Proposal meant to reach out to villages

Columbia board looks to improve residents' input


Martin Berdit likens the experience of testifying before the Columbia Association board of directors to talking to a wall.

After a three-minute speech in which he tells the 10- member group his ideas or concerns about the suburban planned community, he usually gets no response.

"When I have spoken out, I have not felt that people were listening or caring much one way or another," said Berdit, who has lived in Harper's Choice for 35 years. "It's frustrating."

Board Chairman Joshua Feldmark agrees that the way the resident speak-out process is structured does not allow for a meaningful exchange of ideas. So, he is proposing a citizen-participation program that would create a dialogue between residents and board members.

"Anybody who has tried to participate has felt the process to not be particularly engaging," Feldmark said. "There's no reason why we can't come up with a model for how to really engage folks."

Feldmark's proposal, which would not replace resident speak-out during board meetings, would implement an exchange of ideas between residents and the board through a series of meetings.

To reach out to the villages, the board would meet with residents in each of Columbia's 10 villages, with the board and the village boards each determining a maximum of two issues to analyze and brainstorm about.

The board would also hold Columbiawide interactive workshops during September, December and March that would focus on two issues each. One of the meetings could concentrate on the association's $50 million budget, Feldmark said.

"Wouldn't it be great to sit down [with residents] ... and say, `What do we want to do with that money'?" Feldmark said.

Feldmark proposed his idea to the board Nov. 10, and the group could vote on the matter next month.

Board member Barbara Russell said she believes the board's time could be better spent focusing on the issues already before it, such as making a decision about a new Columbia Association headquarters or whether a fence should be built around the tot lot at Lake Elkhorn.

"I think when we have issues, we hear from people, and I think there might be other ways to engage people, but having our whole board go from village to village ... I don't think that addresses the openness or public participation issue," she said.

Mary Pivar, a member of the Wilde Lake Village Board who regularly testifies before the association board, said Feldmark's proposed citizen participation program would be a good idea if it is "substantive and not just form."

"If you bring us substantive agenda items and really mean to follow through on any consensus that the villages come to, fine," she said. "If you are doing this as window dressing and bring us trivial agenda items ... then what's the point?"

Berdit said Feldmark's proposal could work if there is "a real dialogue," but he also said people still need to be able to discuss with the board issues that may not be on the agenda of the community meetings.

"There is a need for dialogue, as well as a need for people to speak what's on their mind, even if there's not dialogue," he said.

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