Deal apparently near for McCarty to depart; Columbia group's president could get $200,000 severance; Details being worked out


Deborah O. McCarty was close to a deal last night that would end her contentious 20-month tenure as president of the Columbia Association in return for a severance package that could reach $200,000.

Final details of her departure were being worked out late last night as she huddled in her office with Columbia Council Chairman Joseph Merke, crafting a statement to announce her expected resignation.

The association president, who functions as Columbia's equivalent of a mayor, has faced questions for months about her leadership and commitment -- she continues to have strong ties to her hometown of Atlanta -- and was strongly criticized over a recent demand that her six vice presidents submit letters of resignation.

Village elections held this month were largely seen as a referendum on McCarty. Two of her supporters were overwhelmingly defeated, and the balance of the 10-member council tilted in favor of her critics.

Yesterday's development came as the new council -- which likely would have been less sympathetic to McCarty -- is ready to take office Monday. It was unclear whether an interim president would be named, and who that might be. Chick Rhodehamel, the association vice president for open space management, has served as acting president during McCarty's absences.

The Columbia Council, which serves as the association's governing board, has been bitterly divided since mid-February over McCarty's performance, with three critics consistently voting in the minority. The earliest indication that her support was slipping came during her formal evaluation this month, when the board voted 9-1 against increasing her $130,000 salary, and 6-4 against awarding her a $5,000 bonus.

"I was proud that my fellow council representatives compromised their initial positions to come up with this agreement and to formulate this package," said Forno, who was defeated in his campaign for a second term representing Harper's Choice village. "I'm just sorry that it had to come to this. I'm sorry that it got so personal and so bitter that it had to come to the resignation of the president."

The foundation of the agreement was laid in a closed-door board meeting Thursday that spilled into the early hours yesterday. McCarty did not attend.

Two council members, Earl Jones of Oakland Mills and Adam Rich of River Hill, acted as intermediaries, shuttling between the board meeting and McCarty's office on the second floor.

No one commented on the negotiations after the meeting broke up shortly before 2 a.m.

Merke had been trying unsuccessfully behind the scenes to patch together support for an agreement with McCarty before the council's changing of the guard Monday, when the new fiscal year begins. Twice in the past 10 days, Merke had called an executive session to discuss the issue and then hastily canceled it.

The letter of agreement outlining McCarty's terms of employment provides for six months of severance, or $65,000, if she is fired without cause. The board of directors can remove her by a two-thirds majority.

The buyout, or severance, package being worked out over the past 24 hours was expected to be as high as $200,000, sources familiar with the situation said.

McCarty is only the second president of the association, the homeowners group that provides services and operates recreational facilities for the city's 87,000 residents.

The former Atlanta councilwoman succeeded Padraic M. Kennedy in 1998.

McCarty, who maintained close personal and professional ties to Atlanta during her time in Columbia, has said that the recent contention stems from structural governance issues and a "resistance to change."

A motion to dismiss her introduced by Jones last month was defeated 7-3. Joining Jones in supporting her ouster were Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown, the council vice chairwoman, and Kirk Halpin, a freshman member representing Kings Contrivance.

The incoming council includes four new members who have been critical, to varying degees, of McCarty's leadership. Merke's replacement as council chairman appears likely to be Lanny Morrison, the representative-elect in Harper's Choice, who had called for McCarty to step down.

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