The Howard County Council Monday, in a 4-1 vote, passed legislation that would form a Downtown Columbia Partnership, but only after adding amendments aimed at changing the partnership's leadership structure and the entity administering funds collected for affordable housing.
The approval followed weeks of debate and one hostile work session over the makeup of the board. The changes were intended, as council member Calvin Ball put it, to "give a stronger voice to community members and other groups."
The partnership is a commercial district management authority that will operate as a public instrument of the county to conduct marketing, maintenance, security, transportation and other services in downtown Columbia, which is just beginning a major redevelopment.
Council member Jen Terrasa, a Columbia Democrat, voted to support all 13 amendments to the legislation — two of which she came up with — but ultimately voted against the bill.
"I am appreciative of these improvements, but I'm voting no on this because I'm convinced we don't have all of the safeguards, the necessary safeguards to ensure all the amenities we wanted to see (the partnership provide for downtown) … will happen at the (level of) quality that we expect for our community," Terrasa said.
The bill, as introduced by County Executive Ken Ulman's administration, sets up a seven-member Board of Directors, which is responsible for managing the partnership and overseeing its budget.
The council amended the bill to address some of their concerns about the make up of the board, which included having Howard Hughes Corp. representatives as four of the initial seven members — the same number needed for a quorum — and the lack of downtown Columbia stakeholders on the board.
An amendment sponsored by Columbia Democrats Ball and Mary Kay Sigaty raised the number of members required for a quorum from four to six.
"Increasing the quorum I think ensures we'll definitely have more seats at the table for decision-making," Ball said.
Another amendment, sponsored by Ball, Sigaty and Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson, added an 11-member advisory committee that would be allowed to attend the board of directors meetings.
The amendment specifies that a representative of the advisory committee must be provided with an opportunity to comment on all matters pending before the board. It also authorizes the advisory committee to examine the partnership's books and records "at any reasonable time."
At a work session on the proposal, Howard Hughes officials had argued that it should have controlling interest of the board until 500,000 square feet because the company is responsible for all the partnership's expenses until that point. The council's amendments do not take away that control, which Howard Hughes senior vice president John DeWolf said "is the important part to us."
Overall, DeWolf said Howard Hughes is pleased with the amendments.
"Everything that (the council) came up with was well thought out," he said.
Terrasa said she doesn't think the advisory committee goes far enough because it still leaves Howard Hughes with control of the board. She said she voted for the amendment because "it's a positive step in the right direction."
The council also included an amendment, sponsored by Terrasa, to require the partnership to contract with the county's Office of Transportation when working on the transportation initiatives. She said the amendment is important because the partnership's board of directors does not include a person whose expertise is in transportation.
"I was afraid that (transportation) would not be given the focus it needed," Terrasa said.
Nonprofit to administer housing funds
Another amendment, sponsored by Sigaty and Watson, eliminated the partnership's role as the Downtown Columbia Housing Foundation and established a separate nonprofit to serve as the foundation and contract with the partnership. Instead of the partnership collecting the affordable housing funds and funneling them to the Howard County Housing Commission to administer, the funds will go to the nonprofit.
Sigaty said the amendment was included to address concerns of council members and affordable housing advocates who wanted to follow the intent of the Downtown Columbia Plan, which specifically called for the foundation to be a nonprofit.
The nonprofit foundation would use the funds to assist developers in providing affordable housing units, provide low-income residents with rental assistance or homeownership loans and aid in eviction prevention and foreclosure assistance.
The advocates and council members felt that a nonprofit would be able to draw upon a wider variety of experts than the housing commission. During a public hearing last month, advocates argued that the commission, which is the county's public housing authority, has been focused on providing moderate-income housing, and they were hoping downtown would provide more low-income housing options.
The amendment specifies that the nonprofit foundation "shall include representation from private entities, county and other public agencies, the community developer, organizations and individuals who are generally able to promote (a full-spectrum of affordable housing)."
The council will accept applications for groups of such stakeholders seeking to form as the nonprofit foundation. The council reserved the right to withdraw its recognition of the nonprofit as the foundation if it determines the nonprofit failed to meet certain requirements.
Because of restrictions in state law, the council cannot legally form its own nonprofit, but it can recognize one, Sigaty explained.