Council member stipends proposed

$5,000 seen as incentive to attract more candidates

Panel now is unpaid volunteers

January 15, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Kirk Halpin thinks he may have found an incentive to spur democracy in Columbia -- $5,000 for each winner of a seat on the Columbia Council.

In the draft of the Columbia Association's $45.8 million 2004 fiscal budget, Halpin, who is a council member, is proposing that each of the 10 council members be awarded $5,000 -- the first time the council would be paid in the association's history -- if they attend at least 80 percent of the meetings.

Halpin, of Kings Contrivance, said he has been frustrated by the small number of people running for seats on the 10-member council that governs the 95,000-resident homeowners association.

Last year, six council members were up for re-election, and only three races were contested, with one challenger each. Town Center did not hold elections last year because its council candidate and two village board candidates were unopposed.

"The council/board has so much responsibility over what happens in Columbia," Halpin said. "Yet we have uncontested elections. ... If there's only one person running, I think that hurts things."

But critics say the council -- which also acts as the homeowners association's board of directors -- is a volunteer position, and residents should not be lured by money to run.

Under Halpin's proposal, board members would be eligible for the stipends if they attend at least 80 percent of the regular and special meetings and the executive sessions, from beginning to end. The stipends would last for two years, unless the association board voted to extended the initiative.

Halpin said the stipends would also encourage higher attendance at the council meetings as well as garner credibility for the positions. "People will understand that this is a $50 million company essentially, a nonprofit, that the 10 of us are running," he said. "I think people don't understand that."

Alex Hekimian, president of the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, disagreed. He said money is "definitely a wrong reason" for wanting to run for the council. He said the stipends are inconsistent with the role of the council.

"This was meant to be a volunteer board," he said. "[The proposed stipends] are flying in the face of the intent of that role."

Councilman Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice echoed those concerns, saying that he was unsure if $5,000 is the "right incentive."

"I would rather have people run because they feel there's something urgent to be done," he said.

Vince Marando, a member of the Wilde Lake Village Board, said he does not disagree with compensating council members. However, he said stipends should be considered in the context of the strategic planning process, during which the council is addressing Columbia's needs, or the governance committee report, in which a committee offers suggestions to simplify the association's often-complicated governing process.

The way the stipends are proposed does not take into account the most important issue -- trying to find the best way to strengthen the council, he said.

The stipends "are not connected to any other changes," Marando said. "Just providing someone money without looking at the nature of the institution would be an impediment to reform."

Other local elected boards receive financial compensation. County Board of Education members are paid $12,000 a year, while the chair receives $14,000. Members of the County Council are paid $33,800 annually; the chair gets another $1,000.

Though unpaid, Columbia Council members receive some benefits and financial reimbursements. The most expensive perk is an annual Package Plan Plus membership, allowing council members to use nearly all of the association's recreational facilities, including the 23 outdoor pools, three gyms and two golf courses. The association charges individuals $822 for that membership.

Council members also can be reimbursed for up to $200 annually for expenses incurred while doing their jobs, including parking fees, public transportation, meals for daylong meetings, event fees and educational materials. Mileage can be expensed for transportation to meetings relating to association business.

Members are eligible for an annual $500 credit for Columbia Association programs and services, which does not cover pro-shop products or tickets.

The association also pays and provides for members' computer needs. They are reimbursed up to $600 for Internet access, and the association will lend computer equipment and software to council members, if needed.

When the association board approves a budget next month, three members will be voting on whether to pay themselves the stipend; they are in the middle of two-year terms.

"I don't think that's right," said Schneider, one of the three. "I suppose it's somewhat of a conflict of interest."

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