GGP is holding private meetings on Town Center

November 14, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

General Growth Properties Inc., the Chicago-based company that controls most of Columbia's downtown real estate, is holding private meetings with community groups to discuss downtown redevelopment.

The company calls the meetings "listening sessions," and says they are part of its outreach as it formulates a plan for Town Center.

But some who advocate openness in government are concerned that the meetings are closed to the public.

"When we hear about this kind of private session, where the press and the public is not invited, it raises a red flag," said Alex Hekimian, an Oakland Mills resident who is president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia. "I think there are people out there that see this as fueling the point of view that things are being done out of the public eye."

Hekimian said he thinks that inviting village board members, as the company has done for a meeting scheduled Dec. 13, is inappropriate unless the session is open to the public.

"We've made an honorable invitation to community leaders to have dialogue with us," said Chuck McMahon, General Growth's vice president of development for Columbia. "If people choose to make it into something it is not, there's nothing we can do about it."

When the whole group meets, that constitutes a meeting of the board, which is covered by the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, Hekimian said.

That act says that "all meetings of the homeowners association, including meetings of the board of directors or other governing body of the homeowners association or a committee of the homeowners association, shall be open to all members of the homeowners association or their agents."

It spells out eight specific circumstances under which a meeting can be closed to the public.

"I think the best thing for the village boards to do is to refuse to attend unless the public and the press is invited," Hekimian said. "Otherwise, they could very well be in violation of the Maryland Homeowners Association Act."

An e-mail from GGP invited village managers and village board members to Historic Oakland from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 13. The invitation is not transferable, and an RSVP is required.

Steven A. Silverman, chief of the Consumer Protection Division Maryland attorney general's office, said he would need to review the Homeowners Association Act and the individual charters of the villages to render an opinion on whether the meeting would be a violation.

General Growth also will meet with experts and leaders in the arts, environment, housing and economic development communities, along with other community leaders, said a GGP spokeswoman.

"They're not obligated to comply with HOA law, but we are," said Cynthia Coyle, a member of the Columbia Association board representing Harper's Choice. "And we need to say, `No, we won't attend unless it's public.'"

Coyle said there is much discussion on whether this is a violation of the law. "But I can tell you it's a violation of the intent of the law," she said.

Not everyone is troubled by the format of GGP's meetings.

"That's not subterfuge to me," said Emily Lincoln, a spokeswoman for Bring Back the Vision, a community group interested in Columbia issues, which met with GGP on Nov. 7.

"The little glimpse of the plan that I've had, it's a wonderful plan," she said. "They talked about the lakefront and focus on the lakefront. It was really very lovely, very exciting."

Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, said his group has been invited to attend a similar meeting but has not decided whether to accept.

But his group is clear that the public boards cannot attend such meetings, he said.

"The fact that [GGP] would attempt to reach out to elected officials in closed session is either a mistake, or it's an attempt to influence elected officials without the public being aware of it," he said.

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