Columbia Council's 3 new members to focus on openness


The three newly elected members of the Columbia Council campaigned for better lines of communication between residents and the association. Now, they have their chance to make good on that promise, and the board incumbents are ready to see the results.

"This is going to be a major change," said Barbara L. Russell, board representative for Oakland Mills. "The three elections made it very clear that the community has some major concerns about the way the board operates."

Last month, residents elected newcomers Cynthia Coyle of Harper's Choice and Philip Kirsch of Wilde Lake to the Columbia Council. Incumbents Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge, Russell of Oakland Mills and Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown were re-elected.

On Saturday, Gail Broida defeated incumbent Jud Malone for the Town Center council seat, 182-143.

"I think you can look at the results as a wake-up call for Columbia," Broida said. "There is strong interest in Columbia about the development of downtown and to maintain an open communication."

The board and its members have been criticized by residents and watchdog groups for years for what many consider secret meetings and the ways it does business.

In 2004, The Sun reported that the Alliance for a Better Columbia filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office, accusing the association board of violating a state law regarding open meetings and access to public documents.

Alex Hekimian, president and co-founder of ABC, believes there is a change on the horizon.

"I am confident that the new council members will make it a prominent theme," he said about the changes in policies on open meetings. "As far as the incumbents, it remains to be seen if they get the message. They're so used to meetings in secret; we will see if the new members will be able to change them."

The Columbia Council meets once a year, in May, when the elected representatives appoint themselves to the Columbia Association board of directors, the association's policymaking body.

The three new board members said they are skeptical of the current open-meeting policies of the panel and would fight to keep more meetings open to the public.

"I think there are enough votes to change things somewhat," Kirsch said. "... It only takes five votes to keep [a meeting] open. It takes six to close it."

Said Coyle: "Nobody wants to be negative of the group that was already there. ... it's not about being wrong or right but looking at the best interest for the residents."

Patrick von Schlag, representative of River Hill, said his skepticism about of the board's open-meeting guidelines when he started his tenure last year were unfounded.

"People hear that we have a closed meeting and they wonder why," von Schlag said. "We have closed meetings for the purpose that any homeowners association would have -- to discuss legal and personnel matters to take care of our fiduciary matters." Von Schlag said he discovered that there wasn't anything alarming happening in the closed meetings.

"We certainty welcome [the new members], and we expect them to give much input. With these deep fears about the meetings ... they will be let down by the amount of stuff that is actually there."

Meanwhile, Hickory Ridge finalized the votes for its election Monday night. Coffman was re-elected to the Columbia Council and incumbents Linda Hitzelberger, Tom Louden, Nancy McCord, Gregg Schwind, David Zeitzer were re-elected to the village board.

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