Tonight's Columbia Council meeting marks the end of the chairmanship of council member Lanny Morrison, who has been lauded by some for his efforts to improve the council's management and criticized by others for what one called his "autocratic" leadership style.
Morrison, who had been the Harper's Choice representative on the council, lost his seat to Wolfger Schneider in that village's election last weekend.
The chairman has limited procedural powers of setting agendas and presiding over the meetings for the council, which also acts as the Columbia Association's board of directors.
However, during Morrison's two years as chairman, his foes complained that he overstepped that role, as they sometimes had to fight to get issues on the agenda.
Morrison also has been accused of withholding information from other council members on matters including a land-annexation plan, rental of the Columbia Association Horse Center and copies of a legal bill related to a change in the association's lien rate.
Morrison has disputed such claims.
Morrison counts among the council's accomplishments under his leadership: hiring association President Maggie J. Brown in February 2001, reducing the association's debt by $16 million over three years and establishing a "positive and colloquial" working relationship with the villages.
He pointed out that in an April 2000 survey conducted for the Columbia Flier 30 percent of residents responded that Columbia was "on the right track," compared with 62 percent of residents who were asked the same question this year by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research as part of the Columbia Association's strategic planning process.
Alex Hekimian, president of the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia (ABC), accused Morrison of "creating a lot of friction" while running meetings, claiming that he was "hostile" to people who did not share his views and would cut people off. He said the public expects the chair to be impartial, not "trying to dominate and be autocratic."
"People do notice how the chair of the council functions," Hekimian said. "Whenever they function like Lanny did ... [voters] are quick to vote them out of office."
Schneider is also an ABC member.
Ruth Cargo, a spokeswoman for Vote Smart, a community group that has some membership in common with ABC, said Morrison was a "very active chair," which posed problems for some of the other nine villages.
"Because he was so active as a representative from Harper's Choice, it was getting blurred with his power of the chair," said Cargo, who is also an ABC member.
Morrison said such characterizations of his leadership style are inaccurate and unfounded. He called ABC a group that "puts out false information and half truths."
"I tried to be fair," said Morrison, who also served on the council for three years in the mid-1980s. "And one of the roles of the chair is to move things along, and sometimes you have to cut off the discussions."
Morrison said Schneider's 234-208 win Saturday was not a "ringing endorsement."
He said one of his more significant accomplishments on the council was "helping to heal the fissures of the community's fabric" that were caused two years ago when the "community was being torn apart by the behavior of the council and president."
Before Morrison's arrival, the council had acquired a dysfunctional reputation; its members were known for sniping at each other.
Deborah O. McCarty resigned in May 2000 after 20 months as president amid concerns about her leadership and commitment to the community. During the search for a new president, some council members accused others of racism because they backed a white finalist for the position instead of a black finalist.
The presidential search became so contentious among council members that in January 2001, several members claimed that Morrison threatened to bobby-trap confidential information he gave them so he could tell who had given the information to the press.
At the time, Morrison responded that he had repeatedly warned council members that leaking can have "consequences."
Morrison was the only council member seeking re-election who lost. Incumbents Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge and Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown defeated their opponents, who are also members of the Alliance for a Better Columbia. The other three incumbents - Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake, Donna L. Rice of Town Center and Barbara L. Russell of Oakland Mills - ran unopposed.
Rice said Morrison's contributions to the council have been "tremendous."
"I think that in all fairness to him, he needs to be honored and congratulated for bringing us from where we were two years ago to where we are now," she said.
Coffman said he felt Morrison "went out of his way to be impartial" two years ago, when the council was split into factions, and that the current council has had a productive year.
However Russell, who in the past had complained that Morrison had been disrespectful to her in meetings, said she is "very happy" that Schneider will be joining the council.
Russell said that she finds him "intelligent, thoughtful and respectful" and that he will add "a really good dimension to the council."
"Sometimes what's even more important than whether or not you agree or disagree with a fellow council member is treating that council member with respect and listening to their ideas and considering them," she said. "I think he'll be very good in that way."