In a town where planning is everything, where neighbors run into each other not by chance but by design, the search for someone to run Columbia wasn't handled willy-nilly.
For months, Columbia Council members haggled over the details of hiring a new Columbia Association president. Which area movers-and-shakers would show the new president around? Which council members would take the candidates to lunch? They hired a consultant, launched a $35,000 national search and scheduled two rounds of interviews.
But instead of proceeding according to the script, the search played out more like reality TV, with two of the three finalists voting themselves off the island. Only in this drama, the survivor didn't win either. The council voted against hiring the only candidate who still wanted the job after charges of racism and rancorous council politics scared off the others last month.
The process took another hairpin turn last week, when council members suddenly found themselves weighing two surprise options: hiring a candidate who had withdrawn with a threat to sue or choosing a woman they had never interviewed.
They went the latter route, picking Maggie J. Brown, a longtime resident and Columbia Association employee, for the $125,000- a-year job.
Council members are taking pride in their decision to hire Brown, vice president of CA's community services division since 1993. It makes for a sensible and soothing landing, they say, after an unexpectedly bumpy ride.
"We did agree," said Councilman Vincent Marando of Wilde Lake, trumpeting no small feat for a group that has opened its last two meetings with fierce debate over what should be a formality - accepting the agenda.
The search's sudden collapse last month, and its no less sudden conclusion last week, are products of a council torn by animosity but also united by a common goal: creating a more perfect Columbia.
With hopes high for harmony, disappointment was especially sharp when the search for someone to head the huge homeowners association - which provides recreational and other amenities to the town of 87,000 - collapsed.
The process began to unravel in December, before the council even identified its three finalists. The name of one candidate - Michael D. Letcher, city manager of Sedona, Ariz. - surfaced in the press. Council members accused each other of leaking his name, either to help or to hurt his chances.
It's possible that no one on the council was to blame. It turns out that Letcher tipped off a local reporter when he called the newspaper looking for articles on the last president, Deborah O. McCarty, who left under pressure in May.
But Letcher's phone call didn't become public knowledge until weeks later, in a context that only added fuel to what by then was a raging council fire.
His candidacy reopened wounds from McCarty's ouster because he had been runner-up when she got the job in July 1998. For council members on both sides of the McCarty battle, Letcher wasn't just a candidate - he was a way of proving or disproving McCarty had been a mistake from the start.
His candidacy also stirred up charges of racism. When Letcher lost out to McCarty, the African American Coalition of Howard County said that was because he is black and she is white. The coalition repeated those allegations when his name surfaced in December, a move some council members perceived, and resented, as pressure to hire him this time around.
The other two finalists - Theodore J. Staton, city manager of East Lansing, Mich., and Gregory C. Fehrenbach, administrator for Piscataway, N.J., - are white.
After the first round of interviews in December, at least five of the 10 council members favored Staton. But in early January, days before second interviews and a public candidates forum, Staton unexpectedly dropped out. He gave several reasons, including a concern that the racism charges would pervert the process.
On Jan. 8, the council met behind closed doors to choose between Letcher and Fehrenbach. The meeting opened with two bombshells and closed with the panel deadlocked.
Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills dropped the first bomb, relating a story that she said raised questions about Letcher's truthfulness.
Months earlier, she said, a Columbia Flier reporter had told her that Letcher phoned seeking back issues of the paper. He told the reporter that he was reapplying for the president's job and that Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson Stewart of Owen Brown had suggested he read up on the McCarty mess, Russell said. In the first round of interviews, Russell pointed out, Letcher said he had not communicated with any council members outside the interview process. Stewart also said she had had no such contact, and Chairman Lanny Morrison accused Russell of trying sabotage Letcher's candidacy.