Columbia Association hires security guard

Audience's unruly behavior at meetings spurs move

February 03, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Columbia Council meetings have become so heated and at times hostile - crowd outbursts, loud commentary during public testimony and occasional obscenities - that the association in James W. Rouse's planned community has hired a security guard to keep the peace.

"We're volunteers, we should not be subjected to the fear of our lives," said Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown village, who added that she feels much safer now that the unarmed, uniformed guard is present. "Some of the meetings are just out of control."

Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown said she hired the guard after meetings escalated beyond what she considers normal impassioned behavior. At a budget hearing last month, village managers were reluctant to ask questions because of the heated atmosphere, she added.

"The purpose of this is to ensure the Columbia Association can continue to conduct public meetings in an orderly manner where everyone can feel secure," she said.

But some residents are wondering what the homeowners association is so afraid of.

"That says a lot about the kind of organization we're dealing with, that they feel threatened by their constituents," said Alex Hekimian, president of the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia.

Security at public meetings isn't uncommon among area governments.

The Anne Arundel and Baltimore County councils have police officers present at each meeting. The Howard County Council has had police officers in the audience or on call, about once a year if a "large crowd that might be irate and need control" is expected, said Howard council administrator Sheila Tolliver.

And based on the recent past, the Columbia Association might not be so paranoid. In August 2000, Rafia Siddiqui, the association's vice president for administrative services, was assaulted by a resident after a meeting on a land-annexation plan.

Columbia Council meetings have become especially intense after home assessments jumped 33.4 percent in east Columbia last year and 47.4 percent in west Columbia this year. That resulted in sharp increases in the association's annual charge to homeowners, which is tied to assessments.

Residents have not threatened the council or staff at meetings, but some have raised their voices, accompanied by accusatory tones, during public testimony. At times they have yelled, grumbled or uttered obscenities about council decisions while seated in the audience.

"I just notice more noise, just disrespect in the room no matter what the people are speaking about," Brown said. "That kind of thing should not be happening in a meeting."

Problems often arise when residents go over their three-minute time limit for public testimony. When council Chairman Miles Coffman has told residents their time has expired, some have loudly demanded to finish. Sometimes, the audience sides with the speaker and angrily yells, "Let him finish!"

As an example of inappropriate behavior, Coffman and Brown pointed to a December meeting in which Joel Pearlman, an Alliance for a Better Columbia spokesman, began talking loudly and tried to approach the lectern during a presentation by the association's citizen budget advisory committee that refuted his group's analysis.

Kathleen Larson, who heads the committee, stood in front of Pearlman, blocking his way to the lectern, explaining that he'd already had his turn to speak.

Pearlman maintains he did nothing wrong and was only trying to respond to the budget committee's claims.

"All I tried to do was make sure they could hear me," he said. "I was sitting at the back of the room."

Council Vice Chairman Joshua Feldmark said hiring a guard may be "overboard," but he added that it can be frightening when people appear to be losing control.

"There's no need to treat any of these issues like we're on a middle school playground," he said.

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