Columbia Council to decide on ending dual role

Panel will vote tomorrow on halting meetings

some fear effects of streamlining effort

July 13, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

For decades, members of the Columbia Council have been serving a dual role: They also make up the 10-member board of directors of the Columbia Association.

Tomorrow, that could change.

On the council's agenda for tomorrow night is the issue of whether to end meetings of the council - essentially disbanding it - as part of an effort to streamline the town's governing process in which voting rights and council terms vary throughout villages.

But one council member worries that should the group vote tomorrow to end council meetings, it will have a dire effect by altering the members' abilities to express personal opinions and effectively advocate for their villages.

"It really puts a severe chill on my ability to represent my village, the people that elected me, and to communicate with them and to communicate with the press," said Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills on the council and board.

Russell said that should the group act only as the board of directors for the nonprofit corporation, the members' sole obligation would be to the Columbia Association. That means, she said, that board members would not be free to discuss personal views with the public or share information with residents that is not already general knowledge. Instead, the board chairman would act as the spokesman for the group.

"I don't see how I personally could operate under these constrictions," Russell said, "because my view of my job is to represent not only all of the assessment payers as a whole, but also to represent the people who elected me."

The unincorporated planned community is now run by the policy-making council and the association board. Each of Columbia's 10 villages elects a council member, who then appoints himself or herself to the board, which has been the body that decides most of the serious issues, from approving the budget to reviewing the association president's performance.

The council has been working for years to simplify the town's governing process, and some council members have argued that the group should be disbanded or merged with the board.

Council Chairman Joshua Feldmark said he does not believe anything will change in the members' ability to advocate or express their opinions should the council stop meeting.

"The way I see it, there would be no difference from where we are now to where we're going, if there was no council," said Feldmark, who represents Wilde Lake.

Phil Marcus, who represents Kings Contrivance on the council, also believes that having the group act only as the Columbia Association board will not limit members from sharing information or opinions. If it does, he said, he would be "very concerned, extremely concerned."

"The [association] lawyers would prefer us to be opaque," he said. "But just because we get advice from lawyers, that doesn't require you to follow it."

Feldmark said having both the council and board gives the false impression that the groups have separate responsibilities - that the council acts as advocates for residents, while the board's primarily responsibility is to the corporation.

He said it is the group's responsibility when making decisions to consider both factors - what's best for the Columbia Association and for residents.

"That [separation] never existed," Feldmark said. "Board members have confused that, [association] staff members have confused that, residents have confused that. But that dichotomy was never there."

However, Bridget Mugane, a member of the Long Reach Village Board, said she believes the board's regulations are as restrictive as Russell describes and thinks representatives will be limited on what they can tell their village boards.

The board rules "will make it difficult for board members to represent their communities," she said, "and to have a free flow of information between their community and themselves."

Russell said that if the council was meant to make decisions about Columbia as a whole, then members would be elected Columbia-wide and not from specific villages. She said different parts of the town have different needs - in 2004, for instance, property assessments in east Columbia increased an average of 33.4 percent, resulting in sharply rising annual charges for the property owners there.

"I don't think people are really thinking about this; they should be," Russell said. "Every board member has recently had these rules reviewed for them. They should be fully aware of them. And they shouldn't be brushing them aside as if there will be no changes."

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