Town leaders' 2 roles topic of meeting

Council members serving as association's board seen as source of conflict

`A very difficult position'

Sessions closed to public, atmosphere of secrecy concern some on panels

Columbia

January 07, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Perceived conflicts arising from the dual roles of Columbia Council members, who also act as board members of the Columbia Association, were discussed last night in a meeting attended by several dozen residents.

The session was arranged by Councilwoman Barbara Russell, who believes that council members cannot adequately represent their constituents if, as board members, they are primarily supposed to serve the Columbia Association.

"I find it a very difficult position to be in," Russell told the more than 35 people attending the meeting at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills Village Center.

The board and council are composed of the same 10 people. Residents in each of Columbia's 10 villages elect a representative to the council, then the council members appoint themselves to the board each year.

Russell, who represents Oakland Mills on the council and the board, said board members are told, "We must first and foremost think of our role of serving the corporation." She said the members' roles can be complicated during the board's closed meetings.

Under the board's rules, meetings can be closed for matters including discussions of personnel issues and consultation with legal counsel. While Russell acknowledged that some issues have been appropriately discussed in closed sessions, other matters, she believes, should have been taken up in public.

Russell said she is becoming "more and more uncomfortable with the information I cannot share."

In an earlier interview, Miles Coffman said that since he was elected board chairman in 2002, any closing of a meeting to the public was done for legitimate reasons.

Phil Marcus, who represents Kings Contrivance, said at last night's meeting that the board has been acting in an atmosphere of "secrecy and intimidation. ... There are bullies on the board."

Marcus, who did not offer names, told the gathering that the remedy is to elect new representatives to replace such members.

Joel Pearlman, a spokesman for the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, called the Columbia Association board "a total disgrace." He accused the board and the association of "an apparent breach of probably two handfuls of different laws."

Ideas about changing the format of the association's governing structure have been discussed in recent years.

A 2002 report by the association's Governance Structure Committee recommended merging the council and board, with the group meeting only as the board. The board struggled with whether that was a good idea, with some members worrying that if the council was defunct, they would lose their ability to act as political activists.

Ruth Cargo, an Oakland Mills resident who served on the governance committee, said last night that the committee was not endorsing the board's roles over the council's duties in its recommendation. The committee just wanted the group to meet as one body, she said.

Merging the two groups is being considered as part of the council's strategic plan.

To address the association's sometimes confusing governance structure, Joshua Feldmark, who represents Wilde Lake on the council and board, is proposing a radical change to the structure of the Columbia Association's leadership - eliminating the council and having residents elect the 10 board members.

He also proposes adding to the board an 11th member, who would be elected Columbia-wide. The position would be paid and full-time, and Feldmark has suggested that the person act as chairman.

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