When people think of Columbia, Maryland, they might picture a tranquil neighborhood with homes nestled in the woods, nights spent listening to concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion or dining and shopping at The Mall in Columbia. One of the oldest planned communities in the county was envisioned by its founder as a place of unity and integration.
However, in recent weeks, Maryland’s second-largest community has been abuzz over the fate of Lakey Boyd, the charismatic and popular leader of the Columbia Association who believes its board of directors is trying to fire her — and she can only guess at why.
Local news organizations have reported extensively on speculation about Boyd’s job security. Community supporters have lined up to speak at public meetings, praising her work. An online petition with more than 800 signatures is demanding the board “cease all attempts to remove her from her position as President & CEO of Columbia Association.”
“It’s laughable and utterly confounding that you would think any resident would be happy with not only the removal of a beyond-experienced and competent president, but also to waste the funds it would require to unnecessarily remove Ms. Boyd,” Anika Baty-Mills, the publisher and CEO of Columbia Inspired magazine, lectured board members at a crowded public meeting on Thursday.
Spectators broke into applause after Baty-Mills’ speech, as they had for a dozen other residents who also advocated for the embattled CEO. Boyd appeared to be holding back emotions as she listened to her supporters speak, giving each a nod once they were done. Around the table, board members were inscrutable. They offered no comment and asked no questions, except for one, Bill Santos, who declared, “I support her.”
In the absence of answers from the board, a speculative narrative has formed around Boyd’s potential ouster. It is entangled in a web of local politics involving the settlement of a lawsuit over a holiday lights display, an ethics complaint stemming from the case, and machinations by community power brokers. Others blame what they say is the board’s unprofessional behavior and micromanaging.
Boyd believes something bigger is at the heart of the issue: the tension between old and new in a growing community of more than 104,000 residents.
Longtime, established residents are used to having things a certain way and know how to wield power. Boyd says she’s an outsider and they are unhappy with her efforts to engage with previously overlooked parts of the community, which is increasingly diverse.
“We have opened the doors, we’ve invited people to the table and I’m doing my best to take out the table and set it up at the lakefront for people to show up,” Boyd said.
She said she believes some people are saying that the Columbia Association — a massive homeowners association that is the closest thing Columbia has to a city government — “is not doing what I’m used to it doing.”
“And my answer is I think we’re here to serve everyone in the community the best we can, and not any specific subset of the community,” she added.
In May 2021, Boyd uprooted her family from Alabama, where she had worked in community economic development and planning, to take the job of CEO and president of the Columbia Association. Boyd, 49, now serves as pseudo-mayor and city manager of Columbia, a planned community created in the 1960s as the magnum opus of real estate developer James Rouse, a revered figure and the father of the modern-day shopping mall.
Boyd quickly made it a priority to focus on equity, diversity and inclusion and to forge connections with parts of the community that had been disconnected from the Columbia Association, which has a $70 million budget and provides a variety of amenities and services, including day care, athletic facilities, recreational trails and arts programming. Howard County provides other essential services — such as police and fire service, and schools — to the unincorporated community.
At first, Boyd’s relationship with board members — volunteers elected to represent 10 different boroughs, called “villages” — seemed positive, she said. They went on a retreat together to get to know one another and set priorities for the coming year. One board member, Boyd reported, said it was “one of the best retreats we’ve ever done.”
But now, some 19 months into her tenure, the tension between Boyd and some elected board members is palpable in public. They snap at each other. Board members’ opinions of how things should be done often clash with what their professional staffers recommend. At one point on Thursday, Boyd tried to get the attention of Chairman Eric Greenberg by raising her hand. She raised her hand higher and higher as the minutes passed, resorting to leaning over her desk and waving furiously at Greenberg before he acknowledged her presence.
“Would CA’s chief executive, chief financial officer and general counsel have been treated so disdainfully if those executives had been white males, like 70% of the board?” asked Kathy Flanagan, who identified herself as a Columbia resident of 48 years, at the meeting. She called for board members to resign.
Some community residents say the controversy lends new urgency to addressing long-running problems that the board has had with representation and public accountability — highlighting the racial and generational divides across the community, which has been ranked among the best and most diverse places to live in the country.
All 10 elected members of the board are older and white, representing a community that census figures show is only 49% white and 28% Black, with fast-growing Asian (13%) and Hispanic or Latino (9%) populations.
“We definitely should have a board that reflects that,” said Columbia resident Janssen Evelyn, who serves on the boards of the Howard County NAACP and Howard County Conservancy and recently ran unsuccessfully for county council. “Not just in ethnicity, but also age diversity. We need people in their 30s and 40s on that board so we can have different voices. … When you just have one kind of voice, it’s easy to think that’s the only voice that matters.”
Erika Strauss Chavarria, founder of the nonprofit Columbia Community Care, spoke Thursday about her own experience growing up in the community.
“We … witnessed and experienced the inequities, hardships and racism that also exist in Columbia. Those were the stories that were hidden in the shadows and rarely exposed by the media as to not shatter the image of Rouse’s vision,” Strauss Chavarria said. “Not all residents of Columbia experience Columbia the same way. Not all have access to all the amazing services, programs and opportunities and beauty that this community has to offer, including the Columbia Association.”
Boyd has shaken things up with her focus on diversity and inclusion, Evelyn said. “It prompts hard discussions and asks hard questions and it threatens the status quo,” he said.
Board members have remained mum throughout the monthslong controversy, saying they will not comment on personnel issues.
However, Dick Boulton, who has represented the Village of Dorsey’s Search on the board for eight years, recently denied that the board is intent on firing Boyd.
“This whole rumor that we’re trying to fire Lakey is wrong,” Boulton told The Baltimore Banner. “We’re not. The board has not discussed firing Lakey, had any meetings about firing Lakey. This is generated by people who have other agendas.”
Boyd isn’t convinced that her job is safe. “I want to be clear that I’m not operating on the basis of rumor or conjecture, but rather a lack of information. Numerous people — both in private conversations and in public meetings — have said that there is an intent to remove me from my position,” Boyd wrote in an email.
Several other things have led her to question her job security, she said.
In May, Boyd received a performance review that had seemingly conflicting scores — both zeroes and fours — in every category. The performance review had scores lower than anything she had received in her 25-year professional career, Boyd said, despite a record of accomplishment. Then, she recalled, there was the time one of the Columbia Association’s vice presidents reached out to her with urgency and concern in his voice: Another community leader had asked him if he would be willing to serve as interim president if Boyd was gone. Later, during a public meeting of a village board (which is separate from and has even more of a local focus than the Columbia Association), an elected representative reported that several members of the Columbia Association board are “in favor of spending whatever it takes to have her [Boyd] replaced.”
“There has been ample opportunity for others to respond, both directly to me and to a community that is clearly looking for answers,” Boyd said.
Asked why board members had not previously denied allegations that they were trying to fire Boyd, Boulton replied cryptically. “I can’t respond to that,” he said.
Who is behind the rumors of ousting Boyd, in Boulton’s view? His answer necessitates a detour into another local political controversy that gripped Columbia in recent years.
He alleged the “false information” originated from individuals with ties to the Rouse Project, a now-defunct initiative that purportedly sought to make the Columbia Association board more diverse and progressive. Critics attacked the Rouse Project, calling it a “dark-money campaign,” and Boulton has accused it of being a front for business and real estate development interests that want to assert control over the association.
The Rouse Project took down its website and hasn’t been active on social media since April 2021. Requests for comment left with Ken Ulman, a former Howard County executive who served on the steering committee of the Rouse Project, were not returned. Ulman also co-owns the Baltimore Fishbowl, a news organization that first reported on Boyd’s potential ouster.
A reading of blogs and social media posts created during the Rouse Project’s short campaign reveals that fear of urbanization and overdevelopment is an undercurrent to the criticism.
“They do not care about overcrowding schools and hospitals,” says a post by a group called Reopen Howard County. “They do not care about increasing traffic. They not only want to build on every square inch of Columbia, but they want to next put their eye on the rural west and build on every possible square inch there as well.”
This fear, according to Evelyn, is key to understanding the tensions in Columbia contributing to Boyd’s poor relationship with the board.
There’s a generational divide in Columbia, he observes. Younger residents and new families moved to Columbia for the green space, safe streets and quality schools, but they also want a more metropolitan feel with community gathering spaces, walkable neighborhoods, denser housing and development oriented toward public transportation. Those are the same elements needed to make Columbia more welcoming for working-class and Black and brown families, he said.
Meanwhile, Columbia has segments who want things to remain as they have been, Evelyn said — suburban and dominated by single-family homes.
When historian David Stebenne’s family moved to Columbia in August of 1969, the community was fresh and newly developed. Residential neighborhoods had been built out, but the town center — envisioned by Rouse as the urban core of the city — was left unfinished, partly because developers wanted to focus on selling houses and creating cash flow, said the co-author of “New City Upon A Hill: A History of Columbia, Maryland.”
To this day, Columbia Town Center still looks green and suburban, Stebenne said, and the future direction of its development has been controversial for decades.
“If you leave something for long enough, people think that’s the way it’s supposed to be forever,” Stebenne said.
That’s indicative of the greater growing pains facing Columbia, Stebenne said.
“Today is a long time from the 1960s from when Columbia was designed and developed,” Stebenne said. “It is a community that grows and changes. What the next generation of Columbians wants may be in some ways distinctly different, because times have changed and needs have changed. The challenge for longtime residents is to keep up with the times … and for new residents, I think, the challenge is to listen to their elders.”
Keeping up with changing needs might be challenging for the Columbia Association. Just as the conference room where the board meets was not constructed to accommodate large crowds, the system of elected representation is not designed for high voter engagement, some residents say.
Voter turnout in Columbia is strikingly low, with only about 1% of the population coming out for Columbia Association board elections.
Elections are held in April and the 10 villages set their own rules about how elections work — who is eligible to vote and run, how voters cast ballots and how often elections are held can all differ depending on where someone lives. For example, some villages allow residents to vote in-person, by mail or online while others require in-person voting, according to Dannika Rynes, senior media relations and communications manager for the Columbia Association. In the Village of Long Reach, only one vote is counted per household and renters must have a copy of their current lease on file in order to fill out a ballot. In comparison, all River Hill village residents age 18 and older are entitled to vote.
It’s an “obscenely small” percent of the community that is actually engaged with local decision-making, said Phillip Dodge, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Partnership.
Dodge said voter turnout might improve if local elections were moved and held at the same time as state and federal elections.
“I don’t know how you do it, but the current system certainly is not working,” Dodge said.
Columbia resident Lynn Hannan believes reform needs to go further.
“The disorganization does not promote faith in governance and I’m beginning to think we need to be a municipality,” Hannan said, explaining that in a city, elected leaders are beholden to state ethics and transparency laws.
“We are a homeowners association and I question if that model is working for us,” she said.