Council power structure at stake

Election on Saturday could tip balance in group

Contests in three villages


April 21, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The often-fractious Columbia Council has been nearly evenly divided over contentious issues this term - leading to clashing personalities and harsh accusations - but the power structure of the group could change with Saturday's election.

In recent months, the council has argued about state legislation that would impose a cap on rising property assessments in the planned community, whether the group was violating open-meetings laws and if a council member's behavior was threatening to Columbia Association staff.

The election could tip the balance of the 10-member council, whose members also make up the Columbia Association board. Six seats are up for grabs, and the three contested elections - Harper's Choice, Town Center and Hickory Ridge - could result in a clear majority for one side of the council.

"I think it's a very crucial election for what Columbia will look like in the future," said Lanny J. Morrison, a former council chairman.

The two factions on the nonpartisan council can't be easily labeled. Alex Hekimian, president of the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, calls the two sides: "Those that do whatever the corporation needs vs. what the residents need."

Morrison separates them into: "One group portrays itself as populists, but all they do is complain. And I think that the other group just works very tirelessly to try and make the community better for everyone."

Generally, half of the council - and half of those running in the challenged races - is fearful that the alliance might get a majority. ABC usually supports the views of five council members - Joshua Feldmark, David Hlass and Barbara Russell, as well as Phil Marcus and Wolfger Schneider, who are members of the group.

"They will destroy the Columbia I have come to love," Harper's Choice candidate Kathleen Larson said of the alliance during a candidates' forum last week.

Schneider, who is seeking re-election to his Harper's Choice seat, said he doesn't always support the alliance's tactics - which can be aggressive at times - but he does think the group has a role in questioning some of the council's decisions.

"It really is the only organized group that always keeps track of CA," he said during the forum. "This election hopefully is not about ABC but CA."

As a nonprofit organization, ABC does not endorse candidates. However, group spokesman Joel Pearlman predicted that individual members likely would back Schneider, Hickory Ridge candidate Fred Franklin-Campbell and Town Center candidate Jud Malone.

"I think I can say that virtually all the members of the organization, speaking as individuals, really want to see some major changes in the election," Pearlman said.

The council members usually supported by the alliance were in favor of state legislation - which the 2004 General Assembly approved - that would impose a 10 percent cap on the impact of property assessments in the calculation of the annual charge the Columbia Association imposes on homeowners.

Malone and Franklin-Campbell also supported the bill.

The other half of the council wanted the legislation to be voluntary, a move that Hickory Ridge incumbent Miles Coffman supports. Larson supports the 10 percent cap, but is unsure if the legislation was the best way to accomplish it.

Town Center incumbent Donna L. Rice said she feels that residents would have benefited more financially without the cap because the board was poised to lower the annual-charge rate by a dime before the legislation was submitted. Instead, the board lowered it by a nickel, to 68 cents per $100 of assessed value on 50 percent of a property's worth.

The council is also divided over whether the group complies with the state Homeowners Association Act's policies on open meetings, with Feldmark, Marcus, Russell and Schneider accusing the others of abusing the ability to meet in closed sessions.

On another contentious issue, when Marcus was accused this year of verbally abusing Columbia Association staff members, Schneider, Russell and Feldmark rose to his defense.

Those who are supporting Coffman, Rice and Larson fear that if the other candidates win, the association's recreational facilities - which include 23 outdoor pools, three gyms and two golf courses - could be at risk.

"I'm afraid that [ABC members are] too off-center," said Dave Leonard, chairman of the Columbia Association's Hobbit's Glen/Fairway Hills Golf Committee. "And if they got in power, some of the things they might propose would be truly counterproductive of keeping CA a very healthy and viable operation."

Pearlman said the fate of Columbia is hanging on Saturday's election.

"I think the next board will have major decisions to make about many issues, including the openness ... whether to make the [facility] rates and assessment fair, whether to have reasonable conflict-of-interest rules for the board of directors, whether to hold the [association] staff accountable for their work," he said.

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