Columbia Association president Nelson’s first year

Former Michigan city manager tames famously fractious town

April 23, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Upheaval and uncertainty greeted Phillip Lynn Nelson's arrival one year ago as the Columbia Association's new president, but despite disputes over downtown and village center renewal, a new governing board and a raging recession, he's still cool, calm and collected.

The big, quiet, 60-year-old Midwesterner with the soft voice and self-deprecating sense of humor has seemingly tamed the famously fractious denizens of Howard County's planned town and is set to begin his second year accompanied by a solid chorus of support.

"He is a person who thinks before he speaks. When he speaks, the board listens," said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown, perhaps the board's biggest fan of the late CA president Maggie Brown, the fun-loving extrovert who ran the organization for most of the past decade. "He is no social butterfly," like Brown, Atkinson-Stewart said, but the 6-foot-5-inch, 275-pound Nelson's quiet, friendly manner is helpful.

Atkinson-Stewart is leaving the CA board after two decades, having witnessed arguments over everything from the CA office building's front doorbell to the future of Symphony Woods.

Nelson is "effective," she said, and has also won the support of the giant homeowners association staff. "He's done pretty good."

That kind of reaction is common among the 10 CA board members, but it's no miracle, Nelson said. It is instead, he said, the product of 15-hour workdays and more than three decades of experience in municipal government rather than any unusual qualities of his own.

"It's part of my nature. I like to listen a lot more than I like to talk," he said, joking about his personality as part of his Norwegian heritage. He keeps a notepad handy, and writes down things people say and do that give clues to where they want to go. When the time is right, he offers a suggestion. His goal was to learn the organization from the ground up, he said, not try to impose some preconceived new structure. "That backfires," he said he's learned over the years.

Coming from Troy, Mich., where he was city manager, to a completely new region, town and organization can be daunting, but Town Center board representative Suzanne Waller said Nelson has done well with the adjustment to his new $200,000 job.

"He had a lot to learn about Columbia and CA, and his learning curve has been terrific," she said. "I have total trust in him," she added — a sentiment shared by Russell Swatek of Long Reach.

"Everything's not perfect, but in one year, you can't turn the Queen Mary around," said Oakland Mills' Alex Hekimian, though he, too, feels Nelson's made a good start.

Even association critics such as Joel Yesley, who heads the often-contentious watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, said that Nelson has done "some positive things," though not everything his group would like. "He is an improvement, definitely," Yesley said.

"What he does is extremely valuable," said Cynthia Coyle, Harper's Choice's representative on the board. For example, she said, he helped encourage all the board members to attend each of the various three-member board committee meetings and participate. That created a more uniformly informed membership ready to vote on important issues instead of argue about them.

"Every committee meeting is a board meeting. It works great," Coyle said. "We felt like we could step back."

Greg Schwind of Hickory Ridge said, "He's shown a real desire to deal with the villages," making them feel included in CA's thinking.

"He's exactly the right person at the right time," said Shari Zaret, a new board member from King's Contrivance.

Nelson has also worked to help the board achieve the status of policymakers rather than micro-managers by prioritizing capital projects in three tiers, putting top board priorities such as the Symphony Woods project in the top tier and small, everyday improvements at the bottom. That, and the reorganization of the staff into a series of five teams with equal status rather than top-down bureaucracies has given board members confidence that they don't have to personally check everything themselves.

"He's emphasized strategic issues and strategic thinking," said board chairman Philip Kirsch of Wilde Lake. "I do like his style." The staff reorganization has changed some decades-old positions.

Charles "Chic" Rodehamel, for instance, who has headed CA's Open Space department for more than 20 years, now runs the Community Development and Sustainability Service Bureau, which involves the new watershed management program, CA's environmental efforts, the capital budget and government relations. Rob Goldman, who competed for the president's job, is now acting chief operations officer, overseeing open space, sports and fitness, community services and facilities maintenance. Other bureaus are Financial Services, Communications and Marketing, and Team and Organizational Development.

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