Howard's Kremlin

January 09, 2004

THE CHARTER of the Columbia Association, the property owners' association for Maryland's second-largest population center, says its purpose is "the common good and social welfare" of its residents and environs. But over nearly 40 years it often hasn't acted accordingly, and in recent years Columbia's ludicrously undemocratic management appears to have deteriorated into a Kremlin-like nightmare.

When we last weighed in on the unincorporated Howard County new town more than a year ago, we found Orwellian a Columbia Association proposal to force its board to sign a loyalty pledge to CA. That was dropped, but several board members say the same end has since been aggressively pursued. Those board members, elected by Columbia property owners, say they've been told by CA's board and staff that they have only one duty - to CA's corporate interests - even if it conflicts with residents' interests.

Moreover, they paint a dark picture of the board increasingly and improperly conducting business in closed meetings; of being barred from later discussing these matters; of being ordered not to release any CA information not already released; and of being intimidated if they don't comply.

The CA board chairman, Miles Coffman, denies all that. But at a community meeting this week, board member Barbara Russell, a longtime activist, answered many residents' questions on specific CA matters by saying she wasn't allowed to comment.

Talk about the tail wagging the dog. Property owners, who pay for CA through annual tax-like charges, elect representatives to the Columbia Council. The council is toothless save that it also serves as CA's board. Then CA staff tell the board that any action deemed against the corporation's welfare - not always the same as the community's welfare - is a breach of duty.

This is no tempest in a teapot. Columbia has 96,000 residents. CA's operating budget exceeds $50 million, it carries $78 million in long-term debt, and unlike governing bodies everywhere these days, it's rolling in dough. In large part, that's because CA charges rise with property values, which jumped 33.3 percent in east Columbia with last year's triennial reassessment and 47.4 percent this year in west Columbia. And get this: Unlike the state and Howard County - which respectively cap annual property tax increases at 10 percent and 5 percent - CA reaps entire reassessment hikes as immediate windfalls.

Thus, when irate east Columbians last year tried to get CA to refund millions of dollars of this windfall, they ran into a self-serving bureaucracy - plus some board members who, like Ms. Russell, say they've been gagged. Under pressure, CA now may lower its lien rate, and Del. Shane E. Pendergrass plans to file two bills in Annapolis allowing a Columbia vote on capping CA's lien increases at 10 percent. But far beyond that, the real problem is a nonprofit long accused of operating too much for its staff's interests via an intolerable governance system begging for wholesale changes.

Those overdue changes could be sparked variously by state legislation, potential lawsuits or merely Columbia's largely long-silent property owners for once electing a CA board majority truly committed to installing democracy and taking back control of the organization from its staff.

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