Villages upset over an issue of control

Financial oversight by CA has some board members concerned

January 11, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Members of Columbia's 10 village boards will meet tonight with the Columbia Association's top officials to air their concerns about losing some of their financial independence.

When she took on the post of CA president last summer, Deborah O. McCarty said that one of her priorities was to "re-examine" the relationship between the association and the villages, which act as the planned community's two "branches" of government.

Now, six months after Anne Darrin, the former Dorsey's Search village manager, was accused in a U.S. Bankruptcy Court civil petition of embezzling $121,000 from the village fund, some representatives of the Columbia Council -- an elected group that oversees CA -- are suggesting the villages need more oversight.

The villages are fighting back.

The issue is "who controls those purse strings," said Earl Jones, vice chairman of Oakland Mills Village Board.

"If they [the CA] start controlling and putting up really big constraints in that area, you can become hamstrung at the village level and you become a superficial kind of entity," Jones said.

"In other words, you're a paper tiger," he said.

In addition to McCarty, all CA vice presidents and many senior staff members are expected to attend the meeting, which begins at 7: 30 p.m. at Owen Brown Community Center.

A task force made up of Columbia Council representatives has been meeting for months to determine whether to make changes in the way it allocates funds to the community associations. The makeup of the task force itself is a sore point among some village leaders, who feel they have been left out.

In fiscal year 2000, the association will give the villages an estimated $1.4 million in community grants, which go toward paying staff, buying office equipment and, among other things, publishing newsletters.

The amount each village gets is determined in part by population, with the larger villages receiving about $190,000 and the smaller ones about $50,000.

"Part of the council doesn't want to make any changes," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Long Reach's council representative.

"There's another part of the council that says this is $2 million, and we scrutinize the budget for our own staff fairly closely, and with an item this large we ought to look at it."

Jean Friedberg, the council representative from Hickory Ridge, one of the smaller villages, has referred to the village grants as "slush funds."

A joint meeting of officials from several villages in Owen Brown in October revealed the resentment some harbor for the way CA "governs" the 87,000-resident community.

"It's almost like edicts from above," Sarah Uphouse, Long Reach's village manager, said at the time. "I find it extremely, extremely disturbing the lack of knowledge that CA has about the villages."

At the same meeting, Andrew Stack, chairman of Owen Brown Village Board, gave participants a list of "Points to Ponder" about the villages and CA.

"Village associations are not sub-units or departments of CA," it read. "Villages are not subservient to CA. Villages are not controlled by CA."

CA manages the community's recreational facilities and sets policies Columbia-wide, while the villages address local concerns, such as traffic or architectural violations, and organize community events.

Some village board members fear that the villages may be unfairly punished for the financial indiscretions of others, including those allegedly committed by former Dorsey's Search manager Darrin and CA itself, which was criticized by an independent audit in 1997 for using poor spending practices.

McCarty said CA doesn't want to control the villages, but rather make sure the system in place is the most efficient.

"To the extent people have been worried" about losing village autonomy, she said, "that's not at all been the intent."

"The villages are very upset, and I understand that," added Januszkiewicz, the Long Reach council representative. "But I don't think anybody is going to destroy a system that is working. Most people want the villages to continue [dealing with local issues]. The council doesn't really deal well with issues that affect a neighborhood."

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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