E-mails spark board dispute

CA panel members criticize colleague for missives

` ... I stand by what I said'

A similar debate erupted in the association last year


March 02, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A similar debate erupted in the association last yearFor the second time this term, some Columbia Association board members are crying foul because a colleague is sending e-mails about board business without specifying the missives represent only the author's personal views.

Board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart has written e-mails to Columbia's village boards, the Howard County Council and Howard County's state legislators to lobby the groups to not support state legislation that would limit the association's assessment income.

At least two board members claim Atkinson-Stewart's e-mails contain falsehoods and imply that she is representing the board's views, which she was not authorized to do.

"It's gotten to the ridiculous point now," said board Vice Chairman Joshua Feldmark.

Atkinson-Stewart, who represents Owen Brown, said she did nothing inappropriate.

"Everything I wrote is truthful as I understand it," she said. The e-mails were "between me, the villages and the people that I sent it to."

In nearly identical e-mails sent last month to the County Council and the delegation, Atkinson-Stewart wrote that the board voted against Del. Shane E. Pendergrass' legislation, which would impose a 10 percent ceiling on rising property assessments in Columbia, because it used language that would make the cap mandatory.

However, Feldmark said the board voted only to ask Pendergrass to change the bill so the cap would be voluntary. He said the board did not vote to oppose the bill. In a split 5-5 vote, a motion to support Pendergrass' bill as written, with the mandatory language, failed.

"That absolutely was not the vote," Feldmark said of Atkinson-Stewart's statement. "The vote was simply to ask Shane to remove the mandatory language."

Board Chairman Miles Coffman said he had not seen the e-mails and questioned why Feldmark has not asked that the issue be placed on a board meeting agenda.

"I take offense that he is running to the paper when he has not requested a discussion topic," Coffman said.

In none of the e-mails does Atkinson-Stewart write that she is representing only her views. A similar e-mail controversy erupted last year, when board member Phil Marcus of Kings Contrivance sent e-mails about proposed development in Town Center and did not write that he was not representing the board's views.

Some board members said Marcus' e-mails were filled with innuendo, and the episode caused such bad feelings among board members that a professional facilitator was called in to attempt to smooth things over.

Feldmark said Atkinson-Stewart's e-mail to the council implies that she is writing on the board's behalf. She writes that she is a member of the board and that the e-mail is to inform the council of the board's actions. He said Atkinson-Stewart should be held to the same standards that were imposed on Marcus.

"It comes down to fairness," Feldmark said. "If we're going to chastise Phil ... for [his] behavior or attitudes, then why aren't we doing the same thing here?"

Board member Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills, echoed Feldmark's concerns and said the board shouldn't "pick and chose which board members we correct or criticize."

"When you have a case ... where there are misstatements and when the person doesn't identify themselves as speaking only for themselves, I really do think in fairness that really should be brought up before the board," she said.

Atkinson-Stewart said she was expressing only her personal opinion in her e-mails.

"I didn't sign it as a board member, I am an individual," she said. " ... I stand by what I said."

The first e-mail by Atkinson-Stewart that caused concern was sent in January, reporting on a meeting Pendergrass held with villages to discuss her legislation. Atkinson-Stewart's e-mail painted a bleak picture of what would happen if the legislation passes.

"Restrictions to raise required revenue that ultimately will affect the quality of life as we have had it for 35 years, will affect the future generations. Social programs such as camps, teen programs, before and after school care will be the first programs affected, then mowing and removing snow will follow," she wrote.

Atkinson-Stewart also wrote that Pendergrass characterized her legislation as a bill that would "bring CA to its knees." Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, denies making such a comment.

In a reply e-mail, board member Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice called Atkinson-Stewart's report "fear mongering."

In another e-mail sent in January, titled "What you won't read about in the media," Atkinson-Stewart accused Russell, Marcus, Schneider and Feldmark of meeting secretly to agree to call a board meeting after a work session to initiate a vote on the assessment legislation.

"It is a fact that some of the above Board members ... have consistently bad-mouthed the Board to the press about `unspecified closed/secret meetings', yet they clearly met in secret themselves with no due notice to all that are concerned about this issue," she wrote.

In a response e-mail, Schneider defended his and the other board members' moves, explaining they felt that the board should take a position on the bill before Pendergrass filed it, which she did Feb. 2.

"There were no `secret meetings' as implied by Pearl to discredit us," he wrote. "As US citizens we still, I believe ... have the right to talk among ourselves and that was what we did by e-mail and phone ... "

Russell said Atkinson-Stewart's e-mails were unfortunate and written in an unprofessional tone.

"I think it detracts from the legitimate work for our board to have to deal with the fallout from those memos as far as correcting the inaccuracies and dealing with the questions that arise," she said.

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