Council's Pine quits post after 6 months

He says inability to get data, sniping irksome

October 14, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A Columbia councilman who won his seat in the biggest upset of April's elections has suddenly quit his post, saying he is frustrated by continued sniping on the council and his inability to get financial information from staff.

"I can't work in that kind of environment," said Steven Pine of Kings Contrivance, who submitted a letter of resignation to his village board last week.

Pine's resignation was a surprise to council colleagues. While still strained at times, they said relations on the Columbia Council have improved since their nadir early this year, when members were accusing each other of being racist, lying and leaking information to the media.

Columbia Association (CA) officials disputed Pine's contention that they ignored his request for financial information.

"I'm stunned," said Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown. "I'm really surprised, very surprised. I thought that things were fine with him. ... I felt we worked well together."

Pine's resignation, which took effect immediately Wednesday, occurred less than six months into his two-year term. Members of the Kings Contrivance village board have authority to appoint a replacement. But it was not immediately clear if that person would serve the remainder of Pine's term or only until next April's elections, said Barbara Seely, chairwoman of the village board.

Seely said the board would meet Wednesday to discuss how to proceed. She said she had contacted former Councilman Kirk Halpin, whom Pine defeated, and asked if he would be willing to fill the seat.

"He said, `If the board wants me, I would consider it,'" she said.

Halpin, who had expressed his intention to run for Howard County Council as a Republican in District 3, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Pine, a six-year resident of Columbia, entered the council race during a time of tumultuous politics. Council members had been bitterly divided over the selection of a new CA president and the proposed annexation of a Rouse Co. development in North Laurel.

The database administrator with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory surprised most council observers by defeating Halpin, a corporate and real estate lawyer who was seeking his second two-year term with the backing of Vote 01, a community group representing Columbia's establishment.

Pine made an issue of Halpin's support for two contentious council matters: the annexation plan and a decision to change the way CA calculates lien rates.

The annexation plan failed. The lien change passed, but the council later reversed itself amid fears that the measure put homeowners at risk of sharply higher assessment bills.

Once on the council, Pine, 48, called for greater fiscal responsibility and openness for the organization.

He raised questions about a plan, approved by the council in August with him abstaining, to expand CA's Volunteer Corps into a countywide service. Pine questioned whether CA should broaden its reach beyond the borders of the planned community it was created to serve.

Pine said he was frustrated because he had not been able to get certain financial information from Rafia Siddiqui, CA's chief financial officer. At least two months ago, as a member of the council's financial management committee, Pine said he asked how much money CA donates to outside organizations such as the Columbia Foundation.

Pine said he never received the information.

"I thinks those grants that CA gives should be public knowledge, so what's the big deal?" he said.

Siddiqui said Pine made the request only at the last committee meeting, Sept. 18, and that she was getting the material ready for the next committee meeting, which is Thursday.

Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge, who chairs the committee, said Pine might have raised the question at an earlier meeting but the committee did not formally request the information until Sept. 18.

During his term, Pine often was aligned with Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, who called him an "independent thinker" who worked hard to serve his constituents.

"I'm very sorry to see him leave the board," Russell said. "I think that it's an indication of how hard it is to serve on the Columbia Council when you're not willing to march in lockstep with what the staff wants and what a few of the board members want. And it's a shame because everybody is elected to represent his or her constituency, not to be part of a private club."

Pine said he has been dismayed by the way Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice treated Russell, frequently cutting her off or asking if she had something "new" to say.

"I didn't see him talking to other people in the same way," Pine said.

Morrison denied picking on Russell.

"The job of the chairman or a chairwoman is to move the meetings along and if the members start repeating themselves, the proper role of the chair is to say, `Is there anything new?' And there is not a person on the council who has not heard that," Morrison said.

"Overall, I'm very surprised and saddened that Steve's leaving," Morrison said. "I like the man and I was looking forward to continuing to work with him."

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