CA official's comments stir criticism

Board member accused by president, chairman of verbally abusing staff

`This is just not acceptable'

Supporters call charges against Marcus overblown

February 15, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

After writing blunt e-mails and making loud outbursts and what were characterized as questionable comments, a Columbia Association board member has been accused of verbally abusing employees of the homeowners association.

The conduct of Phil Marcus, who represents Kings Contrivance, was called into question at a board meeting Thursday night, when he was accused of contributing to a hostile work environment in his treatment of association staff members.

In a quarter-inch-thick memo to the board, Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown outlined the case against Marcus, highlighting 10 instances of his behavior that she deemed violated the association's workplace violence-prevention policy, which she wrote has a "zero tolerance policy for any action, statement, or other behavior that is ... violent, threatening, intimidating or harassing."

Some of the allegations against Marcus include: verbally attacking Rafia Siddiqui, the association's vice president for administrative services; loudly expressing displeasure with a retreat session; writing hostile e-mail; and asking Sheri Fanaroff, the association's general counsel, during a meeting: "Did you even graduate from high school? Do you even have a high school diploma?"

Brown highlighted some of Marcus' e-mail statements, including: "If it is not forthcoming I will act accordingly" when asking for information; telling Siddiqui that her budget presentation "was not the first time you loaded politics into a presentation - by setting forth your opinions as accounting fact"; and after receiving requested budget information, responding: "That palaver tells me not a damned thing."

"This is just not acceptable behavior. ... It reflects on all of us," said board Chairman Miles Coffman.

Marcus told the board that nothing he ever said or wrote was intended to demean, harass or embarrass anyone.

Board member Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice defended Marcus, pointing out that in many of his e-mails he wrote polite phrases such as, "Thanks and have a great weekend," "beg a favor of you" or "Yours very truly."

Schneider said the charges against Marcus were "overblown" and he characterized Marcus as "sincere" and a "capable" board member.

"Why this campaign against him?" Schneider said. " ... I think one strength of a good board is diversity."

Coffman disagreed with Schneider and said that Marcus' "deviant behavior" is unacceptable.

"What you're basically saying is that if staff doesn't look at you right, you can yell at them," he told Schneider.

Coffman also said that if such behavior continued, he is concerned that the association would have a difficult time hiring new staff members.

"I think it will have a negative affect on the ability of this organization to bring people in," he said.

Board member Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills said she did not believe Marcus' behavior was harassment and that she, too, has been frustrated with association staff members, such as when employees do not promptly provide her with requested material. She said disagreeing with staff members does not translate into abusing them.

"I think our staff and our board in a way are like a dysfunctional family," she said.

Marcus was quiet during most of the discussion, offering his side only at the close of the debate.

"I tend to speak my mind," he said. " ... Sometimes that does, in fact, come off as heated."

In a statement, the Alliance for a Better Columbia - a citizens watchdog group to which Marcus belongs - defended Marcus' actions, contending that Brown's primary complaint is that Marcus "used blunt language with the staff when the staff failed to meet his legitimate requests for actions or information."

"We note that Mr. Marcus has justly criticized many of the policies and practices of the Columbia Association. Therefore, we can't help but think that these unfounded claims are another example of the tactics employed by CA staff to attempt to intimidate its critics," the group wrote.

After the board's discussion Thursday, the group voted to have its policy committee develop guidelines of acceptable behavior toward staff.

Coffman suggested to board members that when dealing with the staff, they consider the situation from staff members' perspective

"From their view, we intimidate them, we beat them up," he said.

Marcus' conduct has been called into question before.

Three months after the board took office in May, it hired a professional facilitator to help members mend strained relations after Marcus sent e-mails about proposed development in Town Center that others characterized as filled with innuendo. Some board members were upset that one of Marcus' e-mails did not clearly state that he was representing his personal views and not those of the board.

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