Wanted: A mayor-type

January 23, 2001|By Tim Baker

SEARCHING FOR A new president to head its community association, the Columbia Council has hexed this new town in the most acrimonious conflict in its 34-year history.

After a national search, the council deadlocked in rancor. Two of the three finalists withdrew, and the council decided to begin the search again. Accusations of incompetence, dishonesty and even racism have shattered the self-satisfied self-image of "The Next America."

The swirling charges have exposed previously hidden racial fissures and unresolved class tensions in a community which is just beginning to acknowledge typical American metropolitan problems such as schools, drugs and crime. But beneath the turmoil, a built-out and built-up Columbia is actually struggling to be reborn -- to revitalize James W. Rouse's idealistic vision in order to face the realities of a maturing middle-class suburban center.

To achieve that goal, Columbia will have to reinvent its ideas about how to govern itself -- a process which will now hopefully accelerate as residents try to sort out the mess left behind by the council's two unsuccessful searches in the last two years.

Columbia is not an incorporated town, and Howard County provides education, police and many other municipal services to the 87,000 residents. But parks, recreational facilities and many other services are provided by the Columbia Association, or CA, as it's called -- an unusually large and important quasi-public community association which fills the role of a town government with a $50 million budget funded by real estate assessments.

CA is controlled by the Columbia Council whose 10 members are elected by district, most of them to one-year terms. The original concept was local representative democracy. A noble ideal, but only a small fraction of Columbians have ever voted in town elections and few knew or cared who were their council members.

Recent events have at least given members more exposure.

The problem started two years ago when Padriac M. Kennedy retired after 26 years of providing an able, reliable and familiar face to CA. He would have been a hard act to follow under any circumstances, especially after Rouse died, leaving the town with no recognized leadership at all.

At that point, the members of the Columbia Council, previously anonymous, tried to fill the void themselves. But their first major decision was a disaster. Two years ago they hired a president who came from Atlanta, Deborah O. McCarty. She never made any personal commitment to her new community and never even settled here, commuting back home to Atlanta on weekends. Her personality and management style alienated both residents and CA staff. The community uproar soon forced the council to get rid of her, albeit with a $200,000 severance package which many residents found outrageous

Their resentment swept a number of council members out of office in last spring's annual elections. But the new members joined the old ones in repeating the same mistakes. They again hired a consultant to conduct a national search for a city manager-type who would report to the council, execute its decisions, and administer its policies.

Wrong.

First, the Columbia Council should restrict its own role. No committee can lead, especially not when it's largely invisible and its members serve only short terms after which they are usually replaced. So instead, the council should act like a board of trustees. It should review the president's policies and programs, then hold him or her accountable to the community. Otherwise let the president operate as a chief executive officer.

To fill that position, Columbia needs someone who is already known here, highly visible, and deeply committed to this community. In order to have any real credibility, CA's next president must have lived here, raised a family here, sent children to school here, worked on community events here and have plans to stay.

This requirement should have been self-evident after the unlamented last president's short and unhappy sojourn among us. But instead, every one of the 10 finalists recommended by the consultant and selected by the council last fall came from somewhere else.

Finally, we need a person with the skills and talents of a mayor, not a manager. A leader, not an administrator. A communicator, not a bureaucrat. Six vice presidents can handle the budget, parks, health clubs, and swimming pools.

What the community needs is someone to lead -- to reach out to the disaffected, mobilize constituencies, advocate and explain policies and solutions, inspire a renewed sense of common purpose and pull this town together.

We have people here who abundantly meet these requirements. To name three excellent possibilities: Maggie J. Brown, the interim CA president; Pamela Mack, a former CA vice president; and Andy Barth, the well-known and accessible WMAR newsman, an active longtime Columbia resident who, surprisingly, may be the best choice because of his ability to communicate with people.

The Columbia Council could promptly pick one of them as the new CA president. Then when the council members are swept from office in April's elections, at least they could go out with their heads finally held high.

Tim Baker, a former U.S. attorney and a writer, has lived in Columbia since 1969.

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