More openness sought from CA board

Homeowners association closes too many meetings, some panel members say

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

Accusing their colleagues of an abuse of power, several board members of the Columbia Association, which governs the huge homeowners group, are raising protests that some of their meetings are being illegally closed to the public.

Board member Barbara Russell, one of the original residents of the 36-year-old planned community, is leading the charge. She claims that the board is shrouded in secrecy as she attempts to garner community support to make CA -- one of the nation's largest homeowners associations -- conduct more of its business in public and document its executive sessions appropriately.

"I believe we've discussed things at closed meetings that are very integral to what we are doing and have done as the board," said Russell, who represents Oakland Mills, one of Columbia's 10 villages. "And I think the public would be very interested in knowing some of the things we've discussed."

The Columbia Association's leadership denied any wrongdoing.

"The meetings are held, whether they're open or closed, within the guidelines that govern homeowners associations as far as open and closed meetings," said Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown.

Board Chairman Miles Coff- man said that in the past two years, he can recall only one closed session that should have been open, and he challenged other board members to take their concerns to the state attorney general.

Russell's concern recently has received public momentum. At a community meeting she called last month, a few dozen of the town's more than 96,000 residents expressed fear that the board was making important decisions behind closed doors about the $50 million nonprofit organization.

"It's a huge concern," said board member Phil Marcus of Kings Contrivance.

The debate comes at a time when the board is poised to make a major decision on the association's annual charge to homeowners that is based on property assessments and is the association's primary source of income. When the board approves the association's 2005 budget this month, it will decide whether to lower the rate after home reassessments recently skyrocketed throughout Columbia.

The meetings of the Columbia Association board are governed by the state Homeowners Association Act. The act allows homeowners associations to close meetings for reasons including: personnel matters; consulting with legal counsel; consulting with staff members, attorneys or other people involved in potential litigation; considering the terms of a business transaction in the negotiation stage; or if two-thirds of the board members vote for a reason that is "so compelling as to override the general public policy in favor of open meetings."

The board's 10 members -- who also act as elected representatives of their villages on the Columbia Council -- are barred from discussing what occurs in closed meetings, unless the board decides to disclose the information.

Odeana Neal, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said one of the problems with the Homeowners Association Act is that it does not provide a remedy for people who think the board may not be following open-meetings guidelines. She said concerned homeowners could take the association to court or try to vote board members out of office.

"If enough homeowners have the suspicion that something is going on that shouldn't be going on, then they need to elect new officers," she said.

Russell said the provisions for closed meetings can be interpreted broadly. Marcus said the board has a tendency to close meetings to receive advice from its counsel, a move he does not challenge. But, he said, the board will sometimes stay in closed session to take action that he believes should be taken in open session.

However, Coffman said there have been times when he has halted discussion in executive meetings because the topic no longer applies to the reason the session was closed. He also noted that the board tries to disclose information received or discussed in closed session after the meeting concludes, such as Brown's contract or legal opinions.

Marcus and Russell point to a closed session Jan. 7 that they believe should have been public. The board met to develop its stance on pending legislation by Del. Shane E. Pendergrass that would affect how the association collects its annual charge and allow a majority vote of property owners to change the association's covenants.

At the meeting, Russell said she read to the board each reason it could close a meeting, and she felt that none of the criteria were applicable. The meeting was closed, under the provision of considering business terms in the negotiation stage.

"I don't think there was anything that was said that we couldn't have said openly," Russell said. "There was no reason, I don't think, to close the meeting. And I think the meeting would have gone well if it was open."

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