In Columbia, the legality of ending council is questioned

Md. attorney general's office to be asked for formal opinion

Panel voted to disband in July

September 11, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The attorney general's office is getting involved in the dispute over abolishing the Columbia Council.

The council will ask a state elected official to request a formal opinion from the attorney general's office on the legality and effects of eliminating the council.

The council voted in July to disband - and the 10-member group will act only as the board of directors for the Columbia Association - with the decision being contingent on the board approving changes to the Columbia Association charter.

Councilwoman Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills, maintains that the move will seriously limit the members' ability to adequately represent their constituents, and she asked the council to request an opinion from the attorney general's office.

Russell contends that with the group acting only as the board for the nonprofit Columbia Association, the members' sole obligation would be to the corporation, and they could not discuss personal views with the public or share information with residents that is not already general knowledge. The board chairman would act as the spokesman for the group, she said.

The attorney general's office has weighed in on the matter, but not in a formal opinion, in a letter last month by Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch. Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard Democrat, sent Zarnoch articles from The Sun reporting the matter and asked for Zarnoch's thoughts.

Zarnoch wrote that, in his view, the elimination of the council "would not prevent the free exchange of views between CA directors and Village residents. Nor would it alter the directors' existing duty of loyalty to CA, their trustee responsibility with respect to CA members or their obligation with respect to the nondisclosure of confidential information."

Bobo said Zarnoch's letter alleviated her concerns, but she said, "I'm still watching what they're doing."

"I'm interested in open government. ... I want their process to be as open as possible."

Council Chairman Joshua Feldmark said Zarnoch's letter reflects views that he had anticipated.

"It makes a great deal of common sense," he said. "For me, personally, it confirms what I already knew."

Russell said Zarnoch's letter "is a step in the right direction," but it does not satisfy her.

"This is a serious issue that deals with changing the basic governance process of the Columbia Association, and I think it's important that we as an organization get a formal opinion from the attorney general's office ... because we will have to live with this in the future," Russell said.

Russell, who does not support disbanding the council, said she wants the attorney general's office to clarify whether the board's loyalty lies with the Columbia Association or with the residents.

"I want [the attorney general's office] to more fully explore what board members would be allowed to do if the council were eliminated, specifically with regard to sharing information," she said.

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