President's Farewell

Maggie J. Brown Cheerfully Prepares To Conclude Her Eight Years As Head Of The Columbia Association

April 12, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Maggie J. Brown started her career at the Columbia Association 26 years ago as a salesperson, and as she prepares for the honors and relaxation coming her way as retirement approaches at the end of the month, that persona persists.

"I'm going to be out in Columbia having a great time, enjoying the open space, playing a little golf, swimming. Columbia's a wonderful place to live," she said, chuckling at the suggestion that she is still selling, even with one foot out the door.

For a few more weeks, she is still in charge of a $60 million-a-year operation serving a town of about 100,000 people, providing recreation services, open-space management and environmental stewardship over critical portions of the 40-year-old planned community.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in last Sunday's Howard County section misidentified the village where Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown resides. Brown, who is retiring at the end of the month, lives in Harper's Choice.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

In these past few weeks, the outgoing association president said she is working short days and, at 69, she is gleefully anticipating the celebration planned for Thursday evening. The Deanna Bogart Band will perform as county politicians, civic leaders and regular citizens are expected to gather.

"I look so forward to this," she said. "I'm going to do a little celebrating."

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former county executive, said she remembers Brown selling her own crafts around the growing town before either of them became involved in public life. Brown's tenure with the Columbia Association was interrupted by a stint of about five years working for county government under Bobo and successor Charles I. Ecker before returning to the association.

"I recommended her when she applied for this job," Bobo said. "She's certainly left a big mark on the community."

Tom O'Connor, chairman of the association board and the representative from Dorsey's Search, said Brown was just what the doctor ordered.

"I think she's done a wonderful job," he said, noting that she began as a volunteer and "epitomizes the lifestyle of volunteers in Howard County." As president of the association, he said, she stabilized the organization.

Along the way, Brown has had her detractors too. Joel Yesley, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens watchdog group, said Brown was not tough enough as a manager.

"She's been an effective cheerleader, but I think you could expect more from a president of an organization," he said. "She indulged [staff] people."

Yesley is especially critical of the association's new $1 million-plus Customer Service System software program that Brown said she is very proud of. Sending association staffers to India to help craft the program was a waste of money, Yesley said.

But association spokesman Steven Sattler, who has a background in programming and worked on that project, disagrees.

"We believe it was a wise investment of time, effort and money to create a very detailed, functional specification document that is the blueprint for designing and launching this software," he said.

Alex Hekimian, an association board member from Oakland Mills who once headed ABC, found more of a middle ground in his assessment of Brown's tenure.

"We've had our differences over policy. However, she's a person who has brought her talents and skills to the position," he said. "I think she was probably the right person to come into the presidency."

Known for her cheery demeanor, trademark big hair and eye-catching Columbia Association floats in Fourth of July parades, Brown and her husband, Nesbitt, have no plans for major life changes.

"We are not moving. We are not leaving Celestial Way," she said of their home in the Longfellow portion of Wilde Lake village.

Brown's eight years as the association's top officer was an unexpected end to her career, she said. Brown was chosen in 2001 to bring peace and order after the tumultuous term of Deborah McCarty ended after less than two years, and the initial attempt to replace her dissolved after new rounds of contention.

Since her final two-year contract extension in 2007, Brown said that she's been slowly clearing things out of her office. She leaves earning a $197,000 annual salary, plus a $29,000 bonus. No salary has been revealed for Phil Nelson, her replacement, but bonuses were cut from 15 percent to 7.5 percent for his first term.

Brown said she is emotionally prepared for the change as Nelson prepares to take over the job May 1.

"What helped is I went through the whole interview process. I'm ready to leave," Brown said, adding that she does not plan an overlap period during which she would help ease Nelson into the job.

"It's time for me to move on and for him to take the position," Brown said. The staff is well-prepared and will help Nelson meet everyone he needs to, she said. There will also be a large Citizens Advisory Committee to help.

Reflecting back, Brown said her best moment at the Columbia Association came not with her selection as president, she said, but many years before, when she met Columbia's founder, James W. Rouse.

"I'm most proud of the fact that when I first came to Columbia I met Jim Rouse, and he taught me that it's not bricks and mortar but that sense of sharing and caring about people that's most important."

Her greatest disappointment? She declined to name one. "I cannot dwell on low points," she said with a laugh. "I call them opportunities."

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