Pools, priorities - probation

O'Brien, Coffman square off during Hickory Ridge forum

Columbia

April 03, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The two men running for Columbia Council from Hickory Ridge village appeared at a public forum last night to talk about swimming pools, budget priorities and, in the case of one candidate, the terms of his probation.

Robert E. O'Brien, who is challenging incumbent Miles Coffman, was convicted of misdemeanor assault on a senior Columbia Association official last summer. As a requirement of his 18-months of supervised probation, he can have no contact with Rafia Siddiqui, the Columbia Association's chief financial officer.

State probation officials have asked District Judge Alice P. Clark to clarify if the no-contact order would prohibit O'Brien from serving on the council since Siddiqui attends council meetings.

Joan Lancos of Hickory Ridge, a Howard County Planning Board member and a former Columbia Councilwoman, asked O'Brien how he could make financial decisions for the homeowners association if he is not allowed to communicate with Siddiqui.

"This person isn't indispensable," O'Brien, 67, answered. "Doesn't this person have a deputy? No person is essential."

The probation matter presented the most unusual issue of the evening, but it was hardly the only one. Coffman and O'Brien disagreed on matters ranging from heated neighborhood pools to annexing a Rouse Co. development in North Laurel.

The two agreed on one point: Neither supports turning Columbia into an incorporated city.

The candidates participated in the forum with the five people running for the Hickory Ridge Village Board. There are five open seats, so those races are uncontested. The village board candidates are Tom Louden, David Zeitzer, Pamila Brown, Linda Hitzelberger and Linda Rossiter.

About 12 people attended the meeting, which was held at Kahler Hall in Harper's Choice Village Center because of renovation work under way at Hickory Ridge Village Center.

If elected, O'Brien said, he would push to have neighborhood pools heated and to make the annual admission fee $25 a family. O'Brien acknowledged he had no idea how much it would cost to heat the pools, but he said that some quality-of- life issues cannot be reduced to a "cost-benefit analysis."

"That cannot be quantified in terms of dollars," he said.

Coffman, 51, said that plan was "beyond the fathom of reasonability" given the other needs the Columbia Association has to balance. Coffman said that cutting pool memberships prices from $165 a family to $25 would cost the Columbia Association $3 million to $5 million a year.

The candidates also disagreed on annexation of the so-called Key property, a future Rouse Co. development in North Laurel. The plan died in a tie 5-5 council vote in November. Some residents speculate that the matter will come before the council again, though Rouse officials have called the deal dead.

Coffman said he would support annexation if Rouse paid for all of the recreational amenities. O'Brien said he would support it only if Rouse paid for the amenities and agreed to maintain them.

O'Brien is vice president of the Columbia chapter of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees. He worked for several agencies before retirement, including the State Department. He has lived in Columbia for 22 years.

In 1998 and 1999, he ran unsuccessfully for the Hickory Ridge seat on the 10-member Columbia Council, which sets policies for the homeowners association and oversees a $44 million annual operating budget.

Coffman, a project manager with Bank of America, served on his village board on and off for about 10 years before joining the council last year. He has lived in Columbia for 16 years.

The election is April 21.

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