Board denies bias in hiring Council says race not a factor in choice of CA president; Her experience 'unmatched'; Some blacks complain leaders should reflect diversity of Howard


Members of the Columbia Council vehemently denied yesterday that race was a factor in their choice of an Atlanta woman as the new president of the Columbia Association.

When the selection of Deborah O. McCarty, 45, a white woman who is parks and recreation director for Atlanta, was announced this week, some African-American county leaders complained because the job did not go to Michael Letcher, 44, a black man who is city manager of Sedona, Ariz.

"We had a number of strong, good candidates," said Jean Friedberg, a council member from Columbia's Hickory Ridge village. "The feeling of the council and the straw votes put them all close to each other, but it became clear that Debby was the pick. Race was not an element. We were out there to find the best candidate and make a deal with that person."

But the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said his concern is that Letcher made it as far as he did in the selection process without getting the job.

"They [the Columbia Council] said they weren't looking at gender, ethnicity or race, but at competency. We feel competence is important, but diversity is as well," he said yesterday. "We want the leadership in Howard County to reflect the population it governs."

Letcher, McCarty, Ted Gaebler, co-author of "Reinventing Government," and another candidate -- whom council members refused to name -- were the finalists for the $125,000-a-year position.

The 10-member council was choosing a replacement for Padraic M. Kennedy, the association's only president in its 26 years. As head of the CA, the planned community's quasi-government, Kennedy has been the closest Columbia has had to a mayor.

When Kennedy was hired by the Rouse Co., the CA was little more than a mom-and-pop operation. It has grown to overseeing $44 million budget and 800 employees for almost 90,000 residents.

"It was very difficult to choose the leader of the association, because we've never had to do this before," said Janet Haddad, a member of the selection committee. "Padraic Kennedy is the Columbia Association. He always has been."

'A unique beast'

During his tenure, Kennedy became known for his patrician charm. For many members of the council, his replacement had to be a visionary and an organized manager. Running the association -- which some council members and CA staffers jokingly call "a unique beast" -- is different from running most private entities or public agencies.

The association 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.

The CA paid the PAR Group of Chicago $14,000 to conduct a nationwide search to fill the spot. The ad for the job called for "someone who could walk on water," said Norma Rose, chairwoman of the council.

The PAR Group narrowed the field of 170 applicants to a little more than a dozen candidates for the search committee to consider. The committee selected seven candidates -- including Letcher, Gaebler, state Lottery Director Buddy Roogow and CA Vice President Rob Goldman -- to interview. A few days later, Rose said, McCarty's application arrived.

Some black leaders pointed to the lateness of McCarty's application as proof that the council was looking for an alternative to hiring Letcher. Rose denied that.

"Hers was the last application to come in," said Rose at a news conference Wednesday. "There was no deadline. We were open. She stood out."

Elected in 1977

McCarty represented a predominantly black district of 35,000 on the Atlanta City Council, winning four elections between 1977 and 1993, before she was appointed to the parks and recreation post.

She left that position to run for president of the Atlanta City Council last year and was reappointed to the position when she lost the election. Her decision to leave Atlanta came as she was awaiting a difficult confirmation by the City Council.

In an interview this week, McCarty laughed as she told how she found out about the CA job through a staff member who found the job announcement on the Internet.

"I told him, 'I'm not going anywhere.' I wasn't looking for a job at all, but he came in and said, 'Debby, you have to apply for this. You're perfect for it.' "

McCarty, Gaebler and another candidate were interviewed June The Columbia Council interviewed Letcher, who has 20 years of experience in city government management, June 15 because he said he was unavailable until then. Most of the council, however, already favored McCarty, but decided to interview all the finalists, Rose said.

"[Letcher] was second. [McCarty] was the first choice," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, a council member from Long Reach village. "Her experience was unmatched by any other candidate."

For five years, she's been running essentially the same kind of organization as CA, but in Atlanta."

McCarty, a graduate of Southwestern University in Texas and the law school of Georgia State University in Atlanta, entered politics in 1977, running for a City Council seat in what was to become 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 fTC parks and recreation commissioner in 1993.

McCarty's council experience made her attractive to many Columbia Council members, who said they believed she would understand the intricate relationship between the full-time president and the volunteer board.

"She's a visionary," Januszkiewicz said. "There's lots of good bureaucrats out there, but we need someone with leadership, vision and who can inspire others. McCarty does that."

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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