10 December 2007

Meetings, Terminology, and Precedent

Private, or Secret?

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.

15 comments:

Jessie Newburn said...

Citizen journalism. How refreshing, informative and thought-provoking. Thanks, Bill, for all you do and how you do it. Your contribution to our community is, imo, invaluable.

Anonymous said...

Barbara Russell will do what works for her politically. If you look at her media quotes over the last 5 years, she has frequently been part of "the secret". Only now when it looks cool in print is she above knowing what is going on. Frankly, I think it hurts her constituents to be in the dark, given that CA approval is not needed. County Council approval is needed for GGP to move forward.

Anonymous said...

On Alex's opinion that 'the best thing for the village boards to do is to refuse to attend unless the public and the press' are invited, I hardly see anything awry in that statement. Potential changes to Town Center zoning that will affect not just CA members, but all County taxpayers would certainly be best dealt with in their entirety in public.

You're holding Alex to account for mentioning or substituting the term "the public" when the Maryland Homeowners Association Act (MHAA) mentions "all members", but in this very same dressing down, you're jumping from quoting him discussing "village boards'" actions to refute his assertion by citing definition of membership not from village boards' charters, but from CA's charter. Why don't you post the definitions of membership from the village associations' charters? I expect what you'll find is the village associations' charters define their respective associations' members as being the lot owners, the residents, the lien payers, or some combination thereof, not just their respective current Boards of Directors.

Nonetheless, even in the CA Charter there is a stipulation that agrees with Alex's point of view. Section 2.07 (b): "All meetings of the Board of Directors of the Corporation shall be open to the public...". Section 2.07 (a) requires publishing in a Columbia newspaper notice of special meetings of the Board when time permits." CA's Charter even requires public meetings with opportunity for public comment when charter amendments are being proposed.

And his second quoted statement, "Otherwise, they could very well be in violation of the Maryland Homeowners Association Act" was qualified using "could". Is that erroneous or misleading? Hardly. The MHAA's § 11B-111 (3) (ii) says "a governing body shall provide a designated period of time during a meeting to allow lot owners an opportunity to comment on any matter relating to the homeowners association". Lot owners. I think that could require a much bigger cheese and fruit plate at such events.

---

Onward. Why do you believe Barbara Russell is the best person to ask about the 2002 event? While the article has two positive references to Barbara Russell discussing the village center's situation at the time, did the 3/14/02 article anywhere refer to her being in attendance at that event? I don't see anywhere that it did.

Wouldn't the best person to ask really be someone who was both a voting member of the OM Board at the time and is able to be easily determined now as having attended? Perhaps David Hatch, the OM Board chair at the time, the person who actually was quoted in the article referring to his own attendance?

His reference in the article already does shed some light:

"I expected a grip-and-grin session with Kimco and all the village boards," he said. "When it turned out to be [a meeting] just between Oakland Mills and Kimco, it was a delightful surprise."

Note "[a meeting]" was the writer's insert. So, there we have a quote from David Hatch saying he attended with the expectation of a 'grip-and-grin session' involving all village boards and Kimco and it turned out to be just the OM board and Kimco attending. Keeping to the literal tone of your post's dissection of 'private' vs. 'secret', per the article, Mr. Hatch went expecting an introduction and little else to occur - no set agenda, no information dump, no invitation to review or discuss a vision or plan, no expectation to provide feedback thereof - just a howdy-doo.

A grip-and-grin session to many would sound like a brief, do-nothing photo op, typically welcoming the press for such photos. Even if the nature of the gathering then surprisingly differed from expectations going into it (the article saying it differed in who attended, not necessarily in what occurred), it shouldn't be unexpected that the OM board chair would then publicly qualify such a surprise as "delightful" afterward, considering, at the time, the village was again striving to expedite finding another grocery anchor to meet the needs of its community. Could it have been handled better? Probably, but, I don't think the community did or will lose any sleep over it.

The OM Board got introduced to Kimco at an event where, it appears from the article's quoting statements from the event itself, that the press was present. Wow. That doesn't sound all that private.

The link to the article was considerate, but a balanced treatment of its content here would have been preferable.

Tom said...

My concern is with the poffessional journalists on this story.I've had this same concern for years. They dig for opinions, but they do very little digging for facts to support both sides of a discussion. Opinions only tend to make sides of the discussion to dislike each other. The Flier isn't increasing readership (they give it away) by taking sides and the Sun readers purchase the Sun for more reasons than the twice a week articles on Howard County. So why can't they be a more positive influence in the discussion of this or any other issue.

Anonymous said...

I agree the greater the depth of the coverage, the better. But, don't discount including all facets to a news item. Opinions can help understanding opposing parties' positions. And conversely, facts, like opinions, can fuel disdain if what's stated differs from the reader's viewpoint.

Also, for a lot of current issues, yet-to-be-realized outcomes can't yet be written about from a factual standpoint, leaving little besides the opinions of involved parties by which to judge best paths forward for issues that affect us.

When it comes to an issue such as open meetings, I certainly expect the press to be rightly concerned if it's excluded. Doesn't a free press also require free access? Or, to match recent trends in other venues towards limited access, news substitutes, and make-believe press conferences, should we then also locally just get used to something less?

An informed public serves us all well. A free press, free to report facts and opinions of others in articles and free to state their own opinions in editorials and op-ed pieces, helps.

Anonymous said...

Remember Barbara Russell is the only one who was there then, is there now, and has changed her position without explaining why. She does what works at the time, hoping the community memory is not that long.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:46,

You bring up some interesting points. I would love to put on a pot of coffee and talk in greater detail. If only we had a name or something to go on. Could you please pull back your veil of secrecy so that we can engage in a more honest discussion? For now, I suppose we shall attempt to communicate through here.

First off, why so hard on the Columbia Compass? “Holding Alex to account,” “dressing down” b.santos did state that he did not think the word mix-ups were intentional, as far as I can see, all he did was highlight a changing of the words.

By the way, from the tone of your comment, I get the impression that you know the Alex Hekemian well. Is this true?

Where did the zoning issue come up? I have not heard any party; the CA Board, Alex Hekemian, GGP, the county, or even CoFoDoCo say that this was about zoning. All accounts I have read about in the news have stated the private meeting was about what they would like to do. To me, its analogous to someone trying to plan a menu and then having another person start ranting about health department. Could it be that GGP is just trying to figure out what food to put on the table? There certainly will be a time for regulation, but probably not right now.

Based on your comment, I went back and read the Flier article about Oakland Mills. I do not get the impression that the press was in attendance at this meeting. The story states that the meeting was private. I am confused. Could you help?

Don’t you agree with Anon 8:37 that the honorable Barbara Russell was probably invited to both the Kimco and GGP meetings? Having this knowledge, could she not tell us what the difference is? Wouldn’t that be leadership?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the gracious invitation to share a pot of coffee and enlightened discourse. Please allow me to request a rain check for now. If my comment came across as being any harder in tone than Bill's post that was not my intent.

I inferred from the post's attention on some differences between meanings 'private' and 'secret' that those being cited for using them interchangeably were portrayed as misrepresenting the nature of the meetings. The term 'secret', as Bill noted, meaning 'kept from knowledge or view', can pertain to a meeting's existence or location. But 'secret' can also, importantly, pertain to the discussions had and representations made therein. These discussions are being 'kept from public view', right? So, the attention brought to the use of these various words I took as a mild justification for discounting voices for open meetings at this point.

Your question about where the zoning issue came up, if I understand your question correctly to mean should standards applying to meetings that involve zoning issues be applied to meetings between GGP and Columbia boards, can best be answered by noting that the end result of such meetings will be a plan that involves petitioning for zoning changes to Columbia's center which will most likely drastically alter Columbia's center and also impact the region around it in many, many ways.

Regulation later, but unregulated plan formulation now, foregoing existing public and private regulations covering such plan formulation events? I don't accept that. Public policy formation belongs in the public venue. This process refreshingly began in public, at the Charette. Continuing with your restaurant analogy, GGP gets to plan the menu, but it's a restaurant where the community will have to dine (deal with the traffic congestion, additional density, environmental impact, cost of providing additional public services) everyday. And it's not just a private restaurant - it does involve more than just GGP property. If it truly were limited to just GGP property, then, sure do whatever in private up to the point where regulations say public involvement needs to occur. That, however, is not the case here.

Where I got the impression that the press may have attended that '02 meeting was " But, as 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."", giving me the impression that if the writer knew what Mr. Caputo said there, the press may have been present.

Barbara Russell may indeed have been invited to the '02 meeting. If that was the case, in the context of comparing differences between the '02 meeting and the current GGP meetings issue, yes, she could provide insight.

But it seems the argument being made here, as emphasized by the post's title, "Meetings Terminology and Precedent", is that current calls for open meetings are invalid because either public laws don't apply or private regulations don't apply or a prior precedent of '02 event (that may have gone awry) exists. I believe the terms used by those cited were valid, pubic and private regulations do apply, and using the '02 event as an excuse to somehow justify non-open meetings now is not in our best interests.

Jessie Newburn said...

Hey, Anon 13:15, did you consider, for a moment, how odd this sentence you wrote might sound? : "(Anon), I would love to put on a pot of coffee and talk in greater detail. If only we had a name or something to go on. Could you please pull back your veil of secrecy so that we can engage in a more honest discussion? For now, I suppose we shall attempt to communicate through here."

Huh?

Yo, reality check. Anon talking to Anon? There is no pot-o-coffee to share unless you are willing to own your identity and perspective, as well. Now, I offer that Anons everywhere wake up and, well, smell the coffee.

On a personal level, the number of meaningful relationships I've developed locally since I started blogging and owning my perspectives publicly has been significant and heart-warming. I know that I regularly address this subject, but I do so for a reason. Meaning, connection, the capacity to collaborate and a deeper sense of integration in the local community can expand when people own their online identities, even if it's a regularly used pseudonym. Expand your thinking. Be brave. Create a pseudonym if it’s the best you can do and own your identity and thinking in the online local community. We need you to step up and step in.

Anonymous said...

13:13 here. Yes, I, too, caught the irony in the invitation, but chose to focus on the politesse instead.

Jessie, your more civil words on anonymity are welcome. I do not discount your position on why or when you chose to, after initially posting anonymously yourself, begin posting in an identifiable manner. That you've enjoyed the many benefits of so doing is obviously a good thing.

But, as mentioned in previous exchanges on the question of anonymous posting, there are many valid reasons that others choose to do their stepping up anonymously as well. Among those reasons is choosing not to step in to avoid being stepped on.

No one discounted your anonymous contributions when made. Please grant others that same courtesy now, letting them choose if and when, based on their invidividual circumstances, they, too, make the transition to enjoy the benefits of more public interactions resulting from blogosphere discussions.

For all we know, many anonymous blog contributors may be contributing in many public ways anyway.

A. Nony Mouse said...

Was Jessie's last comment deleted? She wrote something about stepping on toes, and it is now gone.

A. Nony Mouse said...

Well, OK then. I guess that is a yes.

Anonymous said...

Oh Mary Catherine. Stop with the a.nony stuff.

Anonymous said...

Bill: Where ya been? Can we post something about site meters, how people use them and why you don't have one?

thx for allowing the input

A. Nony Mouse said...

What?