One incumbent and two newcomers were elected to serve on the Columbia Council in contested races in the village dections held Saturday, April 26.
Newcomer Jeanne Ketley narrowly unseated longtime Town Center representative Suzanne Waller by a vote of 141-75. In Hickory Ridge, where a quorum was reached for the first time in recent years, incumbent Gregg Schwind defeated challenger Harry Schwarz, 189-147.
Alan Klein will succeed long-serving Harper's Choice representative Cynthia Coyle, who did not seek re-election, after defeating newcomer Bob Fontaine by a vote of 196-179.
All three vote tallies do not include a substantial number of votes allocated by Columbia Association-owned parcels, which are tacked on at the end of the election to the candidate who got the most votes in each village. In Harper’s Choice, 73 CA votes were cast for Klein. In Hickory Ridge, 85 CA votes went to Schwind and Ketley received the 50 CA votes in Town Center.
Reg Avery, who ran uncontested, was voted to replace Alex Hekimian and serve a one-year term as representative of Oakland Mills.
Ketley and Klein will serve two-year terms, while Schwind will serve his sixth consecutive one-year term.
The annual elections give residents in Columbia's 10 independently run villages a chance to choose their representative on the 10-member governing body of the Columbia Association — a $65 million mega-homeowner’s association responsible for running much of the planned community's parks, amenities and open space.
The association, which collects a tax-like fee from residents, is managed by the 10 representatives elected to the Columbia Council, which transforms into the Columbia Association Board of Directors after elections.
Despite the importance of serving on the board, the annual voter turnout is consistently low — a trend that, to some degree, continued in Saturday’s election. A total of 927 votes in three contested races were tallied, not including the 208 CA votes, which have no affect on the outcome.
Schwind, who won by the biggest margin, said, although it appears low, he was pleased with turnout and gratified he was re-elected.
Ketley, who won by 66 votes, said the turnout was unfortunate but that she was happy it was “a clean win.”
“I'm feeling very, very good,” she said. “I think the message is Town Center wants change, and I’m glad I can make that happen.”
Klein said he was “humbled by the faith” residents put in him, and attributed his 17-vote victory to his campaign approach.
“My campaign was about particular issues,” he said. “What the election says to me is voters resonate with the issues.”
Most prominent among those issues was the controversy swirling around Symphony Woods, 36 acres of CA-owned open space in downtown Columbia surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The plans in development by the Inner Arbor Trust would create a curated arts park on the site, which has long been ear-marked as a community park. The plans have been well received by officials within Howard County government’s Department of Planning and Zoning, but there has been some push back from a contingency of residents who are advocating for an alternative plan developed by the original park designers, which is spearheaded by Cy Paumier.
The alternative plan is a reboot of the original plan developed for the park, which was discarded for the new plan February 2013.
All three elected in contested races Saturday are vocal skeptics of the plan and their election could swing the CA board’s position from one of support to dissension.
Schwind, who currently serves as a CA representative within the Trust's board, said he is taking seriously concerns raised by residents about the project.
“There are a lot of folks out there not satisfied with the current plan for Symphony Woods, and I don’t think we can just ignore that,” he said. “If it means going back and reworking the plan then I'm willing to do that.”
Both Ketley and Klein said they are concerned about the easement agreement CA signed with the Trust that gives them control over the development of the park.
Klein said the board needs to “hold the Inner Arbor corporation accountable,” to the agreement, and be prepared to “firmly” deal with them if they violate any provisions.
Ketley said the easement, which included the transfer of $1.6 million to the Trust from CA, was a mistake, and that CA needs to explore correcting it.
Michael McCall, president of the Trust, said the Trust’s relationship with the CA board is very good, and that he doesn’t have concerns about the results.
“We are doing exactly what CA created us to do,” McCall said. “CA may change over time, but the mandate and the easement doesn't so that's what we are following.”
While the election-winners gleaned confidence from their margins of victory, those on the losing side took solace in the closeness of the races.
“Let’s recognize that this was a very close election,” Fontaine said. ”Had nine people voted for me instead of for Alan [Klein], he would not have won. That fact alone demonstrates just how divided this community is.”
Waller said she was disappointed by the results and that she may consider another run again in two years.
Schwarz, who lost to Schwind by 42 votes, wrote in a post on his campaign blog that the electoral system is broken, but fixable. He added Saturday’s outcome is “hardly a mandate.”
The four elected to the Columbia Council, along with the six other council members, will meet on May 8 at the annual organizational meeting. Traditionally at the meeting, the council elects each other to the CA Board of Directors, although this year may be different because of a potential conflict of interest involving Avery.
Avery is running in the June 24 primary for the Republican nomination for a seat on the Howard County Council representing District 2.
According to CA's general counsel, Sheri Fanaroff, Avery would not be able to serve on the board and run for the County Council at the same time.
The only way Avery could serve would be if the board agreed to waive the clause, a request he would have to make at the May 8 meeting, according to CA spokesman David Greisman.
A previous version of this story inaccurately calculated the vote tally in Town Center. The correct total is 141-75. We regret that error.