A citizen's view of Columbia's trials

Comment

March 18, 2001|By C. Fraser Smith

YES, VIRGINIA, happily it's true.

Columbians see what's going on. And they do think about issues more complex than lawn mowing and pool hours.

One of these engaged citizens, Tom Laufer, is a meteorologist who has been a Columbia resident since 1972. He offers these observations:

"1. THE COLUMBIA ASSOCIATION HOLDS ALL THE CARDS.

"Under the current covenants structure, as resident lien payers, we have no say in its actions. Any other image to the contrary is just a mirage.

"Refusing to provide financial information regarding expenditures, for example, is common, ongoing practice. The entire presidential selection process was not only costly, but also irrelevant. CA staff could have appointed any one of the candidates for the Columbia Council's rubber-stamp approval.

"Maggie Brown is likely to prove an adequate choice, so the issue is not her appointment, but why wasn't she or any other candidate simply picked and appointed in the first place?

"2. THE COLUMBIA COUNCIL IS AN EMPTY SHELL.

"The council is supposed to function as CA's board of directors overseeing its operations, including finances. Instead it is subservient to it. Among other functions, we are told, the council is charged with approving CA's budget. But how can you successfully oversee expenditures if some financial information is withheld as `sensitive' or `personal'?

"CA staff collects and manages monies from liens and other tax bases. There is no oversight or accountability on how that money is spent or whether the residents are getting their money's worth. Recent employee financial settlements and other dubious consultants' fees are prime examples.

"Why should legal counsel be paid at all for providing faulty advice on the lien structure? Over the years, the preferred approach was for docile councils to rubber-stamp CA staff policies. On the rare occasion of significant council opposition, it was simply ignored -- again quite legally.

"3. THE COLUMBIA ASSOCIATION IS NOT A HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION.

"I asked several residents, including three lawyers, to define what CA is. In response, I got a list of what it is not.

"Contrary to common misconception, CA is not a true homeowners association. In a classical version there is some property, outside one's home or condo, which is under `common' ownership. This phenomena does not exist here. There is no public domain in Columbia.

"Instead, outside one's property and the county's and state's streets and roads within Columbia, everything, including the much touted open space, is privately owned by CA -- and not by lien payers.

"When a mortgage on a home or a loan on a car is paid off, the payers receive ownership of home or car. CA has a debt of about $90 million. If every man, woman and child of the 90,000 residents of Columbia each contributed $1,000 to pay off this debt, they will still own nothing. For CA, lien payers are the equivalent of renters.

"4. MANY COLUMBIANS ARE UNINVOLVED AND UNINFORMED.

"Despite extensive press coverage in the freely distributed Columbia Flier, which reaches every home in Columbia, as well as the Washington Post and The Sun, many current resident Columbians could not differentiate between the Key property and Key West, or Debby McCarty and Debbie Reynolds.

"In several inquiries among neighbors and local friends and colleagues, I met with blank faces when I asked for their opinions on the hot issues of the day. This is a fact that must be faced and addressed by anyone attempting to change the governance status quo.

"5. CA'S SENIOR STAFF IS AN ARM OF THE ROUSE CO.

"The annexation of the Key property at the request of the Rouse Co. was miraculously avoided, literally at the last moment, due to grassroots pressure, in which a sufficient number of residents appeared at several public hearings to express their opposition to the proposal.

"By any objective economic standard, it was a one-sided deal in which the Rouse Co. stood to reap all the financial benefits at the expense of the current Columbia residents.

"Yet, in spite of a dismal track record of previous projections, which resulted in a current debt of close to $90 million, and the presentation of meaningless figures of future income-projection estimates for economic consideration, CA's senior staff stood side by side with the Rouse Co. representatives, vigorously trying to sell the deal to skeptical residents.

"The subsequent public outcry was too much even for the normally docile Columbia Council, which split on this issue, and so the idea was temporarily shelved, to be resurrected in the future with a different council.

"It must also be noted that neither the Rouse Co. nor the CA provided sufficient, timely and widespread notices for these meetings, presumably in the hope of minimizing public attendance.

"And what can be said about the fact that the Rouse Co. and CA, to this day, use the same firm for legal counsel?

"The late James Rouse may have had a rosy vision for Columbia, but a democratic governance was not part of it."

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

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