When my copy of the Columbia Flier arrived on my driveway early Thursday morning, I expected coverage of the recently completed Columbia elections. A piece by Sara Toth on fellow Wilde Lake resident (and elected Wilde Lake Village Board member) Regina Clay has been up on the Explore Howard website for a few days. Sara does a decent job covering the bases, but I was really insulted by the editorial regarding the Columbia Elections. The editorial begins as follows:
Stop us if you've heard this one.
Eight years ago in this space we called upon the Columbia villages to put their heads together and standardize their election rules. It didn't happen.
Y’know, I love it when any entity gets up in front of the community and says “We told you to do something about this eight years ago,” and then for eight years does nothing to improve the situation. It just shows the level of community commitment and professionalism in the organization.
Moreover, Explore Howard whitewashes a lot of Columbia election/Governance history between the 2nd and 3rd sentences quoted above. So to help set the record straight, let’s look at what did happen.
1st, the history
It is a well-known fact that the differences between Villages on Columbia Election Day exist because voter eligibility is derived from the Covenants in each Village. The Covenants vary from Village-to-Village, but the one thing that is constant is there exists a high bar to change the Covenants. For example, the Wilde Lake Covenants can only be changed “by execution of an instrument signed by not less than 90% of the lot owners.” So to change voter eligibility from “lot owners and tenants” to “all residents over the age of 18” would require 2,357 lot owners (90% of 2618 dwelling units. (Source, Columbia Association 2011 Public Information Guide, p. 23) to sign a petition (or similar) to approve the change.
The term of office also varies by Village. Some Villages have two-year terms. Some Villages have one-year terms. The term of office is not in the Covenants, it is spelled out in the Village Articles of Incorporation (aka Charter). Again, using Wilde Lake as an example, the terms of office are as follows:
Beginning with the first annual meeting of the Association to be held on or before march 1, 1968, the members, at each such annual meeting, shall elect five (5) directors, at least two of whom shall be elected from among the membership of the Association, each for a term of one year.
It also states:
“The members of the Association shall in each year elect from among the members thereof a representative to serve a one year term as a member of the Columbia Council.”
Now, amending the Articles of Incorporation requires first an affirmative vote of 2/3 of the Board of Directors (Village Board) and a majority of the members entitled to vote. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 1310 property owners and renters that would need to approve the change.
Now the intention here is that neither the Covenants nor the Articles of Incorporation are easy to change. What has become the accepted “wisdom” is that it is nearly impossible to change either document.
Fast Forward to 2003
Let’s recall the events that provoked the Explore Howard editors all those years ago to call “upon the Columbia villages to put their heads together and standardize their election rules.” Back in the Spring of 2003, then Howard County Councilperson David Rakes went to the Long Reach polling place (Stone House) to vote. Mr. Rakes had previously lived in Oakland Mills, but within the last year rented an apartment in Long Reach. Given that he was a renting an apartment, he was asked to provide a copy of his lease as proof of residence. In a related article , Mr. Rakes stated, “This is nothing but a false barrier; it's discriminatory." In the same edition of the Columbia Flier, the editors cobbled together an editorial that lamented the low voter turnout (this time Hickory Ridge did not reach a quorum) and the Rakes controversy. Toward the end of the editorial, they stated:
“We call for an assembly of village officials _ a constitutional convention, if you will _ to establish in time for next year's village elections uniform rules governing the voting process that remove as many barriers to participation by residents as possible.”
Now for those whom have the time and energy, “standardize their election rules” (2011) does not exactly comport with “uniform rules governing the voting process that remove as many barriers to participation by residents as possible;” (2003) but we are going to stick to broad principles here.
The Last Great Governance Discussion
After the 2003 Columbia elections, the idea of election reform was not ignored. In fact it was a topic of discussion amongst every Village Board. Residents provided input. Boards discussed how to change the unchangeable (Covenants). Exo-Covenant and Supra-Covenant ideas were put forth and debated. Lawyers were consulted. The last great covenant discussion was unearthed and discussed at length. Ultimately, the Columbia Association electeds convened a second Governance Committee, whose only task was to study election reform. This committee studied four different reform proposals, took input from residents and village board members, and issued a report that can be found here: NOTE: links to appendices do not work.
The result of all this input was filtered through the Columbia Council/CA Board of Directors. There was general acceptance that Village Board elections were locked in by the Covenants and Articles of Incorporation of each Village and could not be changed. The CA Board endorsed a plan in which Columbia residents would participate in two simultaneous elections. Elections for Village Board and Columbia Council Representative would proceed as they always have. But every other year, all village residents over the age of 18 would also vote for Village representation on the CA Board of Directors. Technically, this would achieve a standardized election for the CA Board of Directors. Residents in Dorsey's Search, Kings Contrivance, Long Reach, River Hill and Wilde Lake would vote in odd-numbered years, while those in Harper's Choice, Hickory Ridge, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and Town Center would vote in even-numbered years.
Under this arrangement, the elected CA Board of Directors would be charged with carrying out the business of the Columbia Association, while the elected Columbia Council Representative would either be the same person (assuming they ran for both positions) or would be a “figurehead.” This is the “2005 endorsement” that is mentioned in this week’s Explore Howard editorial.
To try and rectify any loose ends, CA’s legal staff created a “compact” to be signed by all the Village Board and Columbia Association. Ultimately, this proposal was met with much resistance by many actors. The Alliance for a Better Columbia exercised much hand waving and worried about potential lawsuits from corporations that would no longer have the same voting rights. Villages currently under the one vote per property regime bristled at the prospect of having to maintain two sets of voter rolls.
Ultimately election reform collapsed under the weight of opposition, and the status-quo remained.
The Straw Man
Getting back to present day, the Explore Howard editors offer a straw man argument for poor election results:
It's a mobile society, and it's not uncommon for Columbia residents to move from one village to another. Young couples move from apartments to single-family houses. Empty-nesters downsize. Sometimes these crossover Columbians get blind-sided by a shift in the rules.
I have tried to find the source of this story and after some extensive searches on Explore Howard, the earliest mention I came across was in 2003 by then Columbia Council Representative Barbara Russell (OM):
“I think the time has come to set up a big meeting where all the 10 villages' board members could discuss such issues as voting rules," said Barbara Russell, the Oakland Mills representative to the CA board. "More uniformity is needed. People get confused, especially when they move from village to village."
To be fair, it may be entirely possible that in 2003 there was a noticeable internal migration of people throughout Columbia; however, given today’s economic climate, I am not so certain that this occurs in an appreciable amount. I suggest that the folks at Explore Howard, a news organization, do a little research and find out how many people have moved from one village to another over the last five years. In addition, the Explore Howard staff should interview these people and ascertain their voting records before and after the move. Otherwise, the editors at Explore Howard should stop exploiting what most likely is a myth.
Future Thoughts, What will Elections be Like in 2019?
It is entirely possible that eight years from now, there may be a Village that does not meet a quorum, but we can collectively change that. Some of the folks involved in the 2004-2005 CA governance debate are currently on the CA Board of Directors.
Absent another round of CA governance discussion, there are a few other things that can be done. First, the folks at Explore Howard could do a better job of covering the Village Boards. Maybe set for themselves a goal of a Village Board story in the paper/website every two weeks. Another goal may be to write about each Village Board at least once every six months. Lastly, if Explore Howard really believes that voter eligibility is a real problem and a true barrier to voter turnout, why not construct an infographic chart that depicts what elections take place in a particular year and who is eligible to vote?
The Villages need to work at this problem too. Interestingly, the Villages of Owen Brown and Hickory Ridge often find it difficult to obtain a quorum. If you ask the Village Association folks about this, they typically say that the low turnout is because their association site is not near the Village Shopping Center. So during elections, a few people are spurred to vote in Oakland Mills or Harper’s Choice because as they go about their shopping, they are reminded by the elections and take a few extra minutes to vote. In Owen Brown, voters need to take a separate trip to a different location to vote, and that difference of eight votes shy of a quorum this year most likely would have disappeared in another village. So in particular Owen Brown and Hickory Ridge, but all Villages, should attempt to increase village resident traffic to their community building. I also believe each Columbia Village should publish and hold an event every February on the “State of the Village.” This would help clarify the issues for the upcoming elections and start to get people interested.
Lastly, residents need to get more involved. The Ellicott City/Columbia area did not become “the number-two place to live in America” through a plethora of inaction. It did so by the hard work of many people and it will not remain a highly desirable place to live unless people continue to be engaged. One of the easiest ways to be engaged is to vote in the local Columbia elections.