The Columbia Association bade farewell yesterday to Deborah O. McCarty much the way it welcomed her about 20 months ago: quietly.
The association president, who after months of debate over her leadership and performance agreed last week to resign for $200,000 in severance, spent her final day as Columbia's equivalent of a mayor saying goodbye to employees, tending to last-minute details and preparing instructions for those who will temporarily take over.
McCarty, who yesterday called the recent conflict "regrettable," had packed her spare second-floor office overlooking the Town Center lakefront. No formal send-off was held, only a few posed photographs with association staff.
"It's with a great deal of sadness that the dream of what Columbia could become has not yet been realized," she said in an interview.
"There can always be improvements," she said, reflecting on her tenure. "I think what I regret the most is that I didn't have more time to spend early on in the community."
McCarty named Chick Rhodehamel, the association's vice president for open space, acting president. The 10-member Columbia Council, which began its new session Monday, is likely to name an interim president, then set out to hire a permanent replacement.
"It's clearly time for the community to come together and to really start focusing on the future both of the Columbia Association and Columbia, because it's so positive and the Columbia Association is in a position to do such great things," said Padraic M. Kennedy, McCarty's predecessor, who served for 26 years as the association's only other president.
McCarty's departure ends a tumultuous three-month period during which the former recreation and parks director in Atlanta faced questions about her commitment -- she maintained close ties to that city -- and the strength of her leadership at a time when Columbia faces many problems associated with growing older.
Two council members critical of her became the target of proposed censure motions, and the association's six vice presidents were ordered to submit resignation letters. Last month, residents came out in larger numbers than ever to vote in village elections, ousting three incumbents and tilting the balance of the board in favor of the president's critics.
Within a day of McCarty's decision to step down, a senior Columbia Council member who had supported her announced his resignation from the board.
In August 1998, more focus seemed to be on Kennedy's departure than McCarty's arrival.
In an interview with The Sun about six weeks after starting her job, McCarty described herself as more of a manager than a visionary, calling herself a "Post-It person" because of the yellow stickies all over her desk.
At the time, McCarty said she saw Columbia as having become the "city of James Rouse's dream," but stressed that it had reached a crossroads. And it had: The homeowners group, which provides many services and operates recreational facilities for the city's 87,000 residents with a $50 million budget, had never had a president of its own choosing.
Among her goals were to re-evaluate the relationship between Columbia Association and the community's 10 independent villages -- a relationship that remains shaky -- and to reinvest in the city's older facilities.
After a year spent largely behind her desk, McCarty indicated a desire to become more visible in the community. The shift in roles occurred in part at the recommendation of the Management Appraisal Committee, the four-member panel in charge of setting her performance goals, and in part, McCarty said, because she wanted to branch out.
"Part of what I'm trying to do more of -- and looking forward to doing more of -- is the external role," she told The Sun in October. "I think it's just an evolution, it's sort of a natural next step."
Yesterday, McCarty urged Columbia to move ahead and work to fix what she sees as fundamental flaws with the city's governing structure. She stressed the importance of a transition plan, and advised those who will hire her replacement: "Wait until the structural problems are addressed before bringing someone in."
Council members expressed this week a similar desire to look to the future.
"I hope that for the sake of the community and the council that we all do put this behind us, because we have very difficult issues to deal with," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, the council representative from Long Reach village.
Lanny Morrison, the newly elected representative from Harper's Choice who is running for council chairman, believes the board should be deliberate in its decision-making.
"I don't think we should feel pressured to rush in and go out and hire somebody in two weeks, for example," he said.