Endorsements criticized

CA board to consider action on 2 members who backed Merdon

November 01, 2006|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,sun reporter

The Columbia Association Board of Directors will hold a special meeting tomorrow to address accusations that two board members violated the organization's charter when they endorsed county executive candidate Christopher J. Merdon at a recent political rally.

Bill Santos, a resident of Wilde Lake, accused Barbara L. Russell, board member for Oakland Mills, and Cynthia Coyle, board member for Harper's Choice, of improperly using their titles as members of the policymaking panel for the planned community when they announced their support for Merdon, a Republican, at a Oct. 23 political rally.

Russell and Coyle were part of a group of Democrats, independents and Republicans at Columbia's lakefront that afternoon.

"It's not about who they endorsed; it's about how they endorsed - it's about how they used their CA titles in their endorsement." Santos said.

He added: "It gives the impression that the board may have gone along with this, and that is what I am concerned about."

In an interpretation of its charter and nonprofit status, the association released a statement Monday: "It is the policy of the Columbia Association Inc. per its charter and as a ... non-profit organization not to be involved in local, state, or national politics."

Russell and Coyle defended their actions, saying they were acting as residents, not representatives for the association.

"I am a member of the board; I am not CA, and I did not speak for CA," Russell said. "I was identified [by the campaign] as a member of the board, and it is common practice among newspapers and in the community and it in no way says that I am speaking for the board. Our rules say that no member of the board has the authority to speak for the board unless the board directs them to."

Mary Catherine Cochran, an organizer of the political rally, said she announced at the beginning of the rally that the endorsers involved were acting as individuals and not as representatives of their organizations. She said the titles were included in the interest of full disclosure.

During Thursday's Columbia Association board meeting, members expressed concern about the endorsements and Santos' accusations.

Miles Coffman, board member for Hickory Ridge, said he was not opposed to Russell and Coyle endorsing Merdon, but was concerned that the Columbia Association title was used to identify them in a newspaper article.

"If they wanted to do it as community activists, they have that right, but to do it as CA board members is a problem," Coffman said in a telephone interview Monday.

Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a watchdog group, called the accusations "frivolous."

"It's intimidation and harassment," he said. "There are certain members of the board that continuously harass other board members and to the point they want to see them kicked off the board."

Tom O'Connor, chairman of the association's board, said tomorrow's meeting is intended to clarify Santos' accusations and to see whether actions will be taken against Russell and Coyle.

When asked if the board would remove Russell or Coyle from the panel, O'Connor said: "At this point, I would not put that as a headline, and I would not bet money on it."

This is not the first time that the board has been roiled by electoral politics. In February, Joshua Feldmark resigned from his post after board members claimed his running for County Council posed a conflict of interest.

Coyle, meanwhile, questions the ethics of Patrick von Schlag, board member representing River Hill and the treasurer for Feldmark's council campaign.

"I don't think it's right to single [her and Russell] out for political comments when somebody else was handling the money for a political candidate," Coyle said. "If this is an issue, that is an issue."

Von Schlag defended his involvement with Feldmark and said there wasn't a problem raised when he fully disclosed it to the association.

"That was not a violation of anything. I did not speak on his candidacy," he said.


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