Calif. man seeks post Ex-resident is among four finalists to head Columbia Association; 26-year president leaving; Consultant co-wrote book, 'Reinventing Government'


Ted A. Gaebler, co-author of the book "Reinventing Government," which has influenced politicians from President Clinton on down, is a finalist for the job that would essentially make him mayor of Columbia.

Gaebler, 57, of San Rafael, Calif., is one of four candidates for the $120,000 position as president of the Columbia Association (CA), which oversees a $44 million budget and 800 employees.

If he gets the job, Gaebler would return to the planned community where he began his career in urban governance almost three decades ago.

In 1992, Gaebler and David Osborne of Essex, Mass., published their nationally known book. Subtitled "How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector," it is viewed by many as a guide to transforming bureaucracies into more businesslike operations.

Gaebler was in Columbia on Thursday night to be interviewed behind closed doors by the 10-member Columbia Council, an elected body which hires the president. He didn't return repeated telephone calls to his hotel room, residence and business.

Joseph Merke, chairman of the council's presidential search committee, refused to comment on the interviewees. The names of the other finalists -- there were 175 inquiries -- could not be learned.

The council's choice will replace Padraic M. Kennedy, 64, who will retire in August after 26 years. The council plans to select a new president by the middle of this month.

Gaebler's ties to Columbia date to 1970, three years after James W. Rouse's planned community began, when he arrived after graduation from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School business. For three years, he lived in Wilde Lake, the first village, and became an assistant to the CA manager. He left when Kennedy became CA's first president.

Gaebler went on to serve in five city governments, including stints as city manager of Visalia, Calif., for seven years and as city manager of San Rafael. He is president of the Gaebler Group, a management consulting firm.

During his career, he has often mentioned his time in Columbia.

"We would be wailing and gnashing our teeth about some horrible social problem," he has been quoted as saying, "and Jim Rouse would come in and muse philosophically -- 'How can I profit from this problem?' "

Osborne said Gaebler learned much of his entrepreneur-type leadership from Rouse.

"His first job out of Wharton was working for James Rouse," Osborne said. "It had huge influence on him. He's always had a warm spot in his heart for Columbia."

Former Visalia city councilman Greg Collins described Gaebler as "an entrepreneur who streamlined the city's budget."

Collins said that during Gaebler's tenure, he became best known for treating each city department as a business that was responsible for generating enough revenue to cover its costs.

"He tries to involve people in the decision-making process and encourages them to think like entrepreneurs," said Collins, a planning consultant in California.

CA is considered as close as the unincorporated community has to a government. It does not deal with such things as police and fire protection and roads -- all county and state concerns -- but oversees everything from tot lots and swimming pools to enforcement of neighborhood covenants and operation of summer day camps.

Some longtime Columbians say that under Kennedy's guidance Columbia has developed its own quirks and ideals as it pursues Rouse's vision of an interracial, affordable and intellectual community. Hiring someone familiar with the concept from its early days appeals to some longtime residents.

"[Gaebler] sounds perfectly reasonable," said Helen Ruther, a resident for 30 years. "He's got to have a feel for how unique of a community this is."

In the 25 years after Gaebler left, Columbia has grown to a community of 90,000 people. CA is the country's second largest homeowners association.

"In principle, it's a great idea to bring someone back who knows the town," said Zeke Orlinsky, a retired publisher who served on the town's first council. "But things have changed.

"You need a two-headed guy who understands that first, CA is a business, and that second, there is real meaning and value behind it."

In "Reinventing Government," authors Gaebler and Osborne criticize governments and their bureaucracies as bloated, wasteful and ineffective. "Steering rather than rowing" is a popular phrase that emerged from the book's examination of the ways state and federal leaders dealt with increasing taxes and providing service in the 1980s.

While Washington leaders borrowed money when fiscal crisis hit, state leaders brought together community groups and private foundations to provide such services as low-income housing.

The endorsement of Clinton, governor of Arkansas when the book was published, appears on the jacket. He calls the book a "blueprint" for revitalizing government.

Pub Date: 6/06/98

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