Meeting to look at dual CA roles

Members of council also function as board

`Conflicts are in black and white'

Councilwoman Russell to lead discussion tonight

January 06, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Columbia Council members have long been acting in dual roles -- as councilors they represent their village, but they also function as board members whose function is to serve the Columbia Association.

That troubles council member Barbara Russell, who believes there is an inherent conflict of interest between the two positions. Russell will lead a discussion about the problems she says this presents at 7:30 tonight at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills Village Center.

"A lot of these conflicts are in black and white," said Russell, who represents Oakland Mills on the council and board.

The same 10 people serve on the board and the council. After the public elects council members, the council appoints itself as the board each year.

Russell said board members are told that their primary purpose is to serve the corporation, but as council members they are supposed to be advocates on behalf of their constituents.

"I hope there will be a dialogue as to how this can change and how it must change," she said.

Board Chairman Miles Coff- man said he has not seen a conflict between the two positions.

"I think we try to do what's best and weigh all the factors," he said.

Russell has invited Columbia's 10 village boards and also notified Coffman and Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown about the meeting.

One of the main conflicts is the board's closed meetings, Russell said. The rules that govern the board allow for closed meetings for issues including consulting with legal counsel or discussing personnel matters. But Russell said the regulations can be interpreted broadly, allowing the board to close meetings to discuss subjects that she thinks should be open to the public.

"I cannot legitimately and legally keep my constituents informed about what's going on in a lot of areas because I am prohibited from revealing what goes on in closed meetings," she said. "And should I do so, I would be subject to a condemnation or being removed from the board."

Coffman said that since he has been chairman -- he was elected to the position in 2002 -- every closed session was for legitimate reasons.

"We're a private entity," he said. "We've got the right and should do some of those things in closed session."

Russell said she thinks this conflict has become increasingly important now that Columbia's homes have been sharply increasing in value, resulting in extra assessment income going to the Columbia Association.

In 2002, east Columbia homes increased an average 33.4 percent. West Columbia homeowners just received notices about their property reassessments, and homes there increased an average of 47 percent, said Kent T. Finkelsen, assistant supervisor for assessments in Howard County.

In response to residents' outcry about the booming assessments, the board has included a 10-cent reduction in the assessment rate in the association's proposed 2005 and 2006 budgets. The budgets call for the rate -- which is based on property values and is now 73 cents per $100 of valuation assessed on 50 percent of the fair market value -- to be dropped to 63 cents.

The board is scheduled to approve the 2005 budget next month, when it will also conditionally approve the 2006 budget.

In the past, the board has discussed the complications of its dual roles. In 2002, the board struggled with the association's Governance Structure Committee recommendation to merge the council and board and meet only as the board.

At that time, the association's general counsel, Sheri Fanaroff, explained to members that while serving as the board, they are obligated to act in the best interest of the homeowners association. If the council no longer exists, the elected representatives may not have the leeway to act as political activists, she told the board.

The issue of merging the two groups is now part of the council's strategic plan.

Joel Pearlman, a spokesman for the citizens watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, said there should be no conflict between the two roles -- the council and the board should work for the interests of the residents, he said.

"The purpose of the corporation is to serve the people of Columbia, and everything the corporation does should be to serve the people of Columbia," he said.

Russell said she hopes the discussion at tonight's meeting will help lead to a solution that will stop the "split personality" of the council representative.

"We're the same person," she said. "We're not a two-headed animal."

Tonight's meeting is scheduled at 7:30 at The Other Barn, 5851 Robert Oliver Place. Information: 410-730-4610.

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