Suddenly abandoning a nationwide search tainted by charges of racism, the Columbia Council hired a longtime resident and employee yesterday to head one of the nation's largest homeowners associations.
Maggie J. Brown becomes the first African-American to lead the town, which was founded on ideals of integration.
But her selection as Columbia Association president angered black leaders, who questioned her qualifications, comparing her to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The council never interviewed her.
The African American Coalition of Howard County had backed the black city manager of Sedona, Ariz., who had also sought the job in 1998.
"Our position has always been [to hire] the most qualified individual; then if you have an opportunity to exercise affirmative action, then you do that," said Sherman Howell, vice president of the coalition. "We're not saying any African-American. We could get Clarence Thomas."
At a news conference last night announcing Brown's selection, Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice said the council had the right to call off the search a week before its application deadline.
"Sometimes the answer is right under your nose and you need one or more people to point it out to you," he said.
Brown, 61, said she was not troubled by the coalition's complaints.
"I'm happy and excited today," she said, shaking hands with some of the 50 well-wishers who gathered at Columbia Association headquarters and posing for snapshots with her husband, Nesbitt. "I think this is a wonderful day."
The surprise selection of Brown came after a $35,000 national search fell apart last month with the withdrawal of two of the three finalists for the job. Both said racial politics played a role in their decision.
The council then decided to reopen the search, setting an application deadline of Feb. 15. But in a closed-door session that ended after midnight Thursday, the council decided instead to hire Brown.
A Columbia Association vice president since 1993, Brown had served as interim president since last month. She takes a $125,000-a-year job left vacant since May, when Deborah O. McCarty left under pressure after just 20 months.
As president, Brown will be the top administrator for a homeowners association with about 1,600 full- and part-time employees and a $50 million annual budget. The association provides recreational amenities and other services for the planned community, which developer James W. Rouse created in 1967 for residents of all races, religions and incomes.
As vice president for community services, Brown has overseen a division with about 90 employees and a $5 million annual budget.
On paper, at least, the three finalists the council considered in January - before two of them dropped out, causing the search to collapse - had more administrative experience. They had overseen annual budgets ranging from $35.5 million to $300 million and between 100 and 450 employees.
But supporters said Brown will bring something to the job that the out-of-towners could not: credibility built up over three decades in Columbia.
"She brings an understanding of this community and the county and the broader regional area," said Morrison. "She will reach out and reach in as well, and she has the capability to do that."
Coal miner's daughter
The daughter of a West Virginia coal miner, Brown earned a degree in chemistry at Bluefield State College in Bluefield, W.Va., and worked as a research chemist before moving to Columbia to raise a family in 1970.
Brown first worked for the association in the 1980s, when for 6 1/2 years she managed sales of memberships to the group's recreational facilities. She left for about four years to work as assistant to Howard County's chief administrative officer, Buddy Roogow, and later his successor, Raquel Sanudo.
Brown returned to the Columbia Association in 1993 as vice president of community services, overseeing an array of programs for children and adults, including before- and after-school care, summer camp and the Lakefront Festival. She also served as liaison between the association and Columbia's 10 villages.
"She has been very supportive of the villages," said Anne Dodd, village manager in Kings Contrivance.
It was on Brown's watch that Dorsey's Search manager Anne S. Darrin embezzled $65,000 from the village. Darrin pleaded guilty in September 1999 and was sentenced to 18 months.
Villages made quarterly financial reports to Brown, but the fraud went on undetected for four years, until a village board member uncovered it in 1997. The Columbia Association has since increased its oversight of village finances.
Brown said the theft should not be seen as a blot on her record as an administrator.
"I don't think we can really control anyone's actions," Brown said.
Throughout its contentious search process, the 10-member Columbia Council could not agree on what it was looking for in a new president.
Five members wanted a tough, nuts-and-bolts administrator; five favored a high-profile leader.
That all 10 members finally settled on Brown might have more to do with the council's desire to heal than its unanimous belief that Brown can be both crack administrator and community leader.
What community needs
Councilman Robert Conors of Dorsey's Search, who uncovered the embezzlement while serving on his village board, had been pushing for a strong administrator.
He thinks Brown is more of a leader, but he also changed his mind about what Columbia needs after the search process broke down into bitter council infighting.
"She's what the community needs right now and will need for some time," he said.
"We need somebody to bring it back together."
Brown begins the job under criticism from the same group that spoke out against McCarty's selection in July 1998. The African American Coalition charged then that McCarty got the job over Michael D. Letcher of Sedona because she is white and he is black.
The coalition repeated charges of racism in recent months when some council members didn't support Letcher in his second bid to get the job.
Howell said he has known Brown for 30 years and likes her personally. But he is concerned that by circumventing the normal application and interview process, the choice will leave her legitimacy always in doubt.
"This is not good for her, not sending Maggie through the process," Howell said.
"It appears that she's an illegitimate president - same as George W. They didn't follow the procedures."