Columbia residents seek voice on board

Right to vote, call for changes in CA policy sought

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June 07, 2006|By TYRONE RICHARDSON | TYRONE RICHARDSON,SUN REPORTER

Lillian and Henry Shapiro would like the chance to vote directly on important issues presented to the Columbia Association.

But the way Columbia is now governed, only the 10 elected members of the Columbia Council - one from each of the village associations - have a voting seat on the Columbia Association board, which makes policy and spending decisions for CA.

"We feel that residents should have the right to vote on crucial issues that affect them, and they also should be able to bring up issues to be voted on," said Lillian Shapiro, a resident of Wilde Lake village.

The Shapiros are among the latest group of Columbia residents pushing for changes in CA policy that would allow Columbia's population of roughly 100,000 residents to be members of the homeowners association that constitutes Columbia's de-facto government.

One longtime advocate of changing the current system - Alex Hekimian, president and co-founder of Alliance for a Better Columbia - has asked the CA board to consider adopting an amendment to the governance policy, allowing all residents to join the homeowners association.

It's a concept that some board members are willing to at least look at. The Sun reported that the idea of changing memberships was discussed by the CA Governance Review Committee. "I like the idea of more than just the 10 members on the association," said Gail Broida, board member for Town Center. "The discussion has not been presented yet, and in theory, the idea is great. I think we need to see how it would translate into real life."

But board Chairman Tom O'Connor, who welcomed Hekimian to join one of CA's committees to discuss the membership idea, also warned that it could be difficult to make such a governance change since Columbia's village bylaws require 90 percent of eligible voters to pass changes.

And he cautions that there are other concerns. O'Connor added that there was a legal responsibility that comes from making residents members of the association. "There have been a few people that wanted the membership in the organization, but there is a protection because as a member, you have the right to sue," O'Connor said. "The concern is not about the right to vote, it's about the right to sue the association."

At a recent CA board meeting, Hekimian outlined certain rights missing from the current charter, like the ability to recall a board member. He added that by making residents members, it would add a layer of oversight by giving residents the ability to vote on major issues, including parts of the fiscal budget.

"Residents are being taxed by CA, and they have little control on how their money is being used," Hekimian told the board. "It seems like the fair way is to give property owners the rights they deserve."

Hekimian gave examples of other planned communities, such as Reston, Va., and Woodlands, Texas, where residents are members of the homeowners association. Board members had some questions about what powers would be lost in the villages by making residents members of CA.

"I'm not totally against it," said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, board member for Owen Brown. "But, I am against taking anything away from the villages. They have the right to vote in the villages, and I think that is the most important."

She added: "[Hekimian] mentioned that you can't recall a board member - he made a very good point, and I'm in support of changing that."

Michael Nagle, an attorney for a Columbia-based law firm that represents about 600 homeowners associations, said the change in CA governance could be a bad idea.

"With 100,000 members, it would be very difficult to get things done," Nagle said. "It's an apathy factor as well. The apathy factor grows as the association grows - there are some people that don't care about what is going on with CA."

tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

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