How to Hasten Incorporation

January 19, 1995

In rushing along approval for salary increases for top Columbia Association executives last week, the Columbia Council hoped to convince its paying constituents that it was merely heeding the adage, "You get what you pay for." Raising executive salaries makes it easier to compete for proficient staff, the council reasoned.

But the issue of staff compensation is about more than money. It is a flash point helping to kindle the argument that this largest of non-profit, homeowner associations in the nation hasn't a clue about fundamental principles of governance. Moreover, it shows what happens in a vacuum of accountability; when a rubber-stamp council is in service to an institution accustomed to feeding undisturbed at the trough.

By raising the salary scale for association managers, council members are authorizing an increase in expenditures that could total $48,000 in the coming fiscal year, raising some top-level salaries to as high as $114,000. The decision was made without public discussion. The justification, based on a consultant's report, is that under the former scale association officers were making less than they would in comparable jobs.

Forgetting for a moment that consultant reports can conclude just about anything the sponsor wants, the report itself notes the difficulty in comparing the Columbia Association to the outside world. There was apparently no consideration given to the fact that in the current economic climate, public and private employers alike have seen fit to curtail or greatly suppress pay raises.

The salary action underscores why the move to incorporate Columbia as a charter city is growing, capturing the attention of politically somnolent Columbians as well as the likes of National Public Radio. The Columbia Council, meanwhile, remains oblivious. Councilwoman Evelyn Richardson admitted as much when she said the body never considered public reaction when it approved the raises.

The association that operates recreation amenities for Columbia is not a private corporation and not exactly a government; neither is it a charity, although it could take a lesson from the national United Way and what befell that institution when its leader thumbed his nose at its funding base years ago. If the incorporation petitioners need fuel for their fire, this vote provides some gasoline.

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