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News Maryland Howard County

Columbia Association bill raises suspicion

A bill to change the way the Columbia Association is defined in state law is portrayed by the organization's lawyer as a necessary housekeeping measure, but the legislation seems to have an image problem. 

The Columbia Association board had it on the agenda for discussion recently, but the occasion served mainly as a reminder of last fall, when the CA proposed, then withdrew, a request that the county's legislative delegation sponsor the law change. This time, once again, critics stepped up to claim that the proposed law could block public access to association records, and once again, the members decided to hold off on further action.

Tom Coale, a board member from Dorsey's Search, said that last year the 10-member panel "did not turn this into an outreach opportunity. That's what we're doing somewhat belatedly now."

In other words, the board has some explaining to do. He envisions many meetings and much discussion to come about the proposed state legislation, and does not imagine the measure will be ready to be introduced to the General Assembly until the 2014 session.

The association's lawyer, Sheri Fanaroff, said in an email to The Baltimore Sun and in a memo to the CA board that the proposed legislation — redefining the Columbia Association as a "nonprofit community service corporation" rather than a "homeowners association" — would serve several purposes.

Among other things, she said, it would recognize that the Columbia Association is organized differently from and performs many more functions and is much larger than any other homeowners association in the state. The measure would spare the CA from spending the money and staff time needed to review the many Homeowners Association Act bills introduced at every legislative session that are not relevant to the Columbia Association.

In her memo last month to the CA board, Fanaroff said more than 100 Homeowners Association Act amendments have been proposed in the past six years.

Coale said members of the Howard County delegation have been asking for the legislation, as they spend so much time reviewing Homeowners Association Act bills that turn out not to apply to Columbia.

As Coale sees it, the board has to engage in rumor control, and "the only way you can do that is to put out as much information as possible."

It's apparently going to take some doing to persuade Thomas D. Scott, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, whose four-page letter to the CA board last month referred to the proposed bill as "ill-conceived anti-consumer, anti-resident, anti-transparency and anti-freedom."

He wrote that he was not convinced by Fanaroff's arguments for a CA exemption from existing state law governing homeowners associations, and fears the loss of "consumer protection provisions" in the current law.

In an interview, Scott made clear he sees the proposed legislation in the context of a years-long effort by the Alliance for a Better Columbia to make public salaries and bonuses paid to Columbia Association employees, particularly department heads. He claims the association has been stalling, and that the legislation is part of the strategy.

"The bill is basically a dodge," Scott said. "I think they're trying to hide the salaries and bonuses of the people who run the CA."

Specifically, Scott said, he's worried about a paragraph in the draft bill that says, "Books and records kept by or on behalf of a nonprofit community service corporation may be withheld from public inspection, except for inspection by the person who is the subject of the record or the person's designee or guardian." The bill, however, says employee compensation would not be covered by that shield.

Fanaroff argues that the proposed bill would "increase transparency in the way that CA conducts board meetings and provides access to its books and records." She said Scott has it wrong when he calls the legislation part of a stonewalling effort.

"Mr. Scott's assertion is inaccurate," Fanaroff said in an email. "In fact, several years ago, CA provided to the Alliance for a Better Columbia 86 pages of information on CA employee salaries and bonuses."

A spokesman for the Columbia Association said there are 1,744 employees, 248 of whom work full time, the rest as part-time, temporary and seasonal workers. Approximately 105 people work as supervisors and managers, the spokesman said.

Fanaroff's email goes on to say that Scott's organization was not satisfied with that, insisting on information on employee compensation with employees identified by name. CA doesn't do that, Fanaroff says, never has and is not legally obligated to do so, and the Maryland attorney general's office has supported the CA's position.

Scott said the Columbia Association has provided information on compensation for employees who are in groups of workers — say, maintenance employees — but not for those positions occupied by just one person, where the job description would identify the person.

In those cases, Scott says, the CA has supplied only a very wide salary range that reveals very little. He also cites a letter from Karen S. Straughn, of the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division, claiming it affirms the Alliance for a Better Columbia's position that it is entitled to the information.

Straughn's two-paragraph letter to Fanaroff, dated June 20, 2012, is to "confirm that the Columbia Association has agreed to provide the Consumer Protection Division (the 'Division') with a listing of its employees' salaries and bonuses." Straughn wrote that the list will identify employees only by position, not by name, and the information will be conveyed to the Consumer Protection Division, which will then send it along to Scott.

Fanaroff said in her email that the CA is compiling the salary and bonus information and "hope to provide it to the Attorney General's office within the next month."

Scott told the CA recently that if questions about public access to association records were resolved, he would be willing to support the legislation.

Coale said in an interview that activist groups have an important role to play, but said the Alliance for a Better Columbia sometimes overplays it.

"My experience has been they're always looking for problems, even when they don't exist," he said.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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