Council shift may be in the offing

New term could signal a more open approach

Some fear program cuts


April 29, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

When the Columbia Council begins a new one-year term next week, it could signal a shift toward more openness in the governance of the state's largest unincorporated community. But whether the changed balance of power on the 10-member council will lead to cutbacks in recreational or social programs, as some council members fear, remains to be seen.

Before last week's election, the council had been roughly evenly split, with five members supporting state legislation to limit the revenue that the Columbia Association can collect from skyrocketing real estate values. The group also had clashed with the association's senior staff members, and four of the five had pushed for more open meetings of the council.

"Clearly, the people who supported staff are now a minority," said Councilwoman Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills. "And people who most clearly believe that the ultimate responsibility that we have is to the people are in the majority."

That means the council will now be asking for more accountability from the staff, Russell said. The staff should understand the council's policymaking role for the 96,000-resident community and should provide the council information it requests, she said.

The council could also be poised to hold more open meetings. Most members in the new majority had accused the others of abusing the group's ability to meet in closed sessions. With the addition of Jud Malone of Town Center - who in his campaign took positions similar to the other five - they may now be able to garner the votes to keep some meetings open.

"The main point is who's in charge - staff or the [council]," Russell said.

And that leaves some on the other side of the council fearful for the association's future.

Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown said some of the other council members have repeatedly harassed Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown and her staff, and the new power balance will lead to the "crucifixion of Maggie Brown and the Columbia Association."

"The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is mild compared to what they have done and what they will do," Atkinson-Stewart said.

Members of the new majority say they are sure the staff will take the change in stride, and the association's president, with a new three-year contract in hand, says she is "all set to work with the new board."

The former outsiders will get their first chance to flex their muscles May 6, when the new council - whose members also make up the Columbia Association board - meets for the first time and elects a chair and vice chair. Miles Coffman from Hickory Ridge, who has been the chair the past two years, has said he plans to step aside.

A major strain between the two council factions - and a significant campaign issue in the April 24 council election - was whether the Columbia Association should be limited in how much increased revenue it can collect from its annual charge on property when real estate assessments soar, as they have in the supercharged housing market.

After property values grew by one-third on average in east Columbia last year, and by nearly one-half in west Columbia this year, many residents called for the association to reduce the annual charge. Columbians pay that charge in addition to their Howard County property taxes, though the county government is limited by state law from realizing more than a 5 percent increase in revenue from rising real estate assessments.

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, responded to residents' concerns by introducing a bill to impose a 10 percent cap on revenue growth from rising property assessments in the calculation of the annual association charge. The 2004 General Assembly approved the bill.

Pendergrass' legislation is retroactive, forcing the Columbia Association to credit property owners some of the additional $2.7 million in assessment revenue brought in by the reassessments. Legislative analysts estimated the giveback may amount to $600,000.

Half of the council had supported the legislation, while most of the others did not want the state to interfere in the association's affairs and had wanted the legislation to be voluntary.

The association's 2005 operating budget includes a 10 percent assessment cap and a nickel reduction of the annual charge, to 68 cents per $100 of assessed value, on 50 percent of a property's worth.

That budget includes a $4.3 million surplus, but the association also has to deal with $72.4 million in long-term debt, accumulated from building recreational facilities and other amenities dating to the community's founding 36 years ago.

Joel Pearlman, a spokesman for the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, said the elections signify "a clear victory" for residents who pushed for the assessment cap.

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