ABC meets with CA board for first time since complaint filed

October 17, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

In an ongoing battle that has grown increasingly bitter, the Columbia Association board met with its harshest critic last week - the first such meeting since a complaint against the board was lodged last month with the state attorney general's office.

The watchdog group, Alliance for a Better Columbia, filed the complaint Sept. 21, accusing the association board of violating state law that requires open meetings and access to public documents. The attorney general's office has assigned a mediator to help the two sides resolve their issues.

At the meeting Thursday night, board members discussed what to do while they wait to hear from the mediator. The conversation grew personal at times, as some board members accused each other of conflicts of interest while others criticized ABC for going to the attorney general instead of working out its differences with the homeowners association.

But when the meeting, which included other issues, ended at 1 a.m., board members called it a good first step in resolving the matter.

"It went well," said board Chairman Joshua Feldmark. "People take this stuff very seriously, so people get hurt easily on all sides. It's OK as long as we don't get stuck there."

The board voted to send ABC's complaints to a committee for discussion and decided to draft a letter to ABC in response.

Among the ABC's demands, the watchdog group wants the homeowners association to disclose when and why it holds closed meetings, to reveal the salary and bonuses of association officers and to make public documents more accessible.

"Regardless of how we got here, I think there are some good suggestions in here," said Wolfger Schneider, a board member from Harper's Choice village.

According to the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, the board has to announce the purpose and occurrence of all of its closed meetings.

"I don't think we do that," Schneider said.

Many board members expressed support for some of ABC's suggestions but told ABC leaders that their methods were insulting.

"I suggest you work with us instead of going to the attorney general and attacking us," said Miles Coffman, a board member from Hickory Ridge village. "It was a shock and an insult to the staff and us."

Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown added that her staff found ABC's latest letter "quite offensive."

In a six-paragraph letter, ABC spent four paragraphs warning association workers not to discard any records relating to ABC's complaints. Brown said it seemed to imply "that we would be over here shredding documents."

ABC leaders defended the letter's wording, saying that they included the paragraphs after raising the possibility of documents being destroyed with the attorney general's office. They also said they went to the attorney general only because the association ignored their complaints.

The most contentious exchange, however, was not between ABC and Columbia Association leaders, but among association board members.

After board member Phil Marcus spoke in support of ABC, Coffman suggested Marcus had a conflict of interest because he was an ABC member.

Board member Barbara Russell, whose opinions have also aligned with ABC's in the past, compared Coffman's criticism of those who talk with ABC to the hunt for communists during the Red Scare. "I am not a puppet of ABC. ABC is not a puppet of me or any other board member," she said.

Tom O'Connor, a board member from Dorsey's Search, kept silent during most of the exchange, speaking only to abstain during voting.

"I knew it would get this way, this personal. I refuse to participate in that," he said later. O'Connor dismissed the night's discussion as "grandstanding" by ABC. "It's a very small group, but very vocal."

The attorney general's office said Friday it would start mediating the dispute soon.

"The process is very informal," said Rebecca Bowman, a director of the mediation services in the attorney general's office. "The vast majority of complaints we mediate by phone and letter."

Despite the acrimonious exchanges Thursday night, Feldmark said he believed good could come from the dispute.

"People are carrying some baggage here. But we're getting past that," he said. "[ABC's complaints] represent an opportunity to bring CA to a point where it will be on the cutting edge of transparency."

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