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Political Notebook: What does Howard Hughes, County Council spat say about partnership?

Howard HughesMarketingGeneral Growth Properties, Inc.

As Howard Hughes senior vice president John DeWolf angrily stormed out of the County Council chambers last week, council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said, "You're welcome to stay."

That was not an appealing offer for DeWolf, who had spent the past hour in a heated debate with some members of the council.

"I think we've had enough, thank you," DeWolf said, turning his back on the council and walking away.

The comments came during a council work session June 21 on legislation that would form a Downtown Columbia Partnership to conduct marketing, maintenance, security, transportation and other services in downtown Columbia.

DeWolf and the council were arguing over the need to set up the partnership via legislation and the proposed structure of its board of directors.

"In lots of places that we operate across the country, there's a much more cooperative approach to things," DeWolf told the council during the discussion.

To put that in perspective, he later added, "We are the master of master planned communities."

The partnership is not only an organization; it's the theme behind Columbia's redevelopment. County officials have said time and time again that all the various stakeholders need to be able to work together for the 30-year redevelopment to be successful.

The heated debate highlighted a communication breakdown and a power struggle between Howard Hughes and the council, and raised questions about how successful the partnership can be.

As the discussion continued to circle around the same arguments with no sign of consensus being reached, DeWolf reminded the council that Howard Hughes bought this opportunity by acquiring bankrupt General Growth Properties, noting, "it was prime for the plucking" as there was not a line of interested buyers.

"There's another choice that we can make which is to walk from it," DeWolf said. "And, frankly, there hasn't been a line up outside the door since we've been in control to say, 'Gee, we really like your position.' So I think it's appropriate for us to ask for just a bit of respect for the fact that we're doing what we're doing."

Council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, responded, "This is the legislative process. We are elected. … We have a responsibility to our constituents to ask these questions so that we understand exactly what we are ... agreeing to. I'm sorry if you feel disrespected by us asking questions … but I think it's important for us to try to get it right."

At the conclusion of the discussion, DeWolf asked the council to promise him that if they were to amend the legislation they would work with Howard Hughes to develop a joint solution.

All but Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson, who gave her word that she would and urged the other council members to do so, were silent.

So it's no wonder that when Sigaty offered DeWolf the opportunity to stay while they discussed concerns over the housing portion of the legislation, he chose to leave.

The back-and-forth that occurred during the work session might not have happened in a more private setting, with less parties involved — as evidenced by DeWolf and the council members singing a more upbeat tune after behind-the-scenes conversations within the past week.

Seemingly, those places where communication broke down could be improved upon in future interactions.

But the power struggle of council authority versus autonomy of a private developer that emerged during the work session could continue if the parties can't agree to their respective roles in this 30-year redevelopment process.

Said Watson: "We have to be careful and differentiate between appropriate checks and balances and micromanagement."

And, as DeWolf said, "At some point, this has to be a bit of a 'trust me.' "

Though their quotes were given during the discussion on the structure of downtown partnership, they apply to the larger question of how the two entities can work together without spurring another public battle like the one that was on display at the June 21 work session. Whether those quotes will serve as the answer to that larger question remains to be seen.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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