Council mulls revised policy on conflicts

Members who work in public sector would face restrictions

Russell feels `targeted'

Some critics see proposal as personally motivated after day care flap

April 25, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

If a Columbia Council member works for a company with business before the council, that member is not supposed to vote on the matter or even participate in discussions.

But if the council member works for a county, state or federal agency, no similar restriction exists under the Columbia Association's policy on conflict of interest and ethics.

That could change tonight when the Columbia Association's board of directors, which also serves as the council, considers altering the policy to include government agencies. Supporters say the move would close a significant loophole.

"The recommendation is based on a belief that everyone should be subject, if they're on the board or the council, to the same conflict-of-interest policy - period," said council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice.

But critics contend the proposal is unnecessary and constitutes a personal attack on Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, who works for Howard County and recently pushed to shift a Columbia Association program to the county. Russell says the change would shut her out of important decisions at a time when there is growing interest in forging partnerships between the homeowners association and the county.

"I feel I'm being targeted," she said.

Supporters of the policy change dispute Russell's claim, but acknowledge that the proposal stemmed from her recent attempt to transfer Columbia Association's before- and after-school program to the county.

"Barbara feels like a target right now but she just happened to be the one that reminded everybody" about the potential for conflicts, said Councilman Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search.

The conflict-of-interest proposal surfaced this spring after Russell supported a plan to transfer Columbia Association's day care program to the county. She said the program duplicates county-run day care, which Columbia residents already support through county taxes.

Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge suggested that Russell had a conflict: She was advocating the transfer of a "money-making" program to her employer.

The day care program is projected to post a $167,000 operating profit in the fiscal year that ends Tuesday, but the Columbia Association actually will lose $15,000 on it when administrative expenses, depreciation and other long-term expenses are factored in.

"That's the funniest part," said Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake, who supports Russell. "I can't imagine the County Council is champing at the bit to get our before- and after-school program."

The program is projected to make $58,000 in the fiscal year that begins May 1.

Russell said she was entitled to vote on the day care plan and other matters related to the county because she would not benefit financially - even if the county did. The county and Columbia Association have a number of financial dealings, including grass-mowing contracts and a jointly operated volunteer center.

"As an employee of the government, I am prevented from benefiting from my position," said Russell, who works as a senior administrative analyst for the Howard County Council.

But Coffman said Russell could reap a windfall from votes that help the county.

"I think her bosses could promote her because she helped bring them more money," Coffman said.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said his organization supports strict conflict-of-interest policies and does not make a distinction between government and private business. Nor does it distinguish between deals that are moneymakers or money losers.

"It doesn't matter," he said when asked about the day care program's financial losses. "It's setting a precedent for transferring programs that do make money."

Supporters of the policy change say others have avoided even the appearance of conflict between their duty to the Columbia Association and their professional lives. When the council was discussing a planned bond sale in the spring of 2001, Coffman said he did not participate in any way because there was a chance his employer, Bank of America, would be a buyer.

"I actually left the room," Coff- man said.

When Morrison was elected two years ago, he said he disclosed two potential conflicts in writing: his wife was teaching a yoga class at a Columbia Association gym and was a part-time employee of the Columbia Foundation, which receives financial support from the Columbia Association. Morrison said his wife left those positions before any matters related to them came before the council.

Feldmark said there might be merit to the policy change - but he said that has been undermined by the personal politics he sees behind the plan.

"Maybe I would be OK with it or I would consider it objectively if it didn't come out in such a personalized manner," Feldmark said. "I think it's embarrassing. I think it's sad because it's clearly personal."

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