Brown named interim head of Columbia Association

Move follows collapse of presidential quest

January 17, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A longtime Columbia resident who was drawn to the community's dream of racial harmony takes the reins today of a town torn by racial politics.

Maggie J. Brown, the Columbia Association's vice president for community services, will become interim president of the homeowners group. She takes over from Charles Rhodehamel, who has been acting president since Deborah O. McCarty resigned under pressure in May.

The Columbia Council, the association's legislative arm, unanimously picked Brown at a closed meeting Thursday, when it also voted to scrap a presidential search disrupted by charges of racism. The council made Brown's selection public during the weekend.

Brown's appointment was applauded by black leaders who recently accused some council members of opposing a presidential candidate because he is black. Brown also is black.

"Maggie's been a longtime leader in Columbia, and she's always been a champion for an inclusive agenda when it comes to programs and policies for Columbia residents," said the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, pastor of St. John Baptist Church and president of the African American Coalition of Howard County.

Turner said the temporary appointment had not convinced him that the full Columbia Council is ready for a black president.

"I don't want to second-guess the motivation for the appointment, but the issue concerning the current state of the Columbia Association president hasn't been resolved. ... I think that that's a sedative, but it's not a solution," he said.

Columbia Council Chairman Lanny Morrison said the council appointed Brown to allow Rhodehamel to devote his attention to the association's division of open space management. Rhodehamel is vice president of that division, and he juggled those duties with those of acting president. He could often be seen sporting multiple pagers and carrying a cellular phone, with a walkie-talkie stowed in his car.

Last year, many residents and village leaders complained that Columbia's open space wasn't kept to its usual tidy standards. Rhodehamel has said that had more to do with an unusually rainy summer and a tight labor market than with his double duty.

The Columbia Council is trying to hire a president to head the association. With a $50 million annual budget, the association provides recreational and other services for the town's 87,000 residents.

Last month, the council selected three finalists in the search for a president - Gregory C. Fehrenbach, administrator for the township of Piscataway, N.J.; Michael D. Letcher, city manager of Sedona, Ariz.; and Theodore J. Staton, city manager of East Lansing, Mich.

The search fell apart this month, as Staton and Letcher withdrew. They gave several reasons, including a claim of racial politics. Letcher had been a runner-up when McCarty was hired in July 1998, and some supporters said at the time that he did not get the job because he is black. McCarty is white, as are Staton and Fehrenbach.

African-American community leaders and some council members made similar charges this time, saying other council members opposed Letcher because of his race.

That kind of racial strife was hardly imagined in Columbia in 1970, when Brown moved to the community that developer James W. Rouse had founded three years earlier on principles of racial harmony. Back then, Brown was a young mother of three drawn to Rouse's dream. "You were just coming out of the '60s, when there was a lot of concern about race relations," said Brown, 61. " ... So with Jim Rouse putting forth his concept that this was a wide-open town where we would all live, work and play together - I think that it was quite a concept."

Brown declined to comment on the recent racial strife and the challenges it might present to her.

"Right now, as far as I see things, we'll be doing business as usual, which is what we've been doing all along," Brown said. "We're moving forward, and I'm here to help that movement to occur."

Brown joined the association in the 1980s, when for 6 1/2 years she managed sales of memberships to the group's recreational facilities.

She left for about four years to work as assistant to Howard County's chief administrative officer, Buddy Roogow, and later his successor, Raquel Sanudo.

Brown returned to the Columbia Association in 1993 as vice president of community services, overseeing an array of programs for children and adults, including before- and after-school care, summer camp and the Lakefront Festival. She also serves as liaison between the association and Columbia's 10 villages.

Brown will serve full-time as interim president until a new president is hired. Council officials have asked new candidates to apply by Feb. 15 and said they want to hire someone by April. Michelle Miller, assistant director of community services, will take over that division in Brown's absence.

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