Editorial Note: Because some of the material discussed here refers back to the early years of the Columbia Association (CA), an occasional reference to the Columbia Park and Recreation Association (CPRA), Columbia’s original name, creeps in. The reader should understand that both citations (CA and CPRA) refer to the same organization.
Last week I discussed an Explore Howard article that described the dramatic changes some Columbia residents would like to impose on the Columbia Association. After the article appeared online, I started asking for more information, and was directed to the Maryland Homeowners Association (Inc) website for the documents that describe the legislation.
Of particular interest is the document titled “Major Benefits of Being Members of the Columbia Association (CA).” The first two bullet points in this document attempt to provide a basis for changing CA membership:
- The sole purpose of the Columbia Association in its Charter is to operate “for the promotion of the common good and social welfare of the people of the community of Columbia....” The Columbia Corporation is currently organized as a nonstock corporation with no other members than the 10 persons elected by Columbia’s ten villages to the Columbia Council, an organization that currently does nothing except elect itself to the CA Board of Directors.
- The Columbia Council was in theory supposed to be the voice of the residents who must pay an annual tax-like fee to CA. Now, the Columbia Council has been made virtually defunct. As to the CA Board of Directors, the CA hired staff has told the Board that their loyalty as directors should be to the staff of CA and to the Board itself, and not directly to the Columbia peoples’ common good and social welfare. Therefore, the exclusion from CA corporate membership of residents who are required to pay annual fees to CA amounts to classic ”taxation without representation.”
The unnamed author begins well enough. The Columbia Association purpose is stated well. It is also true that CA is “currently organized as a nonstock corporation,” but it always has been a nonstock corporation and no legislation considered at this time (CA, ABC or otherwise) looks to change this status.
The second bullet point starts off with theory, and this is where it gets dangerous.
“The Columbia Council was in theory supposed to be the voice of the residents who must pay an annual tax-like fee to CA.”
This quote is beyond theory - it is a fallacy. The facts do not support the theory. It is something that has been repeated (probably) a million times over the last four decades. There are a lot of people that believe it a core principal of the Next American City, but it remains, at best, a myth.
I have done some research on this, and what I have found contradicts this popular social mooring. The evidence I provide is from the early Columbia Park and Recreation Association Charter, Article Seven (Paragraph 3), which states:
(3) It is anticipated that as The Property is developed, incorporated community or neighborhood associations for the promotion of the welfare of residents of particular sections of The Property will be formed. Each such incorporated association, which shall meet the standards of organization and membership prescribed by the Board of Directors of this Corporation, shall have the right to elect one of the members thereof to a council, to be known as the Columbia Council, which shall be an unincorporated advisory group whose function shall be to consider and make recommendations to the associations for the benefit and welfare of the Property and the residents thereof.Let’s take a minute to deconstruct this passage and cut through some of the Charter language. First we will clear up some definitions:
The Property – the legal definition of Columbia, Maryland.
Incorporated Community or Neighborhood Associations – The organizations we currently know colloquially as “Village Boards.”
Corporation – The Columbia Park and Recreation Association, now known as the Columbia Association.
Substituting the above definitions, the passage of the CA Charter is as follows:
(3) It is anticipated that as Columbia is developed, incorporated community or neighborhood associations (Village Boards) for the promotion of the welfare of residents of particular sections of Columbia will be formed. Each such Village Board, which shall meet the standards of organization and membership prescribed by the Board of Directors of the Columbia Association, shall have the right to elect one of the members thereof to a council, to be known as the Columbia Council, which shall be an unincorporated advisory group whose function shall be to consider and make recommendations to the Village Boards for the benefit and welfare of Columbia and the residents thereof.
And there it is, the Columbia Council was created to make recommendations to the Village Boards, not the Columbia Association. As stated in the CA Charter, the Columbia Council was an advisory group, and by the Charter they were to advise the Villages (“make recommendations to the associations”) on CA’s corporate decisions. Not advise the CA Board on resident’s wishes.
Now, out of an abundance of caution, I can see how it would seem that the Columbia Council was “voice of the residents.” In addition to being “an unincorporated advisory group,” the CA Charter states that the Columbia Council members were also members of the CA Board of Directors.
(A little foreshadowing here; in the history of CA, not all CA Board members were created equal. We will get to that soon enough.)
As members of the CA Board, the Columbia Council attended CA Board meetings and provided their input on the CA budget, the lien assessment, capital projects and all other right and proper board agenda items. The Columbia Council also had their own meetings to discuss CA related matters. In fact, the Columbia Council met far more often than the CA Board of directors. In this structure, the Columbia Council would ultimately arrive at conclusions. They would take positions on policies and proposed projects. Much of their decision-making was based on their experience as Columbians and in this way; they were the voice of Columbians. Working within this framework year after year reinforced the romantic notion that they were the “voice of the residents.” However, until the mid-1980’s, the Columbia Council always held a minority number of votes on the CA Board. For all the interaction with residents and positions taken on behalf of residents, the Columbia Council never had any decision making power. If the CA Board of directors acquiesced to the Columbia Council position, it was because of the majority’s wisdom. Either way, it was the job of the Columbia Council to explain to the residents, through the Village Boards why CA Board outcomes happened.
One final thought on the ABC legislation benefits, the author also describes a scenario in which the current CA Board of Directors is beholden only to themselves and the CA staff. This is hogwash. CA staff does provide training on nonprofit board of directors for the CA Board. It is the same standard for the CA Board as for your local elementary school PTA officers, or any other nonprofit corporation. Moreover, their proposed legislation has nothing to do with this. It would not change the duties of the Directors.
Overall, I once again applaud the efforts of those that seek to improve the Coumbia Association. However, I am very concerned that much of rationale for change is misplaced and founded on strong memories, not facts. I welcome the author to sit down for a chat and we can set the record straight on this issue.