Strong words mark forum on CA search

Presidential-hunt delay urged until council elections

Racism charges discussed

Some residents renew call for a local candidate

January 24, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

At a public forum marked by angry exchanges, one Columbia Council member called last night for postponing the search for a new Columbia Association president, and another said it should be called off altogether.

Black clergy and community leaders invited the council and the public to St. John Baptist Church to talk about alleged racism in the search for a new Columbia Association president. About 55 residents and seven of the council's 10 members attended.

The Rev. Robert A.F. Turner, pastor of the church and president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, called the meeting after the council's attempt to hire a president collapsed this month amid charges of racism.

The Columbia Council is trying to hire a president to oversee the Columbia Association, which provides recreational amenities and maintains local housing standards for the town of 87,000. The position has been vacant since Deborah O. McCarty resigned her $130,000 post under pressure in May.

While many hoped the meeting would promote healing, the two-hour session featured some of the most pointed public exchanges yet between two council members, Pearl Atkinson Stewart of Owen Brown and Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach. They disagreed over some of the particulars of the previous presidential search, which resulted in McCarty's hiring in July 1998.

Questions about that search came up because the man who lost out to McCarty, Michael D. Letcher, reapplied for the job and was a finalist in the most recent search. Some of his supporters said he lost out to McCarty because he is black, and they made similar charges about the most recent search, in which the other two finalists -- Gregory C. Fehrenbach and Theodore J. Staton -- are white.

The search began to unravel Jan. 4, when Staton dropped out. He gave several reasons, including his concern that racial politics would taint the selection. Letcher, city manager of Sedona, Ariz., withdrew Jan. 10, saying some council members opposed him because he is black.

After the council deadlocked between Letcher and Fehrenbach at a Jan. 8 meeting, Councilman Robert Conors of Dorsey's Search worked behind the scenes to try to break the impasse. Conors and two other Fehrenbach supporters were willing to switch to Letcher, on condition that structural changes be made to the presidential post. But Letcher withdrew the day before the council was to vote again.

The council decided to launch a new national search rather than hire Fehrenbach, since he did not have the backing of a majority of the board.

At last night's meeting, Stewart suggested that the council wait until after April elections to hire a new president. Seven of the council's 10 members are up for re-election. Januszkiewicz went one step further, saying the council should call off the search and name its interim president to the post.

Maggie J. Brown, the Columbia Association's vice president for community services, is interim president of the homeowners group.

"Too bad this isn't an official meeting," quipped council Chairman Lanny Morrison.

Some residents renewed calls to hire someone local, who they say would better understand the planned community that developer James W. Rouse founded in 1967 on ideals of racial harmony.

"We have within this community -- this community -- the brainpower, the intellect, the courage, the vision ... to bring forth a president for the Columbia Association for the next millennium," said John Wesley of Oakland Mills, a resident since 1973.

Among the Columbia residents who applied last fall and who plan to seek the job again is Andy Barth, a veteran reporter for WMAR-TV. Barth, who has lived in Columbia since 1971, attended last night's meeting but did not address the group.

Fehrenbach, administrator for the township of Piscataway, N.J., said this week that he had not decided whether to reapply.

Meanwhile, Staton said this week that he would be staying in his job as city manager of East Lansing, Mich. He was a finalist for a similar position in Shaker Heights, Ohio, while he was in the running for the Columbia job.

Staton decided to stay in the college town after its city council gave him a seven-year contract extension and raised his salary from $123,000 to $136,000 a year.

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