Bickering, acrimony, rancor, accusations of racism - not the images typically associated with Columbia, which was founded on the principles of diversity and acceptance.
But that has been the experience in recent years choosing a president for the Columbia Association, the homeowners' organization that serves the planned community of about 100,000 residents in Howard County.
The latest attempt has been uneventful, compared with previous go-rounds, as the association's board of directors prepares to hold a public forum tomorrow featuring the three finalists for the position.
But while association leaders say they are striving for transparency, the association has taken some unusual steps: keeping the names of the finalists secret (though they were inadvertently revealed last week); requiring questions to be submitted in advance without knowing who would be answering them; and banning questions from the floor during the forum.
"I'm feeling very good," said association board chairman Tom O'Connor. "I think we did our homework to help avoid pitfalls."
Others in the 40-year-old community aren't so sure.
Joel Yesley, president of a watchdog group called Alliance for a Better Columbia, said he believes that prohibiting questions is aimed at preventing unscripted or embarrassing responses.
"I think they would want to encourage give-and-take between the audience and the candidates, which would reduce the chance the candidates would use canned responses," Yesley said. "This is a way you gain control over the forum."
Barbara Russell, an eight-year board member who stepped down last spring, said of the forum procedures, "I think that's a terrible idea. You might as well not do it if you do it this way."
O'Connor said it is all about efficiency, to allow the most questions in the least time.
The three finalists are Rob Goldman, a Columbia Association vice president; Milton Matthews, CEO of the Reston, Va., homeowners association; and Phil Nelson, city manager of Troy, Mich.
O'Connor declined to reveal the pay range for the new Columbia Association leader, but current president Maggie J. Brown earns $197,000 a year plus a 15 percent bonus, he said. By comparison, County Executive Ken Ulman earns $158,675 and Gov. Martin O'Malley earns $150,000.
The choice this time could be particularly important because the county is reviewing a developer's 30-year plan for the first substantial makeover of Town Center since Columbia was founded. The association owns key parcels, including wooded property near Merriweather Post Pavilion and along Lake Kittamaqundi, that are focal points of the plan.
In the past, the association's pitfalls took center stage. Since the 1998 retirement of the association's first president, Padraic M. Kennedy, who held the post for 26 years, the process has prompted infighting among the 10 board members, who are elected to represent each of Columbia's villages.
Kennedy's replacement, Deborah O. McCarty, lasted less than two years. McCarty departed in controversy with a $200,000 buyout after revelations that she was essentially commuting from Georgia and never registered to vote here or obtained a Maryland driver's license.
The search for McCarty's replacement dissolved amid accusations of racism among board members as they considered candidates of different races.
Eventually, the board settled on Brown. The longtime association staffer, who is African-American, was chosen in 2001 as a calming influence. But two years ago, the board split again, this time over whether to keep her on the job. Half wanted to replace Brown in one year and bring someone with fresh ideas from outside, while the others wanted to give her a three-year contract. They finally compromised on a two-year contract extension that expires May 1.
Kennedy is mystified by the past problems.
"Howard County is rich in leadership potential," said Kennedy, whose appointment was approved by Columbia founder James W. Rouse.
Several successful nonprofit boards in Columbia draw talented people, Kennedy said. But the Columbia Association board draws candidates mostly from a narrow group of village activists. Frequent infighting may discourage others.
"When a board is dysfunctional, good people don't want to be on the board," Kennedy said.
Turnout for village elections typically is low, with the adage being that as long as the 23 swimming pools open on time and the grass is cut regularly, most people pay little attention to the association.
Columbia is not incorporated. Residents pay property tax-like liens on their property, which together with membership fees support a roughly $60 million annual budget that is spent on an array of recreational facilities and open space.
* Padraic Kennedy,1972-1998
* Deborah O. McCarty, 1998-2000
* Maggie J. Brown, 2001-2009