Matter of allegiance for Columbia group

Oath: A proposal to require council members to pledge `undivided' loyalty to the homeowners organization is splitting officials.

May 02, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

I pledge allegiance to the ... homeowners association?

Even in a time of flag-waving patriotism, this proposed oath of loyalty stands out: It would require Columbia Council members to swear their "undivided allegiance" to the Columbia Association.

Critics call the pledge - which resembles a written oath of office - unnecessary, while supporters say it's important that council members make a promise to the community. Just what they are promising is unclear.

Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens watchdog group, said the wording of the pledge reflects an "autocratic, dictatorial form of government."

"They have other allegiances - they're representatives of the people," he said.

Councilwoman Donna L. Rice of Town Center, who led the policy committee that produced the pledge, said the council members should state - either orally or in writing - that despite their different visions for Columbia, they have the best intentions for the community in mind.

"I felt it was important for people who served on the board and council to promise the Columbia community something, at least pledge that they would work toward the behalf of the community in a general sense," she said.

`Extreme'

But Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills called the written pledge "silly," with wording that is "a little extreme."

"We're all adults, and we should know what our responsibilities are when we become members of the board and council," she said.

"And it's up to us to follow those requirements."

The one-page statement would have the council members acknowledge Columbia Association policies as well as its charter and bylaws.

They would also acknowledge that they "have fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to CA that require that I act reasonably, prudently, and in the best interests of CA" and "give my undivided allegiance to CA when I am making decisions affecting CA."

Better than `nothing'

If the association's board of directors - which also acts as the council - approves the pledge, it could accompany an oral oath of office, which Rice said the council first took last year.

Rice said the statement may become an oral pledge, not requiring signatures.

"That certainly is [preferred] over nothing, which is what we had before," she said.

Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge said he thinks it's important for council members to understand their fiduciary responsibilities.

But at first glance, he thinks the statement's wording could use some work.

"They're going to have to work to convince me we need to do it," he said.

Councilman Kirk J. Halpin of Kings Contrivance questions the need for the pledge because adhering to the council's procedures and policies is "nothing new." And he wonders what the penalties would be if someone refused to sign or was found in violation.

"All of those oaths and affirmations I've known and agreed to do, why should I need to do anything else?" he said.

"I'm curious what has changed that has necessitated this."

Councilman Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search said putting the pledge to paper "documents it" and is needed because of issues that came up in a recent change in the association's ethics policy.

Flexibility in wording

Victor Tervala, an attorney with the University of Maryland Institute for Governmental Service, called some of the statement's wording "ambiguous."

"What does undivided allegiance mean?" he said.

But because the association is a private entity and not a governmental body governed by the constitution, the council's pledge can be "really wild and still be OK from a legal perspective," he said.

"They can put whatever they want in these things," he said. "It's a private association, so they can do what they want to do."

In comparison, Howard County Council members and Maryland House delegates take an oral oath of office, promising, among other things, to uphold the U.S. and state constitutions.

The pledge is part of a large packet of recommendations from the board's policy committee that was tabled during a meeting April 25 and likely to be discussed at the council's retreat, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at the Wye River Plantation.

Listing affiliations

Tempers flared at the April 25 meetingwhere the board passed a debated ethics policy change that would restrict board members who were county, state or federal employees from discussing or voting on matters related to their employer.

The board is considering requiring its members to sign a "declaration of affiliations," listing any companies, governmental bodies, agencies or organizations of which they are employees, members or representatives.

Russell, who works for the Howard County government, has said she felt targeted by the ethics policy change.

She called the document an "invasion of privacy" and suggested that the form be changed to reflect the requirements of county employees.

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