Columbia Association president gets new three-year contract

Nelson to stay until 2014

December 22, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Columbia Association President Phillip Nelson has a new three-year contract to run the homeowners association until May 2014, and the group's board is moving toward releasing detailed salary and bonus information for all of its employees.

Nelson, 61, who took over running the planned town's $60 million-a-year operation on May 1, 2009, would get an annual pay raise based on April's Consumer Price Index, up to 3.5 percent. He now earns $203,600, He is also eligible for a bonus of up to 7.5 percent if he meets performance goals. A 2 percent salary increase, for example, would be worth about $4,000, and the maximum bonus — half the percentage former President Maggie Brown received — would be worth about $15,000.

Nelson earned a salary of $200,000 his first year. In the new contract that takes effect May 1, he also gets a series of perks, such as $900 a month for vehicle expenses and up to $5,000 a year for professional conferences. In addition, he can still collect up to $22,500 in one-time moving expenses until May 1. Nelson, the former city manager for Troy, Mich., has been unable to sell his family home there because of the depressed Michigan economy.

The terms of the new contract, signed Dec. 13, were revealed at the end of a nearly five-hour CA board meeting Tuesday night at the board's Columbia offices. Nelson, who says little during most discussions, said after the meeting that he is very happy with the deal.

"I think it's great," he said.

The longer contract reflects the board's growing confidence in him, board Chairwoman Cynthia Coyle said.

"That makes me feel good," Nelson responded. "I will do whatever it takes to not let them down."

Nelson is already planning for the future. "We just need to really start helping the villages with their master plans," he said, referring to redevelopment planning for ailing village centers.

Coyle said Nelson is an excellent administrator who is helping the CA become more professional.

"I think that Phil's a visionary, and he is working very hard to get the whole organization to move in a new direction," Coyle said. He's installing professional management, she said, instead of the 10 elected board members being "mired in day-to-day operations." Coyle said she particularly admires Nelson's use of annual bonuses to employees tied to cost savings and revenue growth. "The departments are forced to work harder to do what is right," she said.

The organization is also moving toward releasing detailed pay and bonus information for every CA employee, a goal long sought by the Association for a Better Columbia, a local watchdog group.

Joel Pearlman, an ABC board member, told the board at the Tuesday night meeting that his group merely wants "a more open, transparent organization." He said more disclosure would help reassure residents and prospective members that the CA "operates openly."

After a discussion, Nelson and Coyle each said the detailed information must be released because if it isn't, there's likely to be new state legislation to require it. The board will vote in January on the issue.

"There's no reason to be fighting city hall on this. We can see the handwriting on the wall," Colye told the board. "I recommend we release the information," she added.

Others bemoaned the situation, though.

"We have nothing to hide, but there's an issue of privacy," said Suzanne Waller, the board member representing Town Center.

Nelson agreed that the information should be released. Though he too said he would prefer to protect employee privacy, he said there seems to be little choice.

Association officials have resisted full disclosure. They contend that information about top CA officials is available on federal IRS forms, and they have disclosed pay and bonus information without naming specific employees. The dispute is over pay categories with only one employee. CA officials have released broad pay ranges for these workers to avoid making their identities obvious, but the ABC activists want that specific information and they cite a Maryland attorney general's opinion that they say backs their position.

CA lawyer Sheri Fanaroff has argued differently.

Perlman's group has lately received strong support from Del. Frank S. Turner and state Sen. James N. Robey, both Democrats, who told CA leaders at a meeting Nov. 30 that if the information isn't forthcoming, they might introduce legislation to require it.

"I think we have that responsibility to all the members of the association," Robey said. "Frank and I are prepared to do what we need to do to make sure there is transparency." Turner has pushed strongly for disclosure and has criticized the CA's system of bonus payments.

"I think people who pay CA fees ought to have knowledge of that" pay and bonus information, Turner said. He noted that the organization has received state money for several projects at a time when Maryland is furloughing employees and facing a $1.6 billion revenue shortfall.

"No matter how many bills I pass, or how much work I do, I don't get a bonus," Turner said, noting that state legislators haven't had a pay raise for years and that the CA is a nonprofit organization.

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