Village center bans official

Long Reach councilman denies threatening and harassing firm's workers

July 11, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The man who represents Long Reach on the Columbia Council has been hit with a yearlong ban from his village shopping center after he was accused of harassing and threatening employees of the company that manages the commercial and social hub.

David Hlass had been complaining about the new management of the Long Reach village center, Perrine & Wheeler Real Estate Investments in Norfolk, Va. The company president said Hlass was acting as an uninvited liaison between the company and tenants for what he called nonexistent problems.

Jon S. Wheeler, the company's president and chief operating officer, issued the ban June 7. He said he has never banned anyone from the company's 24 shopping centers.

"I think it's very interesting and ironic, and quite honestly sad, that a council member would be banned from his own village center," said Wheeler, who has threatened Hlass with arrest if he defies the ban. "That shows you how serious it is."

Hlass said the merchants asked for his help, and he called the ban "retaliation." He disputed the claims of harassment and threats, and said that Wheeler has been harassing and threatening him. Wheeler denied those allegations.

Hlass said he is exploring his legal options and questioned how a public official can be banned for expressing constituent concerns. He is allowed to go to Stonehouse, the village's community building that is located in the village center and owned by the Columbia Association.

`Big Brother'

"This is a corporate America, Big Brother, trying to pick on a little, lonely councilman who tries to do civic duties for his constituents," Hlass said.

Hlass had recently claimed that the center's management has not attended to heating, air conditioning and plumbing maintenance problems at some of the offices in the center. He discussed the problems during the resident speakout portion of a June council meeting -- an unusual move, as council members almost never testify -- and two council members left the room, apparently in protest.

George Martiyan, who owns Parcel Plus in the village center, said that he is pleased with the new owners and that a maintenance worker is regularly in the center to attend to concerns. Martiyan said Hlass isn't a strong presence in the center, which has 16 retail tenants, 10 office tenants and three vacant office spaces. Several other merchant employees said they hadn't heard of Hlass or the dispute.

Wheeler said Hlass harangued the company's agent for the village center during a May community meeting, wanting to know how she could manage a shopping center in Columbia when she works out of Virginia.

Hlass denied that he accosted the manager. "How can you accost someone when you're just saying, `Can you please take care of the utility problems of the merchants?' ... Is that a verbal threat?"

After the community meeting, Wheeler spoke with Hlass on the telephone. Wheeler said that during the conversation, Hlass was "extremely belligerent and short, [and asked] how dare I question his authority." Hlass said that during the conversation, Wheeler got "cocky and says, `Don't you know who I am?'"

Hlass, 50, a retired military officer and pilot, defeated the Long Reach village incumbent last year by garnering almost twice as many votes to represent Columbia's largest village, with a population of 15,756, on the policy-making council.

Council Chairman Joshua Feldmark said that Hlass' banning from the village center concerns him, and that he wants to make sure that all the facts are known so Long Reach residents can make an informed decision on whether they want him to continue representing them.

"Though the CA board has the authority to remove one of its own members, we generally feel it's the best practice to allow the people who elected an individual to take charge," he said.

Sarah Uphouse, Long Reach's village manager, said that the village has never recalled a council member, and that to do so would require a meeting of at least 50 eligible voters, who would then vote on whether to recall the council member. If the council member was removed, the village board would appoint someone to take his place.

Past questions

Hlass' behavior has previously been called into question during his tenure. In a June 2003 confidential memo obtained by The Sun, then-council Chairman Miles Coffman explained to Hlass that he had overstepped his authority on a number of occasions. In one incident -- after the board voted to approve the grant of an easement in Oakland Mills, allowing Howard County to install a traffic signal -- Hlass visited the work site, announced that he was a CA board member, apparently questioned the necessity of the project and told the county workers to stop working, according to the memo.

Coffman also wrote that Hlass on several occasions visited managers of a number of CA facilities without informing the board or senior staff and made employees feel "extremely uncomfortable by stating that they now worked for you [Hlass], interrogating them in detail."

Hlass denied he did anything inappropriate.

Sun staff writer Lisa Goldberg contributed to this article.

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