Board seeks civil talks

CA directors aiming for respectful discussions

`What would James Rouse do?'

Panel urged to honor `diversity of opinions'


May 12, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The inaugural meeting of the new Columbia Association Board of Directors turned into something of a civics seminar last week as Howard County political leaders noted recent conflicts on the board and urged the Columbia leaders to openly debate issues and respect diverse ideas.

County Executive James N. Robey told the board Thursday night that "we have something very sacred to protect here" and encouraged them to disagree with each other.

"Different points of view are critical to Columbia's continued success," he said.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo recognized that "clearly, it hasn't been an easy year" for the board and said she hoped the group would find a way to have full and open discussions of matters.

Drawing a parallel to a popular religious saying, Bobo suggested that when making decisions, the board consider, "What would James Rouse do?"

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray said the board's new year gives members a chance to consider their process "to ensure that the tolerance that is the foundation of our community is mirrored in our association's governing board, that Columbia's respect for diversity extends to diversity of opinions and ideas."

"We needn't be threatened by new ideas," said Gray, who formerly chaired the Dorsey's Search village board.

The comments urging open debate reflected concerns that residents have voiced, accusing members of the 10-person board - which also acts as the Columbia Council for the homeowners association - of personal attacks and trying to stifle diverse opinions.

Some of the criticism stems from an ethics-policy revision the board passed last month that restricts board members who work for the county, state or federal government from discussing or voting on matters related to those entities.

Columbia Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, who works for Howard County government, has said she felt targeted by the policy. Some residents voiced similar concerns.

The council is also at odds over a proposed pledge, which resembles a written oath of office, that the council members would sign, acknowledging 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."

The pledge, which drew complaints from members who questioned the meaning of "undivided allegiance," was tabled last month with a "declaration of affiliations" requiring council members to list any companies, governmental bodies, agencies or organizations of which they are employees, members or representatives.

Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake attempted to table the pledge proposal Thursday because he didn't see the need for the written document, as he accepted his responsibilities to the community when he was elected.

"I really don't like the symbolism that's going on," he said. "I don't like being asked to sign to declare my allegiance to something I already agreed to."

Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown said the pledge coincides with what's required of the village boards, and that the council should do the same.

"It's just a clear way of saying you know the various rights and obligations," she said.

Feldmark's motion was defeated, and the board decided in a 7-3 vote to send the pledge and the declaration of affiliations document back to the ethics committee for rewording.

Also Thursday night, the board implemented ideas aimed at increasing the group's effectiveness that were discussed at the council's Wye River retreat May 4 and 5.

At Wye River, the board talked about ways to improve discussion by adhering to time limits and showing respect for majority and minority viewpoints, as well as reducing the number of meetings. "It behooves this group to develop a better process," Council Chairman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge said.

Russell said she felt that Coffman set a new tone for the retreat, allowing council members to "discuss issues of disagreement without being disagreeable."

"We had frank and open discussions," she said before the meeting. "And they were conducted in a civil matter."

The board also formed a task force of council members to monitor the group's behavior according to its values. Members include Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance, Donna L. Rice of Town Center and Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice.

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