An announcement this week by popular Columbia Association CEO and President Lakey Boyd that she has “no other choice” but to leave her role amid a public squabble with the board has not calmed the turmoil engulfing leaders of the planned community.

During a contentious Columbia Association board of directors meeting Thursday night, residents lined up to berate elected board members for what they described as incompetent management, an inability to work together and a lack of transparency. Boyd had called out sick and was not present for the meeting, held a day after she indicated she would be leaving.

For months now, Boyd and her supporters have sought information from board members about speculation that they wanted to fire Boyd from her city manager-type position in Maryland’s second-largest community.

“Are you trying to replace Lakey with a lackey? Because that’s what it seems like,” said one resident, Lena Kennedy.

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Larry Walker of Howard County holds a sign while speakers speak during a press conference in Downtown Columbia Lakefront, Monday, January 2, 2023.
Larry Walker of Howard County holds a sign while residents protest recent actions by the Columbia Association board during a rally in downtown Columbia on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Last week, for the first time, the board publicly addressed the speculation about Boyd’s job security, calling them “false rumors.” The controversy came to a head on Wednesday night, when Boyd said that a plan presented to her by the board’s chair and vice chair along with the association’s human resources director renders her ineffective. She cited that as her reason for seeking to leave.

Little information is publicly available about the plan, which board members contacted by The Baltimore Banner declined to talk about in detail, citing personnel issues. A statement released by the board last week described it as a way to “improve the relationship and communications” between Boyd and the board. Boyd, through a spokeswoman, has declined to comment on the plan or provide a copy to The Banner.

Thursday’s board meeting appeared to shed light on an additional detail about the plan.

Russell Swatek, who had previously served on the board, spoke critically of Boyd’s leadership — detailing her reluctance to make settlement documents in a lawsuit public, and her purported unresponsiveness to requests for meetings from board members — and referenced her “performance improvement plan.”

Board member Andrew Stack picked up on Swatek’s characterization of the “performance improvement plan” and asked where he had gotten that information from. Swatek responded that he read it in blogs.

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“We hadn’t told anyone,” Stack later said in an interview with The Banner. He said he had voted against the plan during a closed meeting on Jan. 4 because it did not acknowledge a need for change from the other side.

“A performance improvement plan is something you give to a person to improve their conduct. What if the problem is also your performance? ... It’s a very one-sided plan. It’s a very one-sided method and that was my objection,” Stack said.

Stack said he was “disappointed” to see Boyd’s announcement this week.

“I’ve been a backer of Lakey. I think she’s done a very good job in the short time she’s been here. She had a lot of good ideas for trying to move Columbia [and] CA ahead,” he said.

At least three of nine members (one position is now vacant on the 10-person elected board) voted against the plan presented to Lakey, according to The Merriweather Post, a local news blog, revealing a fracture on the board between those who do or do not support Boyd. Votes in closed meetings are not public record and the two other board members did not respond to requests for comment.

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Board member Dick Boulton told The Banner that he was “surprised” to hear of Boyd’s announcement.

“We had a plan for solving the problem. It was a reasonable plan and I was just surprised that she chose to handle it that way,” Boulton said.

Board chair Eric Greenberg did not respond to requests for comment. Greenberg was openly at odds with board member Bill Santos and Stack during Thursday’s meeting. He also cut off several critics of the board when they surpassed their allotted time limit, but allowed Swatek, who condemned Boyd’s management, to continue speaking after his time was up.

What comes next?

Board members Boulton and Stack both said it’s unclear what will happen next.

Stack holds out hope there may be a way for board members and Boyd to work through their differences with the help of an outside mediator, which was a recommendation recently provided by the Columbia Association’s audit committee.

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A previous attempt to bring the board and their CEO together in mediation was voted down in a closed meeting by the majority of the elected leaders, Santos revealed Thursday night. Santos has also previously stated public support for Boyd’s continued leadership at the Columbia Association.

If the board moves to transition Boyd out, buying out the CEO’s four-year contract could cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Baltimore Fishbowl has previously reported. The Columbia Association is funded by fees paid by residents.

Community residents stand to lose more than money, said Oakland Mills High School teacher Amy Brooks, who moved to Columbia with her family in 2008 and recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for state delegate.

Brooks said the Columbia Association has a history of instability, and Boyd’s departure as president and CEO will make it more difficult to attract leaders to work in the city.

Additionally, “we are going to lose valuable time and opportunity to improve CA, which is critical coming out of COVID,” Brooks told The Banner. “Lakey was addressing a lot of issues that have been neglected for a long time and was building relationships that quite frankly did not exist, like between high-needs schools and CA.”

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Boyd, who moved to Columbia with her family in mid-2021 after working in community economic development and planning in Alabama, has previously said tensions between old and new are at the heart of the conflict between her and board members. She said she’s an outsider and they are unhappy with her efforts to engage with previously overlooked parts of the community, which is increasingly diverse.

She has made it a priority to focus on equity, diversity and inclusion and to forge connections with segments 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.

CEO of the Columbia Association, Lakey Boyd, is facing the possibility of being ousted, in Columbia, Md., December 5, 2022.
File photo of the Columbia Association’s offices in Columbia, Maryland, on Dec. 5, 2022. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

More turbulence is likely in the forecast for Columbia Association board members. Last week, a group of Columbia residents called for the recall of board members to prevent them from ousting Boyd. They said the current board, which is entirely white, does not represent the diversity of Columbia.

Erika Strauss Chavarria, founder of the nonprofit Columbia Community Care, was outspoken among the group leading the recall effort. She said that even if Boyd leaves the Columbia Association, they’re not backing down.

“Those who have not taken notice as to what’s going on are now taking notice of what’s going on and there’s an election coming up. There’s a process for recall for board members. There is a potential for lawsuits filed by individual residents. All these things are still happening. ... If they think these are empty words or [an] empty warning, they are clearly mistaken,” she said.

Chavarria also pushed back against allegations previously made by board member Boulton that business and real estate development interests were behind an effort to make the Columbia Association’s board more diverse and are also involved with the Boyd controversy.

“We are not affiliated with any conspiracy theory regarding developers or anything like that,” she said.

It was through her role as a teacher that Chavarria met Boyd. Boyd reached out because she wanted to sit down with students and talk about their involvement — or lack thereof — with the Columbia Association, Chavarria said.

“Lakey shows up to everything,” and that’s why the CEO has the support of community members, she said.

As for when a transition might happen, the timeline is murky. “As soon as I have more clarity on the timeline of this transition, I will let you know,” Boyd wrote in an email to Columbia Association staff members Wednesday night, obtained by The Banner.

Boyd has declined to publicly comment since her announcement. But the email reveals a slice of her mindset.

“Please understand this is not a reflection of the belief I have for this organization and this team,” Boyd’s email to staff read. “The positive reaction from the community that we have witnessed in recent months is proof CA is doing important work toward strengthening connections throughout Columbia and, consequently, building a better team and stronger community. I thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for your commitment and dedication.”

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