in East Lansing, Mich., who withdrew from the running before Letcher -- are white.

McCarty's influence

The council also chose sides based on their stance on McCarty, with a few exceptions, with each camp having its own theory as to why.

McCarty's supporters generally wanted Fehrenbach; to support Letcher would mean that hiring McCarty was a mistake, one side said.

McCarty's critics mostly wanted Letcher, who they believe should have had the job in the first place, the other said.

"You can't tell me there's not a lot of animosity that's carried over from last year," said Earl Jones of Oakland Mills, who served on the council during McCarty's tumultuous last months.

Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge agrees.

"I think it still goes back to deep division we have in the council that has carried over from prior councils," he said. "I think we can't come to consensus -- I wouldn't even say `consensus' -- decision."

Several council members pledged to put the animosity behind them last week, after the search process fell apart with Letcher's withdrawal Wednesday. Staton had dropped out less than a week earlier. Both candidates said racial politics was a factor.

The council met behind closed doors for more than two hours Thursday night, trying to figure out whether to offer the job to Fehrenbach, the remaining candidate, or to start the search over.

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