As if their learning curve alone is not enough, members of the new Columbia Council who took office last week have inherited the remnants of a 2-month-old mess that thrust the Columbia Association's future into question.
The homeowners group has no president, no general counsel and no vice president for community relations. Another vice president who normally oversees Columbia's 3,100 acres of open space has shifted roles and is serving as acting president.
The unusual confluence of events has left the council's 10 members -- five of whom are new to the board -- facing decisions that likely will affect the long-term direction of the unincorporated city. Already, council members differ on how to proceed.
One wants to choose a successor to Deborah O. McCarty quickly, aiming to hire a new president within three months. Another thinks the first step should be to create a panel of community residents to examine the association's structure and whether there are ways to run it more efficiently.
"The fact that we don't have a president I think is good, so we can now take the time and say, 'What do we want?' " explained Adam Rich, the council representative from River Hill village.
Another likely point of contention for the new board is whether to reinstate two vice presidents who left the organization this year under controversial circumstances. Some say those employees were wrongfully dismissed and deserve to be hired back; others say that rehiring them would be a step "backward."
McCarty resigned as association president effective May 3 in exchange for $200,000 in severance, after 20 months as Columbia's unofficial mayor. She named Vice President for Open Space Chick Rhodehamel the acting president.
The remaining vacancies were created in March after a demand by McCarty and the board that all six of the association's vice presidents submit letters of resignation. Pam Mack of the community relations division and Shelby A. Tucker King, who served as secretary and general counsel, left at that time.
James P. Ulwick, an association attorney, is in talks with lawyers for Mack and Tucker King; it is unclear whether a settlement is near in either case and what the terms of any settlement might be. Ulwick is expected to brief the council on the issue at its first meeting tonight.
By most accounts, the Columbia Association, which provides services and runs recreational facilities for the city's 87,000 residents with a $50 million budget, is running on autopilot -- even with the staff vacancies.
"I think it's probably running fine," Cecilia Januszkiewicz, the Long Reach representative, said this week.
"I don't hear a lot of complaints. I think that the grass is being cut, which is the most critical, and the pools are supposed to open on time, and beyond that I don't know what people look for."
Januszkiewicz maintains that the council, which serves concurrently as the association's board of directors, isn't as efficient and effective as it might be because its membership is constantly changing. Three representatives have one-year terms; the rest have two.
"My experience on the council suggests to me that there's got to be a better way," she said.
Januszkiewicz is among those seeking a review of the association before any long-term personnel decisions are made.
"Until we do that, I don't think we should do many things about hiring a president, filling vacancies, deciding whether we need 'community relations' or not," she said.
But Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills, wants to move more quickly; she is aiming to hire a president within three months.
"I think that that's doable," she said.
It has not been decided whether the search will be conducted nationally or locally. Council Chairman Lanny Morrison has said he has had several inquiries from prospective candidates from Howard County, though he declined to name them.
Rich has suggested hiring an "executive transition company" to help the association through the process. The main problems he sees within the organization are poor communication and "lack of long-term vision."
The council has scheduled a work session for May 30 to discuss the presidential search process.