Election decision due soon Judge to settle voting dispute in Long Reach

July 30, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Howard Circuit Court Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. said yesterday he hopes to issue a decision within a week, resolving three months of uncertainty over who won a disputed election for Columbia Council in Long Reach village.

Gail Bailey, a six-year council incumbent who apparently won re-election April 24, filed a lawsuit against the Long Reach Community Association and the Columbia Association after village officials declared the election invalid. Roy T. Lyons won a repeat election June 5 and is now serving on the council.

Hoping to avoid a costly trial, attorneys for Long Reach and the Columbia Association filed motions to have the case decided quickly, arguing at a court hearing yesterday that facts which caused the controversy were not in dispute. They argued that Dr. Bailey's claim isn't valid, based strictly on the legal documents outlining voting rights in the village.

Dr. Bailey has requested the court to uphold the original election and to interpret voting rules in Long Reach.

Dr. Bailey's attorney, Jan O'Connor, contended that the incumbent won fairly according to the rules established by the village's election committee and the village covenants, and that some facts are in dispute.

Long Reach attorney Roger Titus called Ms. O'Connor's interpretation of the covenants "absurd" and labeled other aspects of the opponent's case "irrelevant" to the judge's task.

"Your job is to look at the covenants, decide what they mean and act accordingly," he said to the judge.

The controversy centers on whether apartment building owners are entitled to one vote for each dwelling unit they own. Two apartment building owners cast 276 votes in the April 24 election for Dr. Bailey, putting the outcome in her favor.

Mr. Lyons protested the election, prompting village officials to seek a legal opinion. Mr. Titus, an attorney with the Baltimore firm Venable, Baetjer & Howard, concluded that apartment owners should be entitled to only one vote per property under the covenants. The village election committee ruled that the election was conducted incorrectly and scheduled a new one.

Arguments yesterday focused on interpretations of definitions of owner" in the covenants. In eight of Columbia's 10 villages, owners are entitled to one vote for each residential unit or vacant lot they own.

Mr. Titus argued that the term "owner" is restricted to those who own individual lots or houses, condominium units or a share in a cooperative, and does not extend to apartment owners. A cooperative is collectively owned by residents.

Mr. Titus warned the judge that Ms. O'Connor would offer a "tortured reading" of the definition of a cooperative owner. "She'll twist that into being a landlord," he said.

Ms. O'Connor countered that the definition of "owner" has open-ended language that could be construed to include apartment owners. The landlords, who pay thousands annually in Columbia Association fees, should be entitled to vote for every unit for which a tenant doesn't cast a ballot, she argued, adding that nothing in the covenants prohibits such a practice.

"Why should apartment tenants have more voting power than the owner of the building?" she asked. "It just doesn't make sense."

Ms. O'Connor also argued that Mr. Lyons was apprised of Long Reach's voting rules the night before the first election and that apartment owners had been permitted to cast votes for all of their units in previous Long Reach elections.

Mr. Titus and James Ulwick, the Columbia Association's attorney, said those points were irrelevant. Mr. Ulwick said affidavits filed by the two apartment building owners yesterday were "a last minute, desperate attempt to create a factual issue."

Ms. O'Connor contended that negative publicity and damaging campaign tactics employed by Mr. Lyons hindered Dr. Bailey's chances of winning a second election.

"The bottom line is there has been an injury," she said. "Ms. Bailey has been the one to suffer through this entire ordeal, and she won the election as the rules were set forth."

Mr. Titus said he was bewildered by that charge, adding that the judge has not been asked to determine damages but to interpret the covenants and decide an outcome.

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