Council rebels push for change

November 28, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Every year, the Columbia Council's vote to reappoint the Columbia Association's president and division directors barely provokes a murmur.

A "pro forma" procedure, said association spokeswoman Pam Mack.

Until this year.

Council members Norma Rose and Chuck Rees, who've developed a reputation for challenging Columbia's status quo, objected to the council's limited role in evaluating the managers, who are paid between $50,000 and $100,000 and direct the unincorporated city's facilities, services and finances.

The two activists abstained, despite Columbia Association (CA) President Padraic Kennedy's assurances that votes on the officers would be based on "more than faith." Other council members expressed confidence in Mr. Kennedy's recommendations, because the council evaluates him directly.

The vote, Ms. Rose and Mr. Rees say, was an example of the tail wagging the dog, a clear demonstration that the elected council is too often uncritical and easily influenced by CA's professional staff that runs the unincorporated city of 80,000.

"One of the biggest disappointments was when residents did get control [in 1982], they didn't take control," said Ms. Rose, a councilwoman from 1974 to 1976, while the board was controlled by members appointed by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

"It could change, but the culture of CA has been that management is in control. . . . It's been really clear [that] important decisions are made by management and brought to the council for approval," said Ms. Rose, a 25-year Columbia resident.

That dynamic has contributed toward what the two consider wasteful spending, membership and program rates that many residents can't afford and a decision-making process that confounds many residents.

Other council members and association leaders say criticism that the council lacks independence -- often leveled by advocates who fail to get their way -- is unfair and belittling.

"There are times we defer to the expertise of [association] staff, and times we say to staff, 'Absolutely not,' " said council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker.

Council members are obliged to "probe deeper" into association proposals, and have ultimate authority, Vice Chairwoman Fran Wishnick said. "Sometimes council members feel their job is to protect the status quo or push through what staff recommends. Generally that means they're in agreement with positions."

CA established in 1965

The private, nonprofit association, the administrative body for the planned community, manages recreational facilities, social programs and common grounds and administers a $40 million budget. The Rouse Co. established the association in 1965 to provide amenities, and wrote legal documents for 10 villages.

The 10-member council is the association's board of directors, setting policy, the budget and the annual property charge.

While Ms. Rose and Mr. Rees pursue overlapping interests, they don't work together. Mr. Rees is a member of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens advocacy group; Ms. Rose is not.

Ms. Kuecker said that incumbent council members "braced" for Mr. Rees' arrival in May. "Being a staunch member of [the alliance], we knew what to expect," she said.

Still, Ms. Rose, 60, a Clarksville Middle School social studies teacher, and Mr. Rees, 55, a University of Baltimore law school professor, have some similar goals:

* Placing more emphasis on the association's public service aspects, which they believe are overshadowed by a "corporate culture."

"I don't think residents should be looked at primarily as a market," Ms. Rose said. "CA is treating residents more as consumers. . . ."

Mr. Kennedy said that the association makes "public service decisions in a prudent and businesslike way," recommending facility and program rates that serve a broad population at reasonable costs while keeping the organization financially viable.

* Making the association more accountable, open and responsive to residents, encouraging broader participation and instituting democratic principles, such as referendums and a "one-person, one-vote" policy rather than one vote per property.

Mr. Rees has questioned whether the council has closed sessions too frequently -- seven during his first three months -- and its failure to vote publicly to close a meeting, state a purpose or record minutes.

* Reducing the association's spending and its $80 million debt.

Ms. Rose said that if past councils had taken more initiative, they might have avoided "mistakes," such as CA's move to a new leased headquarters, approved in 1991, a move she termed a waste of money showing "the institution's needs being given priority over the community's."

She returned to the council in 1992 "probably in a bad mood," she said. "I wanted to make sure nothing like that happened again."

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