The two candidates for the Hickory Ridge seat on the Columbia Council squared off in public for the first time last night, touching on issues from how to make council business more open to whether they support embattled Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty.
Elections in Hickory Ridge will be held April 15. Interest is higher than usual because of questions raised about McCarty's leadership and commitment as well as support for demanding resignation letters from her vice presidents.
Incumbent Jean S. Friedberg Jr. said he has made a "substantial difference" during his three years on the council and noted his experience in the "corporate world."
Friedberg noted several times his call for resignation letters from the association's six vice presidents, saying the timing was "unfortunate" but that it was "unavoidable."
Said Friedberg: "I make no apologies for it."
Friedberg's challenger, longtime village board member Miles Coffman, said he would work to "stabilize" the controversy within the association. He said no more vice presidents should be dismissed, at least until after the elections.
The comments came during a two-hour forum at Hawthorn Center. Four candidates running for the five seats on the village board also attended.
Friedberg said two main issues facing the 10-member Columbia Council are the proposed annexation of the Key property in North Laurel and "middle class flight" from Columbia. The latter, he said, will have a "major impact" on property values and the "perception of Columbia."
Coffman focused on better communication between the council and village board, and education. He said the association could do more for education, such as adopting schools and expanding its before- and after-school programs.
Friedberg outlined his accomplishments, including sponsoring a study that resulted in dozens of internal reforms; changing the way the council spends money on capital projects, including the Columbia Gym; and helping plant the seeds for the Columbia Association Web site, which was recently redesigned. He said: "This is the way I work. I get a lot of things done behind the scenes."
Hickory Ridge Village Board Chairwoman Pamila Brown said McCarty, who has returned from a two-month leave, has scheduled informal question-and-answer sessions at association headquarters for Saturday and Sunday. Friedberg said McCarty hasn't spoken publicly before now because the council advised her not to. Asked why, he said, "Some of us thought it wasn't worth the time and energy."
Coffman said the council holds too many closed-door meetings. He criticized a recent proposal to censure two members who were critical of McCarty, saying, "You've got to open the process up."
Friedberg declined to say whether he would support giving the president a raise or bonus when the council meets Thursday on that. He described McCarty's strengths as keeping the council informed; showing a "commitment to quality"; and effectively handling sensitive and "potentially embarrassing" situations.
Friedberg said he hopes McCarty will be able to show residents and village officials the "tremendous personal skills and charisma that I think she has."
On the issue of term lengths, Friedberg said he supports two-year terms. Some villages, including Hickory Ridge, hold council elections every year; others do so every two years.
Coffman said it would be difficult to change the village bylaws to require two-year terms and called one-year terms "doable."
In addition to Hickory Ridge, three villages -- Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills and Town Center -- have contested elections this year. Voting times and requirements vary by village.