Choice of head irks blacks White woman named president of group that runs Columbia; 'Real sense of stewardship'; Choice of Atlantan defended against exclusion complaints

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in the Maryland section yesterday incorrectly stated that David Berson, a member of the Columbia Council, was on the college president selection committee. In fact, he was a member of the Columbia Association's presidential selection committee.

The Sun regrets the error.

As Deborah O. McCarty was introduced yesterday as Columbia's equivalent of a mayor, county African-American leaders complained that a highly qualified black male from Arizona was overlooked for the post.

Some leaders of the African American Coalition of Howard County say they are concerned that two prominent positions filled recently in the county -- the presidency of Howard Community College and now the presidency of the Columbia Association -- did not go to blacks.

"We lost the head of [HCC]. It went to a white," said Sherman Howell, vice president for policy research at the coalition, in a telephone interview. "Now, we lost the head of the CA to a white."

David Berson, a member of the elected Columbia Council that governs CA, defended the choice of McCarty, 45, parks and recreation commissioner for Atlanta, by the council at yesterday's news conference to announce her appointment.

"We choose race-blind, ethnically blind and gender-blind," said Berson, who was on the college president selection committee. "It happened to be a woman. We chose the person for who they were and what they could do, not who they represent."

After the announcement, Howell and other black leaders question why Michael Letcher, 44, city manager in Sedona, Ariz. -- who was the runner-up -- was not chosen.

"Columbia advertises itself as a model of racial openness and togetherness," Howell said. "We had a qualified black man who was not selected. It sends a strong message to the black community of Howard County that we just aren't prepared to put a black in a position of power in Columbia."

Committed to community

The Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, president of the coalition, said: "The frustrating thing is that the selection committee says the process is working because qualified African-American candidates are surfacing. We want to move from just identification. We want them to be selected."

McCarty represented a predominantly black district on the Atlanta City Council, winning four elections between 1977 and ,, 1993, before she was appointed to the parks post.

"If any of those people talked to people in my district, they would find that I was very committed to having a viable, racially integrated community," McCarty said in an interview yesterday.

"There was an incredible interest [in] what we -- black and white -- were able to do in my district," she said.

Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who reappointed McCarty commissioner of parks and recreation after her unsuccessful run for president of the City Council last year, defended her.

"When you looked at her, you didn't see black or white, you saw her competence," he said. "She's a consensus builder."

'Every opportunity'

Letcher, who has 20 years of experience in city government management, said he felt he had a good background for the Columbia post.

"I felt I was given every opportunity," he said yesterday. "My advice to them was that they needed to select the person whom they felt most comfortable with."

Controversy rarely visited the post of CA president during the 26-year term of McCarty's predecessor, Padraic M. Kennedy. Appointed by the Rouse Co., developers of the planned community, Kennedy took over in Columbia's early days.

More contention

As Columbia grew into a suburban city of 90,000, Kennedy's Columbia Association served as a benign source of recreation and community-building, the guardian of the vision of James W. Rouse of a multiracial, affordable and intellectual community.

Only in recent years -- amid charges of improper spending and purchasing practices and allegations of money misplaced by a village manager -- has the job grown more contentious.

McCarty entered politics in 1977, running for a City Council seat in what became an overwhelmingly black district. A 25-year-old theology student and former VISTA volunteer, she defeated an incumbent black Republican, staying on the council until her appointment as parks and recreation commissioner in 1993.

"I bring a real sense of stewardship for those basic concepts on which James Rouse founded Columbia -- diversity and community," she said. "Whatever else may be changing, those bedrock principles are as vital today as they were 30 years ago."

Awaiting confirmation

McCarty's decision to leave Atlanta came as she was awaiting confirmation by the Atlanta City Council.

Campbell reappointed her in April, amid threats to block the appointment from Council President Robb Pitts, who told the Atlanta Constitution that he didn't think McCarty was qualified to resume the post.

Councilman Jim Maddox, who heads the committee that screens administrative nominations, disagreed.

"She received a favorable recommendation from my committee," Maddox said. "I didn't hear anything negative about her at all."

Councilwoman Clair Muller said the real problem was between Pitts and Campbell.

"The mayor and Robb Pitts don't get along," Muller said. "Debby McCarty was caught up in this."

Pitts did not respond to a request for an interview.

McCarty said the $125,000-a-year CA post was an "extraordinary, unique professional opportunity" for her. She will head one of the largest homeowners associations in the country, overseeing a $44 million budget and 800 employees who take care of everything from the community's 23 pools to summer camps and open space.

Active volunteer

McCarty said her political career started from her activism as a neighborhood volunteer and eventually led to her running a parks department with a $27 million budget, 42 recreation centers and a summer camp program that serves about 15,000 children.

In her $103,000-a-year job at the parks department, McCarty is credited with boosting the recreation budget from $8 million to $11 million, keeping city pools and recreation centers open seven days a week and adding more summer youth programs.

A graduate of Southwestern University in Texas and the law school of Georgia State in Atlanta, McCarty said she will become the typical Columbia soccer mom, driving a minivan with her three boys -- ages 5, 2 and 7 months -- strapped in the back.

"In the 2 1/2 days I spent in Columbia, all the people we talked to had nothing but great things to say about this community," she said. "I want to participate in a community that is child-friendly."

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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