It was deep into the third hour of a dry meeting on budgets and ethics policies when the president of the Columbia Association directed a stark question to the board that just 18 months ago hired her for one of the most prominent leadership positions in Howard County.
“I actually had a question for the chair,” said Lakey Boyd, a 49-year-old planning and community-building professional in a relaxed drawl that has become increasingly familiar as she has made herself known throughout Columbia. “I have been informed by one of [Columbia Association]’s vice presidents that he was asked if he would be willing to serve as interim president of CA, with some sense of urgency.”
Boyd wanted information about why a member of her executive team had just been asked if he would be willing to replace her. And she wasn’t the only one seeking answers.
“I have now been contacted by people in the community who have heard about this conversation, and I wanted to ask you directly, because I thought that would be the best thing to do, if you could clarify for me my own position with this organization, since I have a four-year contract?”
Nearly 40 viewers remained on the livestream broadcast of the meeting, waiting for this moment as the clock neared 11 p.m. They had heard that a coup was about to take place. Or maybe one would be thwarted.
The board chair, Eric Greenberg, who represents Columbia’s River Hill village, had a short response that offered little comfort to Boyd and those who support her. “I am unaware of any such discussions,” Greenberg said, “and anything beyond that is a personnel matter.”
The mother of all personnel matters is brewing at the top of what is essentially Maryland’s second-largest city, a planned community where residents aspire to live up to the ideals of visionary founder James Rouse, and a place that consistently racks up national accolades like “Best Place to Live” and “Safest City in America.“
Hanging in the balance is the professional future of Boyd – who describes herself as a “resilient change agent” and “transformative leader” on her LinkedIn page – and, by extension the future direction of Columbia. As the appointed chief executive of the influential but little understood entity known as the Columbia Association, Boyd has oversight of a $70 million budget derived from the dues of Columbia residents, and manages more than 1,100 full- and part-time employees, some seasonal. The association maintains pools and tennis centers and 100 miles of pathways, and brings concerts and movies and cultural events to public spaces. The CEO serves as the outward face of Columbia – the closest thing the community has to a mayor or city manager.
Boyd is also a visible and integral part of a new generation of leadership at Howard County’s anchor institutions. In recent years, new leaders have taken the helm at the Howard County Library System (Tonya Aikens), Howard County Community College (Dr. Daria Willis), and Howard County General Hospital (Dr. M. Shafeeq Ahmed), not to mention as Howard County Executive (Dr. Calvin Ball). Purposefully reflecting the increasing diversity of Columbia and Maryland, only one of those leaders is white.
Since starting as CEO in June 2021, Boyd has, by her accounting, attended 150 stakeholder meetings and has spoken at more than 50 events. She has diversified programming and brought 55 nights of entertainment to Columbia’s main lakefront. She beat her budget by $10 million, distributed federal funds to save jobs, and has been a powerful voice for inclusion and equity, writing lengthy essays and promoting dialogue.
But that doesn’t seem to be enough for several members of the Columbia Association Board of Directors, which has recently hired its own lawyer to handle the “personnel” matter and seems on a path that could lead to Boyd’s exit.
A growing number of community leaders in Columbia has been shaken by the conflict, and is rising to Boyd’s defense.
“It would be a huge loss to the community if she would leave,” said Jean Moon, a public relations executive and former local newspaper manager who has been active in Columbia affairs for more than 50 years. “She has stepped out front on issues that the community claims to be interested in, and has held people’s hands on the issues of equity and inclusion.”
Columbians “should be up in arms”
Columbia residents “should be up in arms,” said Jessamine Duvall, who represented the Hickory Ridge village on the board of directors from 2020 to 2022 and is executive director of Girls on the Run of Central Maryland. Boyd “truly has the ability to change the way Columbia operates and grows in the future. The equity focus is something that’s so needed. And she’s not afraid to think outside the box. She’s not afraid to try new things. And I think that’s exactly what this community needs, because we have fallen into the trap of ‘Let’s just do what we always do.’”
According to Phillip Dodge, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Partnership, Boyd has “reenergized” the Columbia Association. “In addition to empowering her staff, she’s engaged with the community to advance CA’s mission and the vision of an inclusive and equitable Columbia. Most of the organizations in Downtown Columbia have been working to build a culture of collaboration. …. Lakey has been instrumental in expanding CA’s involvement in these partnerships and throughout the community.”
Former board member Ashley Vaughan says Boyd “has quickly established herself as a pillar of our community,” and has become “one of the most present and active Columbia Association presidents in recent history.”
“CA employees that I have spoken with are enthusiastic about Lakey’s ongoing presence, availability, and vision for Columbia Association,” Vaughan added. “It’s clear from (residents’ comments at meetings) that many community organizations are also grateful for the work Lakey is doing.”
“Columbia Association is the cornerstone of Columbia,” Vaughan said, “and Lakey is its champion.”
The story of what led to the crisis is complex, bordering on mind-numbing for the vast majority of people who don’t pay attention to local government matters, let alone the machinations of a board for a quasi-homeowners’ association in a community where most seem to agree that things are pretty good.
Members of the board, which hire the CEO, are elected by residents of each village as part of a byzantine voting system that is different in each of Columbia’s 10 villages. Elections have always been marked by low turnout, with vote totals in the low hundreds per village despite Columbia’s population of more than 100,000 residents.
Not surprisingly, board members tend to be older, retirees with no kids in school and spare hours to spend on long meetings. All are white – Columbia is nearly 28 percent Black; 13.3 percent Asian and 9.4 percent Hispanic, according to Census figures.
“Most people would observe that the Board of Directors is not representative of the community, and perhaps this influences their thinking,” said Moon, the longtime public relations professional. “They are dealing with a younger, very progressive executive….The Board has a responsibility to support her, rather than participate in undermining her efforts.”
The Columbia Association board also has a long history of antagonism toward staff and occasionally each other, as well as behavior that bends or breaches the bounds of ethics. Current member Alan Klein of Harper’s Choice has had two ethics violations upheld against him, and after being removed last year and winning his seat back, is now in a position to approve a new board ethics policy. Board member Ginny Thomas of Oakland Mills has used her official CA email for campaigning. A member of the Board in the mid-2000s was banned from his village center.
Baltimore Fishbowl contacted each member of the Columbia Association Board via email, receiving limited responses. “You asked about our only employee…our personnel. You asked about a lawyer…a legal matter. Those were your questions, which we cannot comment upon,” said Klein in an email.
Board member Andrew Stack, however, forwarded a Nov. 2 letter from the Owen Brown Community Association in support of Boyd, and said he agreed with its contents.
“Ms. Boyd has brought renewed energy, professionalism, intelligence, and engagement to CA,” the letter said. “For too long, CA has simply talked about the values Columbia was founded on. Ms. Boyd has made public and tangible efforts to put those values into practice. Ms. Boyd has emphasized data-driven decision-making that will lead to more efficient use of CA resources.”
Removing her would be a mistake, the Owen Brown association said, because it would lower staff morale and “could lead to legal disputes that would damage CA’s image and needlessly waste money that would be better spent delivering value to residents,” while causing “long-term harm to CA’s ability to recruit effective senior leadership for our organization.”
Disputes over holiday light displays and ethics concerns
The issues that led to Boyd’s confrontation have been simmering nearly since she began.
One is a legal dispute over who has access to land used for a popular drive-through holiday light display around Merriweather Post Pavilion. Another is the possible ethics violations of some Board members and the board’s inability to reach consensus on an ethics policy. A third issue is Boyd’s insistence that Board members limit their requests to individual staff members of the Columbia Association and stick to oversight and strategic responsibilities.
Further complicating matters are manueverings by key community leaders – one of whom, Nina Basu, was a finalist for the CEO job that Boyd got and has been involved in the light display legal dispute as head of an intertwined non-profit.
In an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl in her office a week after she publically confronted the Board about her future, Boyd said she remained committed to the responsibilities she is undertaking.
“I am showing up for work every day,” she said. “I am committed to this team. I’m committed to this organization and I’m committed to this community. When I sign up to do something I’m all in and until I am directly informed otherwise by my employer, that is what I intend to do.”
Boyd says she believes she is fulfilling exactly the functions of the job she was hired to do, according to the printed description she had on her conference table during an interview. Responsibilities include “strategic visionary leadership,” she said, along with “position[ing] CA for a strong future effective operations quality services.” A second role is to serve as the “face of CA, with high visibility in the community with both residents and businesses,” and the third element is responsibility “for all financial, operational, administrative contracting and legal aspects of the daily organizational management of CA.”
Boyd took office as the association was recovering from operational and financial upheaval caused by the pandemic, with a shutdown of membership-based programs like gyms and pools.
At the time, the association – along with a related non-profit called the Inner Arbor Trust created to develop and program a park in Downtown Columbia – were involved in a costly legal dispute with the concert venue Merriweather Post Pavilion over land access. At the center of this dispute was the popular holiday light display, Symphony of Lights. The board directed Boyd to settle the dispute, which she did, but then faced requests by some to see settlement documents. She and her team at first considered them confidential, but accusations flew about violations of the state homeowner’s association act.
“You need to get your president under control,” demanded Russ Swatek, a Columbia resident who formerly represented the Village of Long Reach on the CA Board, at a meeting in May 2022.
More tension grew regarding ethical issues of board members.
“We did start reporting out what we believe were risks associated with board behavior to the audit committee, the risk management committee,” said Boyd in an interview “I would generalize it as reputational risk and then concerns around governance and negative impacts on staff and operations.” Efforts since then to establish an ethics policy that all board members could follow have stalled, with the board refusing to sign on to the work of the organization’s general counsel, and undertaking an effort to rewrite it themselves.
Boyd also pushed back about perceived micromanagement and time-consuming requests from board members.
“The resource allocation of that staff time means that we’re not doing something else then I’m pulling somebody out of their day-to-day operational role,” Boyd said, noting that post-pandemic, the organization has 25 percent fewer staff and 15 percent less revenue. “Some assumptions about staff time and the ability to allocate, I think, can sometimes be out of alignment with actually who we are today,” she said.
“Not actionable or constructive comments”
As she ended her first year this past spring, Boyd delivered what she thought was a noteworthy assessment of her tenure, noting accomplishments such as a new budget process; the settlement of the holiday lights litigation; the recruitment of a new general counsel and new IT director; the strengthening of relations with individual villages; and mandatory training around unconscious bias, among other initiatives.
Not long after, she received an evaluation that she said “was by far the lowest performance review I have ever received in my 25-year professional career.”
“There are multiple instances across the six categories, where I receive both zeros, the low score; and fours, the highest score in the exact same category,” Boyd said in an interview. “There are conflicting comments; directly conflicting comments. ‘This single decision was the best thing ever done for CA;’ ‘This single decision was the worst thing ever in the history of CA.’….There were not actionable or constructive comments. And I can say that there were many comments that actually had nothing to do with my job performance.”
Some board members, led by Ginny Thomas, have been rewriting Boyd’s annual goals to ensure that they receive what they consider to be full and timely information from the CEO.
The ins and outs of the board dispute have received limited attention in Columbia. A local blog, The Merriweather Post, published a report summarizing the positions of all board members, noting that six of 10 seem to varying degrees to be hostile to Boyd and may be willing to consider her removal.
The hostility, anger and desires of a cadre of board members, in sum, has the potential to disrupt the future direction of Columbia.
Animosities have “fostered a toxic environment that negated non-profit best practices of a board empowering and supporting their leadership,” said Vaughan, the former CA Board member, in an email response to questions.
“To be clear, there seems to be a faction of [Eric] Greenberg, [Alan] Klein, [Ginny] Thomas, [Dick] Boulton, and [Brian] England that are operating the board in a way that ignores ethics violations and attempts to create special exceptions just so their own behavior has a much lower ethical standard than anyone else in the city,” Vaughan said. “It’s as if they believe that because they can write the rules, it’s acceptable to write rules that apply to everyone but them. It’s repulsive and unacceptably corrupt and I’m hopeful the good citizens of Columbia will eventually throw them all out for taking advantage of their positions.”
Several community members are also raising questions about the role of Nina Basu, a lawyer who is president and CEO of Inner Arbor Trust, the non-profit organization that was at the center of the holiday light display. Basu was a finalist for the CEO position before Boyd got the job, and was also the person who approached Columbia Association Vice President Dennis Mattey, a respected leader with a a 40-year-plus tenure, and asked him if he would be willing and able to serve as interim president if Boyd was ejected.
Basu has ruffled feathers with strong stands about the independent role of her organization – which manages a park named Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods and its programming – in relation to other arts and culture groups in Columbia. Two Columbia Association board members also sit on the board of the Inner Arbor Trust, and the trust receives money from the Columbia Association.
Speculation around Basu’s continued interest in becoming the next CA president is making its way onto social media. She recently received a “Most Admired CEO” award from the Daily Record – and one Inner Arbor board member, Bill Woodcock, shared the award on social media with the comment: “The best talent to run Columbia is often homegrown to Columbia.”
In response to questions from Baltimore Fishbowl, Basu “absolutely” denied any interest in the association CEO position, and said her questions to a vice president about him serving as an interim CEO are being misinterpreted and removed from their context. The topic was broached, she said, in “casual conversation with a friend that briefly touched on any future career plans in the context of a much broader catch up.” She did not answer a question regarding whether she was raising the topic at the behest of any board member.
Asked for her evaluation of Boyd’s performance, Basu said: “I have great respect for the CA President, and look forward to continuing to work with her as both CA President and as an Inner Arbor Trust Board member.”
Still, many are skeptical of Basu’s behind-the-scenes positioning. “Well, she applied for the job and she wasn’t hired…But I think more importantly, why is she involved (in discussions about interim presidents)?” said Duvall, the former board member. “How can you, as a non-profit leader, reconcile what I see is pretty clearly unethical behavior, to be actively working against the president of another non-profit, with whom you partner, you know, who, who defended you in lawsuits? Who gives you money? …So you’re trying to unseat this president, but in the same breath, you’re asking for money. So that’s the part that I really struggle with.”
Basu said that characterization is both unfair and that she is “extremely confused” by it. But Basu heard enough rumblings about her supposed leadership desires that she sent an email to a small group of Columbia leaders on Nov. 8 stating that she does not want the CEO position. “I am sorry that anyone could believe such rumors, and I am sorry for any inconvenience or stress these rumors have created for anyone,” Basu wrote, adding “I do not intend to make any further statement about this matter. I am only addressing this rumor in this limited setting to hopefully stop the rumor from continuing.”
The board has hired its own attorney as it grapples with what it considers a “personnel” matter, tapping Timothy McCormack of Ballard Spahr. McCormack previously represented Basu’s non-profit in the holiday lights legal dispute, a connection that has drawn attention in Columbia circles. McCormack did not respond to an email request seeking information about his role.
Asked if she felt she was being undermined, Boyd, who moved to Columbia from Alabama for the job after a long career in government, consulting and non-profit work in Georgia, said opaquely: “I feel that I am not operating with all the information about what is going on around my own position.”
It is unclear what happens next – whether a majority of the board tries to replace her and takes a step that could mean paying out the remainder of a four-year contract with a $240,000 annual salary.
Since the Oct. 27 meeting where she confronted her bosses, one board member – Kevin Fitzgerald of Town Center – has resigned. So board dynamics are unsettled, but Boyd said she wants to stay.
“I don’t think I need to be president and CEO for Columbia to live up to what it can be. I would love to be part of it. I signed up to be a part of it. I committed to be a part of it,” she said. “I’m here for it. I believe in it. I see all of what it still can be.”
Change and evolution of Columbia will happen, she said, regardless of who is in the top spot.
“I believe communities are living organisms,” said Boyd. “The question is never ‘if’ change is going to happen. The question is ‘how’ change is going to happen. And what we need to be focused on is having discourse around the ‘how’ so that it is to maximum benefit for the community. But if we get stuck in the ‘if’ we’re not even treading water. The world is moving every day ahead of us, and we’re losing ground.”