A group of Columbia residents filed a complaint yesterday with the Maryland attorney general, charging the community's homeowners association with persistent violations of the state's open meeting law.
The Association for a Better Columbia, which claims about 60 dues-paying residents, said in a six-page complaint that the Columbia Association is breaking the law by holding closed sessions and failing to report what happens in those meetings. The complaint also alleges that the association withholds information about the community's operations, including agendas and budget documents, and limits public comment at meetings.
Columbia, founded by James Rouse in 1967, is not incorporated, and the Columbia Association plays a central role in the planned community of about 90,000 residents. The association, with an annual budget of $55 million, larger than that of some municipalities, is governed by an unpaid, elected council that oversees community affairs. The association is run by a paid staff and operates Columbia's extensive network of parks, recreation centers, swimming pools and public grounds. Columbia residents pay fees to the association based on the value of their homes.
Maggie Brown, who as president of the Columbia Association is head of the staff, declined to comment on residents' complaints, but said they are scheduled to be discussed at the Columbia Council meeting Oct. 14.
Joshua Feldmark, chairman of the Columbia Council, said some of the complaints by the Association for a Better Columbia about a lack of responsiveness are well-founded, but he said there is no violation of state law.
"If corrective action is needed, we will take it. But I do think we are in compliance," he said. Feldmark said the association has taken steps in the past 18 months to become more open and responsive to residents. "I don't understand why, when things get better, the criticism from ABC gets harsher," he said.
Barbara Russell, vice chairman of the Columbia Council, said that some of the complaints had been addressed, but she said some issues raised by the community group troubled her and others on the council and should be resolved.
Russell said she and others on the council in recent months have expressed concerns about a pattern of closed-door meetings. She said that at times, the Columbia Association staff has sought council permission to close meetings to discuss personnel matters.
"But then the meeting wouldn't be about a personnel matter," Russell said.
"In a couple of meetings, we were given vague information, or it was a subject that I did not think should be the subject of a closed meeting," she said.
Joel Pearlman, a lawyer who has been working pro bono for the Association for a Better Columbia and is a 25-year resident of the community, said the Columbia Association had evolved from a relatively open organization to one that had become more secretive. "It has been an era of secrecy and an era of non-responsiveness," he said.
"We really feel it has been run for the staff and for the benefit of the staff. They have a good little club going over there. The question is, is this a country club or a government? We think it's a government."
Assistant Attorney General William Leibovici, of the consumer protection division, said the office had in recent years mediated disputes between residents and homeowners associations under the terms of the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, which has open-meeting provisions.
"We think it is something beneficial for us to see if we can work something out. . . . Sometimes, when a lot of hard feelings have occurred, you can help develop information and share perspectives, and people quietly decide to make a change."