Frustrated with Columbia's cumbersome governance structure, some local officials are exploring ways to revamp the system by creating an elected body that would oversee the community association.
The proposal is among ideas being considered by a task force created this spring to study how to make Columbia's leaders more receptive to constituents and less vulnerable to accusations of secrecy and conflicts of interest. The task force will hold its first public hearing tonight at 7:30 at the Columbia Association headquarters, 10221 Wincopin Cir., in Town Center.
"The current system, unless you have been involved in it for awhile, you don't understand the nuances," said Andy Stack, a member of the Owen Brown Village Board and the task force. "We are trying to simplify the process."
Unlike most Maryland towns, Columbia is neither a city nor an incorporated municipality. It is run by the Columbia Association (CA), a private nonprofit community service corporation. Each of Columbia's 10 villages elects a council member. Council members appoint a board of directors, which handles personnel decisions, oversees the budget and manages a vast network of public parks, walking trails and recreational centers.
Since the early 1980s, the board has been composed solely of council members, who have named themselves to the board. Because the board legally is considered a corporate entity instead of a government body, much of its work is conducted behind closed doors. That often has led to frustration among residents, who feel they have no say in how their yearly association dues are spent.
"Our governance structure is flawed," said Joshua Feldmark, vice chairman of the CA board. "It is not tragically flawed, but there are ways we can make it more accountable to the people."
Feldmark, also a task force member, and Stack have each drafted proposals to change the system by establishing an elected CA board. Under their plans, an elected council still would set policy about such things as covenants but wouldn't deal with how the community's money is spent.
The task force will examine proposals from Stack, Feldmark and residents. It is expected to issue a report by October on whether the governance structure should be changed and, if so, how best to do that. Recommendations in the report would be acted on by the council.
Stack and Feldmark have proposed giving each of Columbia's 10 villages the power to elect two representatives: one to the CA board and one to the council.
"This is an attempt to bring the village boards closer together and give them more of an advocacy role," Stack said. "It allows checks and balances."
Villages now use different criteria and procedures for electing council members. In River Hill, for example, each resident gets a vote. But in Wilde Lake, only property owners can vote in village elections. Under Feldmark's plan, every registered voter in a village would be able to vote for a council and board member.
Feldmark is also proposing an 11th board member who would be elected by the entire community to serve as a paid chairman. The association would also retain its paid staff, including the executive director, under both proposals.
Council members now struggle to juggle roles as elected representatives accountable to their constituents and as corporate board members accountable to the corporation, Stack and Feldmark said.
At least one council member is skeptical of the proposed changes, saying they are merely an attempt by the local village boards to seize additional power.
"It's an attempt to decentralize the governance of Columbia, which I do not think is a good idea," said Phil Marcus, a council member who represents Kings Contrivance.
Marcus said substantive changes are not likely because that would require a complete reworking of the community's bylaws and charter and could possibly require state legislation.
"There are certainly people who want major changes, but I am inclined to say major changes rarely occur in any organization," he said.
Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D), who earlier this year pushed through state legislation to limit the annual increase in CA dues, applauded the effort. "I think this is the time to do it," Pendergrass said.