After 14 months of working behind the scenes to improve the way the Columbia Association operates, President Deborah O. McCarty will increase the time she spends in the public arena as the city's "ambassador."
The shift comes in part at the recommendation of the Management Appraisal Committee, a four-member panel of the Columbia Council evaluating her performance, and in part because McCarty thinks it is time to branch out.
She plans to start attending more community meetings, accepting more speaking engagements and trying to become a more recognizable presence in the city of 87,000.
"Part of what I'm trying to do more of -- and looking forward to doing more of -- is the external role," said McCarty, who took over the post from Padraic M. Kennedy in August 1998. "I think it's just an evolution, it's sort of a natural next step."
McCarty insists there is a consensus about what her role should be, but the council has yet to endorse the appraisal committee's s recommendations, which could be presented in executive session as early as Nov. 11.
Earl Jones, the freshman council representative from Oakland Mills, called the president's role "vague and unsettled," and Cecilia Januszkiewicz, the representative from Long Reach, said there has been no "closure" on the discussions.
"There was some disagreement about the emphasis on one or another of the aspects of Debby's job. It's hard to serve 10 different masters," said Januszkiewicz. "I think there are some people who think [ambassador] is really what the role should be. I'm not sure that I completely agree with them."
Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, chairwoman of the Management Appraisal Committee and vice chairwoman of the council, called the president's role a "balancing act."
"We're struggling with this right now, as to how do you put a percentage on these things, that any one is any less than another," she said. "Finances is very important. Marketing is very impor- tant. Day-to-day management is very important. We haven't decided how to put specific weights at this point"
So far, McCarty, a former Atlanta city councilwoman who also served as that city's recreation and parks director, has focused most of her time on trying to streamline the Columbia Association's internal operations, including the budget process, and improve the organization's financial health.
Under her tenure, the association created two crucial positions: purchasing manager and human resources manager. In addition, the association's bond rating was upgraded by two New York agencies, including Moody's Investors Service, prompting McCarty to describe the Columbia Association as being in the "best financial health ever."
"I think it was very important for the first year to look internally and make the improvements that the board [of directors] wanted to see," she said. "It's totally been a year of internal-operations focus."
McCarty met with members of the appraisal committee after the new council session began May 1 to talk about her role and set performance goals.
"I think you'll see more of Debby coming out in the coming year to be more of a real presence in the general area," said Joseph Merke of Town Center, the council chairman and a member of the appraisal committee.
"Although managing is very much a part of her job, I don't think she will stay just at that point either. It's been a question in her mind whether that's what the council wanted. She brought the question to us, and the answer was, 'Yes, we think you need to be out in the community.' "
In an interview with The Sun several weeks after McCarty started the job, the Texas native described her role as that of manager, or chief executive officer, of a company rather than mayor of a city.
"I see my role as implementing the policies established by the Columbia Council," she said.
From August 1998 through June, McCarty averaged seven public appearances and community meetings -- with residents, county officials or village leaders -- a month.
Otherwise, she has kept a low profile: She rarely speaks at council meetings and tends to take a back seat on policy issues, deferring, at least publicly, to council members.
Unfair comparison, some say
Some members say it's unfair to compare McCarty and Kennedy, the Columbia Association's only other president, who was hand-picked for the job by the Rouse Co.
"You can't expect somebody who has just come to the community to have the same role as somebody who has been here since its inception," said Januszkiewicz.
Jones said he thinks it is the job of the president, along with the 10-member council, to set the agenda and define the main goals. Six months into the session, he questions whether that has been done.
"It seems to me that we should have by now determined clearly and precisely what our goals are for the year," he said.
The current session has marked a return to basics. The 10-member council, which has four new members, has been working for months at the committee level to clarify its own responsibilities, particularly in relation to the 10 villages, which are independent corporations.
Similarly, council members have been asked to answer a series of introspective questions before the next "strategic issues" session next week, including: "What aspects of the president's role are still unclear to you?" and "Who is responsible for defining the roles of the council, the board and the president?"
Jean S. Friedberg Jr., the council member from Hickory Ridge, praised McCarty's work as a representative of the Columbia Association and the community.
"I think she's established a strong relationship with other institutional leaders in Howard County, and she's also made numerous other powerful improvements in the way we operate internally.
"I have a sense that we find out about issues sooner than we used to and that there's a greater climate for open discussion of the issues," he said.
McCarty, a new member of the county's tourism council, called her increased interaction with the public the "icing" on the cake. Even so, she has no plans to stray from her managerial role as the association's chief executive officer.
"What always has to come first with me is the financial and operational health of the organization, because we're entrusted as stewards with public money," she said.