`Animal Farm'

May 07, 2002

THERE THEY go again.

Over the years, those who control the Columbia Association - the giant homeowners' association that runs that planned community's wealth of recreation programs and facilities - have exposed themselves to no end of ridicule with various schemes to stifle public debate.

You'd think that the elected representatives of one of Maryland's richest, best-educated places - albeit elected in sparsely attended community votes - would finally figure out the basics of an open society, even short of endorsing the messiness of full-blown democracy. Instead, CA seems to be moving ever closer to George Orwell's Animal Farm with its current effort to compel its duly elected board members to sign a pledge of allegiance.

On the face of it, CA's proposed pledge seems innocuous and proper, making reference to acknowledging the nonprofit's charter and a list of previously adopted policies on ethics, expenses, information requests, closed meetings and procedures. But then the pledge asks CA board members to acknowledge that their "fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to CA" require they act "reasonably, prudently and in the best interests of CA."

Still sounds OK, does it? But that, of course, is pretty much what the law already requires of the board members of any incorporated group. If you really think they're violating their duties, you can take them to court and prove it.

The pledge really gets distasteful, though, when it comes to the notion of "best interests" - and who defines them. Isn't that what community politics are all about: differing views of the common good? What if the "best interests" of the residents who elected a board member somehow clash with those of CA? The CA board ought to be able to represent residents and argue over the community's "best interests" without those in the minority fearing they might be accused of violating this pledge and end up punished by some sort of majority-led kangaroo court.

Barbara Russell, a CA board member who frequently has been at odds with the board's majority in trying to publicly discuss community issues, believes this could well happen.

"I don't want to sound paranoid," she says of the majority's push for the pledge. "But their whole goal is not to have any debate, not have any ideas out there but theirs. And since they have not been able to shut me up, they now want to put me in a position with this pledge where they can ultimately kick me off the board."

This may not be a conspiracy to gang up on Ms. Russell. It may only be an effort to educate the board on its responsibilities. But there are other ways to do that - and this one doesn't pass the smell test. At best, it's legally redundant. At worst, it's a loyalty oath born of mean-spirited, small-town fascism.

If CA board members really want to stop making a mockery of themselves and, by extension, their community, they should forget about this pledge - and stop mistaking dissent for disloyalty.

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