Governance models draw mixed reviews

Committee's plans lauded in part

none earns full support

Rapid change unlikely

Suggestions include merging council, CA board

3-year terms

March 17, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

It took a committee of Columbia residents nearly a year and a half to come up with a plan to change the way the unincorporated town is governed.

Many more months will pass before any of those changes are implemented -- if they ever are, Columbia Council members said last week after receiving the Columbia Association Governance Structure Committee's 46-page report.

"It's not going to just happen," said Councilman Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search, who once served on the committee and predicted that any changes would take two to three years. Chairman Lanny Morrison said legal opinions and input from Columbia's 10 villages would be needed before any changes are made. He said nothing is likely to happen before council elections at the end of next month.

"There's a 35-year history there," he said. "Let's not rush into anything, particularly in the middle of an election cycle."

The committee spent 15 months studying the Columbia Association, one of the nation's largest homeowners organizations, which provides recreational services, maintains open space and enforces property standards in the unincorporated town of 88,000.

Some residents complain that the quasi-municipal-corporate hybrid is confusing and undemocratic. Each village gets one representative on the 10-member council, regardless of population. The same 10 people serve on the association's board of directors, a separate body whose function is sometimes unclear -- even to its members.

Voting rights, election rules and council terms vary by village. In some parts of town, it's one person, one vote. In others, it's one vote per household -- and more votes for anyone who owns more property.

The committee made a number of recommendations, including merging the council and board into a single body; establishing three-year, staggered board terms; strengthening the role of the board chairman; and reducing the number of association staff members who serve as Columbia Association corporate officers.

The committee also presented three very different models, endorsing none of them. One added an 11th, at-large member to the board. Another suggested board members appointed by elected village officials, rather than elected directly by residents. The third established "one person, one vote" election rules across town and elected board members at large.

`This is ... a first step'

The proposals, presented at a council meeting Thursday night, drew mixed reactions. Several council members said they liked bits and pieces of different models, but none of the plans as a whole.

"It's a great way to frame the debate, and my hope is just that this is taken as a first step to a very invigorating communitywide discussion," said Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake.

Even if the council can agree on changes, the mechanics of implementing them are not clear.

Past attempts to change voting rules in some villages have run into a seemingly insurmountable hurdle: Village bylaws require that 90 percent of eligible voters agree to the change. This in a town where about 2,000 of 88,000 residents bother to vote -- in a hot election year.

The governance committee believes it has found a way around this obstacle: eliminate the council and make the board of directors the town's sole governing body.

Although those practically immutable village bylaws determine how council members are selected, Columbia Association bylaws govern how the board is chosen. Association bylaws are much simpler to change -- by board vote, the committee contends.

Some council members, including Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge, question whether the board has the power to circumvent village bylaws. They say more legal research is needed.

Even if the board has that right, some council members said they are not sure whether they ought to make that kind of change if villages are not in favor.

"I think there's some good stuff [in the report], and I think it's really going to cause us to think and go get some legal input on what we can or can't do," Coffman said. "It's time to really dig through those things and see what we can do."

Objections to appointments

Several council members took exception to the appointed-board model. To explain that option, the report stated that voters did not adequately examine candidates' qualifications and were not "sufficiently equipped or inclined" to choose the board.

"It's almost a slap in the face to all of us on the board," Coffman said.

Coffman said he does not favor lengthening terms, adding an 11th member, or reducing the size of the board to five or seven members, another proposal in the report.

Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills said she favors three-year terms and reducing the number of Columbia Association employees who are corporate officers. She does not favor expanding the power of the chairman or creating an appointed board.

"If the council does take this seriously -- and I hope they will -- I think what will happen is that there will be a quilting together of what people think are the best aspects of the report," Russell said.

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