CA board member may face dismissal

Hlass is said to release confidential data

he says actions are `a witch hunt'

February 13, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Association has suspended a member from its board of directors, and must determine whether he behaved improperly and whether he should be kicked off the board.

In a Jan. 24 meeting closed to the public, the board accused David Hlass, who was elected to represent Long Reach village, of sharing confidential information with village members about the salaries and bonuses of CA's top officials. Among other charges, the board also alleged that he violated conflict-of-interest rules by soliciting business from CA, which he oversees as a board member.

Hlass denied any wrongdoing and called the board's actions "a witch hunt" and the accusations "trumped-up charges."

Since his election in 2003, Hlass has often been at the center of controversy. He has been criticized by fellow board members and was banned for a year from his village center.

The Columbia Association's 10 board members serve as the town's governing body. They are first elected as council members by the town's 10 villages and later appoint themselves to also serve as the association's 10 board of directors.

Hlass said he first learned of the allegations against him Jan. 22, when he opened a letter that was marked "confidential" and left at the doorstep of his home.

The letter, a memo from CA board Chairman Joshua Feldmark, summoned Hlass to the Jan. 24 closed board meeting, where members presented him with a list of accusations of improper behavior.

The board, Hlass said, has scheduled a second closed meeting for Feb. 23 to hold a trial. According to Hlass and other board members, one of the board's 10 members will serve as the gatherer and presenter of evidence against Hlass while the other members serve as the jury.

The Maryland Homeowners Association Act requires that organizations disclose the time, date and purpose of closed meetings. However, board members have declined to speak about the purpose of the meetings and why they are closed to the public.

"I can't say anything other than I can't say anything," said Feldmark. "I have been warned from several different lawyers and board members that we can't talk about it."

Alliance for a Better Columbia, a watchdog group, criticized the association for closing the meetings.

"The accusations are bad enough. Doing all this behind closed doors just makes it worse," said ABC member Joel Perlstein. "The people have a right to know what's going on with their own representative."

Last fall, the CA staff gave board members a list of salaries and bonuses of CA's top staff. The board has accused Hlass of sharing what it considers confidential information with his village board.

According to the minutes of the Long Reach village board meeting Oct. 19, Hlass handed out copies of the page, which was marked "confidential," and handed them out to village board members.

Village board Chairwoman Karen Hitcho said she was surprised by the whole incident.

"The information about the salaries was not something we asked [Hlass] for," she said. Hlass gave the village board the list of salaries "out of the blue."

After being alerted by CA staff, Feldmark and CA's attorney, Sheri Fanaroff, asked the Long Reach village board that all copies be returned or destroyed because the document "contains highly sensitive personnel information that is not a matter of public record," according to a letter sent by Fanaroff.

CA spokeswoman Karen Hawkins said the salaries of the CA's president and vice presidents are public information that CA provides if requested. But the salaries of department directors and lower-ranking employees are not.

Hlass said the CA board has also accused him of improperly soliciting business. Hlass, the Howard County sales representative for Toshiba office equipment, said that he had handed his business card and a flier to an employee of CA's Supreme Sports Club, and that he did not consider it a conflict of interest.

Hlass also was banned for two weeks, starting Jan. 29, from all CA facilities after an argument over an exercise bike in a spinning class at the Athletic Club.

CA staff and board members said the banning is a separate issue from Hlass' suspension from the board. Hlass said it was one of the charges brought against him by the board.

According to CA's charter, board members can remove a board member by a two-thirds vote. If Hlass is removed from the board, it will be a first in the planned community that was founded in 1967 with the dream that diverse people could live in peaceful coexistence.

Even if he is kicked off the board, Hlass can continue to serve as his village's representative on the Columbia Council. Only his village can remove him from that position.

"We do have process for removal that's never been used," said Hitcho of the Long Reach village board, "but there's no indication that the [Long Reach village] board's going to do that, especially with an election coming up in April."

Hlass, 50, a retired military officer and pilot, won his seat in 2003, garnering twice as many votes as his opponent. He was banned from the Long Reach village center last year after he was accused of harassing and threatening employees of the company owning the center.

At the CA board meeting Thursday, Hlass sat in his usual seat and tried to make comments, until Feldmark banged his gavel and told him he was out of order.

Hlass later sat in the audience and argued with a CA staffer until the employee moved to another row of seats to avoid him.

Hlass said CA staff and board members have taken the recent actions against him because they want to discourage him from running for re-election in April - something he has promised to do no matter what happens.

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