Deborah O. McCarty's resignation as Columbia Association president after a 20-month tenure has left residents and officials looking ahead to how her successor might be chosen and back to what went wrong in a community unaccustomed to such rancor.
The turmoil continued yesterday after McCartyagreed to step down as Columbia's equivalent of a mayor in exchange for a severance package reaching $200,000.
A senior Columbia Council member and staunch McCarty supporter, Kenneth Puckett, announced his intention to resign from the board effective tomorrow, and another incumbent, Cecilia Januszkiewicz, also said she is considering stepping down.
As one of its first orders of business when it takes office tomorrow, the incoming council will likely take steps to name an interim president and establish criteria for a permanent successor.
The trouble in the normally complacent community seemed to stem from several factors: the 10-member council's indecision about whether it wanted its president to be a manager or a visionary; McCarty's failure to galvanize residents' support and answer questions about her commitment to the town; and, most recently, a series of public relations catastrophes, including attempts to censure her critics and a demand that the association's six vice presidents submit letters of resignation.
Two years ago, when the Columbia Association launched a nationwide search to replace Padraic M. Kennedy, who served as the group's only president for 26 years, debate emerged over whether the person should hold the title "president" and emulate Kennedy as a charismatic ambassador, or function at a nuts-and-bolts level as an executive director.
McCarty has said she received conflicting directives from the outgoing council about whether to follow that body or lead it.
Columbia Association is a homeowners group with a $50 million annual budget that provides services and operates recreational facilities for the unincorporated city's 87,000 residents. It is the closest thing Columbia has to a government.
"I think we have a very flawed system of governance and that that has produced much of the difficulty that we have," said former Columbia Council Chairwoman Norma Rose, a member of the search committee that selected McCarty as a finalist from about 100 applicants.
"I think the Columbia Association needs as an institution to be scrutinized, and there needs to be more clarity about what it is supposed to do and how it can be made accountable and to whom it's accountable."
Concerns about McCarty's tenure were raised last fall, when the committee establishing her performance goals asked her to be more visible, spending less time behind her desk and more in Columbia's 10 villages.
McCarty continued to keep a low profile, maintaining ties to her hometown of Atlanta, where she had served on the city council and was recreation and parks director. The Sun reported in February that, for more than 18 months, McCarty had not obtained a Maryland driver's license or vehicle registration tags, or registered locally to vote.
Last month, a proposal to censure two of her council critics shook the community.
"Not to be flippant, but the last time I looked we do have a Constitution," Pamila Brown, chairwoman of the Hickory Ridge Village Board, told the council at the time, in support of freedom of speech.
Soon afterward, a joint decision by McCarty and the council to demand resignation letters from six members of the association's senior staff, in part over questions of loyalty, prompted a chorus of calls for the president's resignation.
Three council members voted to dismiss her.
By the time of McCarty's annual performance evaluation early this month, her previously consistent 7-3 support on the council had eroded. She urged board members to award her a substantial raise, possibly bringing her salary to $200,000, as well as a bonus, but was given neither. Then, in village elections April 15, four new council members critical of her leadership were elected, tilting the board's balance in favor of her detractors.
One of the winning challengers, Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge, said he benefited from higher-than-usual turnout from voters who wanted to "throw the bums out."
Over the past two weeks, council supporters tried to work out an agreement behind the scenes for McCarty's departure before the board's changing of the guard.
Type of search
Incoming council members were considering yesterday what type of person should replace the president -- and whether the search should be conducted nationally or closer to home.
"If we can find somebody that knows what Columbia's about, has lived here, who's qualified, I think that would be great," said Lanny Morrison, who will represent Harper's Choice village on the new council. "If we have to go outside to find somebody, I think we can go outside to find somebody -- if they're interested in learning what it's all about and have the right characteristics."
Chick Rhodehamel, the association's vice president for open space management, will serve as acting president when McCarty's resignation becomes effective Wednesday.
Morrison, who appears to have at least five of the six votes he would need to become council chairman, said a president should have proven leadership ability, the management skills to run a corporation and the capacity to "meet and greet" members of the community.
Morrison proposed a search committee composed of a cross-section of residents -- but excluding anyone who sits on the Columbia Council. The previous search committee consisted of three council members and three residents.
McCarty shares thoughts
Like Rose, McCarty has said the controversy that led to her departure is rooted in structural governance problems and a "resistance to change." She has maintained that several council members were motivated by personal agendas to drive her from office.
"I feel very sad because of the missed opportunity," McCarty said in an interview yesterday. "All of the controversy was so unfortunate and so unnecessary. I hope Columbia can move forward."
Puckett, who has one year left on his two-year term, sent out a stinging resignation letter yesterday directed at the president's critics -- and his own constituents in Dorsey's Search.
He said that his views of what is "right and honorable diverge so dramatically from those expressed by the residents of Dorsey's Search, and indeed, by a majority of the residents in all of the Villages, that continuing to represent them will only make me ashamed of myself, as I am already ashamed of them.
"In April we witnessed democracy in action," wrote Puckett. "The people spoke, and I must abide by their decision. I do not have to respect their decision and I do not. I do not have to respect the people, and I do not."
He criticized incumbents who have "unceasingly attacked the President and used any means, however dishonorable, to bring her down." He also said he does not respect -- and refuses to serve with -- any of the newly elected members.
Puckett became the target of intense criticism after his proposed motions to censure two board members who had raised questions about McCarty's leadership and some of her business expenses.
Januszkiewicz said she has not decided whether she will serve out the final year of her term. She is facing the possibility of a recall election in Long Reach.
"If I were to make any determination that it were time for me to leave, it would in essence be unrelated to Debby's departure," she said. "It has been an extraordinarily difficult and draining three months. I think that those considerations are, do I have a viewpoint that can add or enhance the level of discussion in the community, and if I believe that not to be the case then I would say that it's time for me to go."
McCarty said she has not determined what she will do after she resigns.
"I have no specific plans yet, but I live in Columbia and I plan to be here for a while," she said. "I just want to take a breath and enjoy my family and then figure out what I want to do next."