Behind-scenes effort for naught

3 votes had swung to Letcher as leader, but finalist withdrew

`Quit ... in the middle of it'

Columbia

January 19, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

It may have looked like the Columbia Council was hopelessly divided and dug in last week, split 5-5 between two candidates for Columbia Association president.

But behind the scenes, support was growing for one of the candidates -- Michael D. Letcher -- who probably would have gotten the job if he hadn't dropped out, council sources said.

"We had it, and he just quit right in the middle of it," one source said.

"The votes were there," said another.

In a nearly five-hour, closed-door meeting Jan. 8, the council deadlocked over who should head the homeowners association, which provides recreational and other services to the town's 87,000 residents. The job has been vacant since Deborah O. McCarty resigned under pressure in May.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Friday in the Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly reported the number of Columbia Council members asked to reconsider their votes for Columbia Association president. Councilman Robert Conors tried to contact four council members who supported candidate Gregory C. Fehrenbach. Three of them initially responded no, and he could not reach the fourth. The Sun regrets the error.

The council was trying to choose between Letcher, 47, city manager of Sedona, Ariz.; and Gregory C. Fehrenbach, 53, administrator of the township of Piscataway, N.J.

Discussion in the closed-door meeting was heated, with some members accusing others of opposing Letcher because he is black. Fehrenbach is white. Members emerged from the meeting after midnight, saying they were frustrated, angry and stuck.

But through e-mails, telephone calls and at least one face-to-face talk in the days that followed, Councilman Robert Conors of Dorsey's Search worked doggedly to try to break the impasse, council sources said.

Conors confirmed this account of his efforts, described by several council members on condition of anonymity, but he declined to comment further.

Conors had supported Fehrenbach, but was willing to switch to Letcher. However, he wanted the new president to have the support of more than just a bare majority of the board.

Conors "wanted a stronger mandate, some solid support, to make the [president's] job easier," a source said.

He sent e-mails to fellow council members, suggesting that they reconsider their votes. All nine turned him down.

Later, Conors persuaded two Fehrenbach supporters to switch to Letcher -- on condition that structural changes be made to the presidential post.

With Conors' switch, that would have made the vote 8-2 for Letcher.

Among the changes that the vote-switchers sought: giving the new president hiring and firing authority over senior Columbia Association staff.

It was not certain that the rest of the council would agree to give that power to the president, because the original five Letcher supporters tended to be more supportive of senior staff.

But Conors and others believed they could come to terms.

They expected Letcher to emerge as the winner at a meeting that was planned for later that week, Jan. 11.

But the day before the meeting, Letcher unexpectedly pulled out, leading the council to start over with a new national search.

Letcher said his withdrawal was prompted by a Jan. 10 newspaper report, which said Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills had questioned his truthfulness two days before in the closed-door meeting.

He said Russell had attacked his integrity and opposed him because he is black.

The question about Letcher's truthfulness had to do with whether he'd had contact with a supporter on the council outside the interview process, and whether he had lied about it.

If Letcher had ever had insider information, the morning of Jan. 10 would have been the time for it.

For as Letcher was faxing Council Chairman Lanny Morrison an angry letter of withdrawal -- threatening legal action and complaining about racial politics -- Conors was securing the last of the two vote switches.

Letcher did not respond to telephone messages this week seeking comment.

"There were efforts going on ... to try to get us to have a majority decision, and that had been obtained," a Letcher supporter said. "But it's too late. It's tragic."

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