Time to open Columbia Council


March 11, 2001|By C. FRASER SMITH

BEFORE HE won a seat on the Columbia Council, Lanny Morrison lamented the council's propensity to meet in private.

As council chairman, he operates as if he were the council's minister of closed doors.

He says he's doing his best with a council that has little interest in collegial decision-making, but his detractors say he arrogates power to himself -- and withholds information critical to their decision-making.

"Lanny Morrison has bent over backward to provide information," said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart. Those who claim otherwise, she said, "want to come here and show off for media consumption."

But Mr. Morrison says some official records are too "sensitive" for council members to see or too difficult to assemble.

So, why have a council if its members are merely in office to endorse one man's judgments?

With new elections approaching, moreover, the council could be easier for Mr. Morrison and his allies to control. Four of the five members who have consistently opposed his approach will not be running in the April elections.

Things could go more smoothly, no doubt, if the new council lines up consistently behind a single point of view. No rational person wants sniping and opposition for its own sake. But the expression of differing opinion -- vigorous questioning -- does not constitute mindless sniping. It is anything but that. It is the soul of rational policy making.

Like any group that wishes to be thought of as smart and democratic, the council needs independent-minded people who will speak their minds. It needs people who don't blow over in light wind.

It needs people like Barbara Russell, Vince Marando and Cecilia Januszkiewicz. Other members of the council have courageously expressed their differing views as well. But this trio has nettled Mr. Morrison on a range of important issues and may now be viewed by some as obstructionists. Two of them have decided enough is enough.

Only Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills plans to run for re-election -- and she has argued with enough interest groups to be in some jeopardy.

"I know I have alienated a lot of people who don't want to see anything changed," she says. The new council will have many complicated issues to consider: Will the council revisit its decision not to annex the Rouse Co.'s mixed-use Emerson (formerly Key) development? It died on a tie vote as opponents were unimpressed with the company's assertion that the city would get needed new revenues.

Meanwhile, important issues are on the council's plate now: taxes, the cost of legal services purchased by the council, and the conduct of council business.

Cases in point:

Ms. Januszkiewicz wishes to examine legal fees totaling $330,000 paid over the last several months. As an elected member of the council who serves also on the Columbia Association's board of directors, she has a right and a responsibility to inquire. The information should have been given to her instantly.

Mr. Morrison denied her request. She may see bills totaling $25,000. No more.

Why? Because, he says, some of the material contains "sensitive" information. Some personnel matters should be carefully managed, of course, but in general terms the reasons for legal expenditures must surely be open to the association's board and the council.

How can they do their jobs otherwise? What do they say to constituents who wonder why so much money has been spent for lawyers?

"If we've paid $330,000 recently, I'd imagine we have some substantial issues but we don't what they are," says Ms. Januszkiewicz.

Ms. Januszkiewicz's inquiry has several interesting sidelights:

It's not an arcane squabble. For a time, it seemed, the council had left Columbia lien payers vulnerable to an increase in what the owed their homeowner's association.

Recently, the board voted to conform its taxing (lien) structure with the state's, moving to a 100 percent valuation system from 50 percent. This was done over the objection of the anti-Morrison faction, which argued that it was at least premature since the Columbia Association is a private entity, not a government subdivision.

An opinion by the attorney general said last week that the change was not necessary. And on Thursday the council agreed it would need to repeal its previous action lest confusion occur in the minds of rate-payers and bond-raters in New York who decide how much CA may borrow and at what rates.

So why was the change rushed through? Under the old set up the lien-rate ceiling was thought to be 75 cents per $100 of value. The council has been told recently, though, that perhaps the cap was 90 cents.

The council's lawyer, David Bamburger, said he knew of no intent to raise the cap. He said a cap higher than 75 cents was arguably allowed based on arithmetic, which some members of the council didn't know. He said he had not intended to keep anyone out of the information flow when he sent certain documents to only three of the board's 10 members.

"This," said Vince Marando, "is probably the best example of the worst decision-making I've ever been party to. It all came at blinding speed. . . We really fired, and then we aimed and we're still not sure where it's going."

Welcome to government in the dark.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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