Public, or Membership?
These are some terms that, over the past month, have been used interchangeably to describe General Growth Properties (GGP) invitation to the CA Board of Directors and the Columbia Village Boards. The problem is that these words do indeed have different meanings and are by no means synonyms.
When news broke in early November that GGP had planned a series of private meetings to discuss preliminary plans for downtown, hand-wringing ensued and words were not used with great care. The first indication was an article written by June Arney of the Baltimore Sun (GGP is holding private meetings on Town Center) on November 14, 2007 (emphasis mine):
When the whole group [board of directors] meets, that constitutes a meeting of the board, which is covered by the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, Hekimian said. That act says that "all meetings of the homeowners association, including meetings of the board of directors or other governing body of the homeowners association or a committee of the homeowners association, shall be open to all members of the homeowners association or their agents." It spells out eight specific circumstances under which a meeting can be closed to the public. "I think the best thing for the village boards to do is to refuse to attend unless the public and the press is invited," Hekimian said. "Otherwise, they could very well be in violation of the Maryland Homeowners Association Act."
Note the use of the word members in the first quote and public in the second quote. The two are not necessarily coincident. The members of a Homeowners Association are defined in their Charter (aka Articles of Incorporation). The public is generally any interested party. It should also be noted that the members of the Columbia Association, as stated in their Charter, are the ten members of the CA Board of Directors.
Two weeks later, Alex Hekimian shows up in another June Arney article (Board asks General Growth to share downtown proposal at open forum) (emphasis mine):
Whether or not the private meetings are technically legal or not doesn't really matter, Hekimian said.
"It gives the appearance that GGP has something to hide and that they're doing some private lobbying," he said. "They're probably used to having secret meetings and getting by with that. A master plan is not an item for secret sessions."
Notice the interposition of private and secret. Private and secret are two distinct things. According to Merriam-Webster, private refers to “intended for or restricted to the use of a particular person, group, or class” whereas secret refers to “kept from knowledge or view.” The location of a private residence may be known, but is intended for the use of those who have access to such residence. A secret hideaway is also intended for use by those who have access, but the location is also not known. The wish of GGP to hold private meetings is known, but for now, the meetings are restricted to particular groups. If GGP desired to have secret meetings, the public knowledge of their meetings beyond those invited would negate the secrecy.
While Oakland Mills resident Alex Hekimian was being quoted in the Baltimore Sun, Kings Contrivance resident Phil Marcus was submitting letters to the editor. First in the November 16, 2007 Columbia Flier (emphasis mine):
There is a move stirring to have Columbia Association board members or staff speak privately with General Growth Properties Inc. about downtown development, and it's wrongheaded.
[S]ecret talks beget both mistrust on the part of those barred and a tendency to make proposals that even if acted on in public have the force of a railroad locomotive on a track. And the full details don't always come out: It is human to try to "sell" what you have agreed to propose. Secrecy rules prevent the public getting the full discussion.
And then in the December 2, 2007 Baltimore Sun:
Everyone likes to be let in on a secret, even if it's one that will eventually become public. If you get to be part of the in-group, you gain some loyalty to whoever let you in. The same for someone who lets you in on a secret planning meeting.
Now, I do not believe Mr. Hekimian or Mr. Marcus interposed the words with malice. I believe at best, it may have been a collective Freudian slip.
So how do we resolve this issue? I believe the Oakland Mills Village Board provides the best example. Back in 2002, when the Village Centers were sold to Kimco (and the Oakland Mills Village Center was without a supermarket), the following was reported in the March 14, 2002 Columbia Flier (Kimco: Oakland Mills needs a supermarket) (emphasis mine):
"Another supermarket would be the type of tenant to revitalize the center like none other," he added.
But, as [executive vice president of Kimco Realty Corp. Thomas A.] Caputo cautioned Oakland Mills village officials during a private meeting Feb. 20, luring a grocery store _ or another retail anchor _ is going "to take a long time." Of all Columbia's retail centers, Oakland Mills is "the most difficult to fill because it's most off the beaten path," he said.
Village officials say they realize change won't happen overnight. But they're optimistic that Kimco, the nation's largest owner of strip shopping centers, is serious about reviving the center.
The fact that Caputo met with village officials was a positive first step, village board chairman David Hatch said.
There we have it. A Village Board met in private with the “nation’s largest owner of strip shopping centers” to discuss plans. The Village Board Chair stated it was a “positive first step.” No one was sued. It appears that there was no untoward influence.
So how different is it if the 2nd largest owner of shopping centers wants to meet with CA and Village officials in private? I believe the best person to ask is Barbara Russell. In 2002 she was a non-voting member of the Oakland Mills Village Board and she is currently on the CA Board of directors, maybe she could give us some insight into this situation.