A task force created by the Montgomery County Council to study homeowner associations has recommended a series of sweeping "good government" reforms to ensure the fair and open operation of what many consider the newest, and fastest growing, form of local government.
The associations -- which represent 90 percent of all new homeowners in Montgomery County -- were described by the task force as "mini-governments" that often affect local residents "in a more noticeable and immediate way" than either the County Council or the Maryland General Assembly.
"Because of this, insuring fairness in the election of governing officers and directors is perhaps the most important issue and one that can insure that all else goes right," according to a task force report released last week.
Since the mid-1970's the county, through zoning that encourages subdivisions with clustered development and ample green space, has fostered "hundreds of these associations," said County Council member David Scull. "We've created these little mini-governments, but we haven't played enough of a role to make sure people can live with them," he said.
Typically, an association board of directors wields wide authority over a subdivision's common grounds, private roads and such amenities as tennis courts and swimming pools. Associations also have the power to strictly control home improvements, down to the color of window shutters and the type of flowers that can be planted in the front yard.
The council two years ago created two special task forces to address widespread complaints about the way some local homeowner associations were operating. Since then, the groups have recommended a series of proposals that have been enacted into law or incorporated into pending legislation.
The county's effort has brought it to the forefront of a national debate over the best way to regulate the associations. Several of the county's laws have served as models for state legislation and for new laws in other localities, Scull said.
In its latest report, the 17-member task force, chaired by lawyer Abbe Lowell, has recommended measures to regulate the election of board members, to require the circulation of annual budgets and to require majority approval of special assessments levied against unit owners in excess of 15 percent of an association's annual budget.
"I'm very pleased with both the process and the result," Lowell said. "These institutions have a way of dramatically affecting people's lives and they don't have many rules to govern them.
"Given that this is the wave of the future . . . , this will provide a minimum standard of operation . That's what we were trying to do," he said.
One of the most controversial recommendations calls for ban on so-called "cumulative voting," in which a developer, who owns multiple dwelling units, can cast more than one vote for board candidates.
At Silver Spring's Parkside Plaza Condominium, for example, the developer cast 160 votes for one candidate and 120 votes each for two other candidates, which carried all three into office, according to citizens' testimony.
In Montgomery Village, developer Clarence Kettler sold more than 1,000 units to another developer, but retained control of the votes as a condition of the sale, and used them to place company employees on the village board, according to other testimony.
"We are dealing here with more than private corporations and private property rights. As you know, homeowner associations are, in a very real sense, governments," wrote village resident William A. Quinlan Jr. in a letter to the task force.
The proposals will be incorporated into legislation and submitted for consideration by the County Council, said Scull who is a chief sponsor of homeowner legislation, along with council member Neal Potter.