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Transparency concerns plague Columbia Association ethics investigation

Transparency concerns plague Columbia Association ethics investigation
Alan Klein speaks to the group of people at a Save Symphony Woods rally in April 2014. Klein, a member of the Columbia Association's Board of Directors, has been accused of violating the organization's code of ethics. (Nate Pesce, Baltimore Sun Media Group file photo)

The Columbia Association Board of Directors came under sharp criticism from residents Monday evening because of its decision to close a meeting to discuss an ethics charge against one of its directors.

Fourteen residents expressed their dismay in a 45-minute public session before the closed meeting. They took aim at Columbia Association's transparency, which has been an ongoing criticism of the homeowners association and nonprofit. And they questioned the merits of the complaint, which was filed by an unknown board member against Alan Klein, who represents Harper's Choice.

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The complaint, a copy of which Klein provided to The Columbia Flier, claims Klein violated the organization's Code of Ethics and Conflicts of Interest Policy three times in November because of actions and comments about the Inner Arbor Plan, a development proposal endorsed by the Columbia Association Board that calls for a curated arts park to be built on 16 acres of CA-owned parkland known as Symphony Woods.

Klein has been a vocal skeptic of the plan, which the board has voted multiple times to support. The three-pronged complaint accuses Klein of the following actions, none of which he denies:

  • On Nov. 1, Klein sent an email to a group called The Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, of which he is the spokesman, imploring them to testify against the plan at a Howard County Planning Board meeting on Nov. 6.

  • On Nov. 6, Klein testified at the meeting against the plan. Klein also told the Planning Board that the pro-Inner Arbor testimony of Columbia Association President Milton Matthews was unauthorized. 

  • On Nov. 19, Klein posted a letter on the Harper's Choice website that quoted an independent legal opinion that the development is in violation of Columbia Association's charter and bylaws (CA's general counsel's has refuted that opinion).  

The complaint argues that Klein's actions violate provisions in CA's code of conduct, specifically a section called "Duty of Loyalty."

The text of the complaint states: "The Code specifically states that a Board member may state his or her disagreement with an action by CA, but only 'as long as such disagreement does not interfere with the execution of the action.'"

The complaint also states Klein undermined Matthews' authority. Klein does not deny the "facts of the complaint," but disagrees that they constitute an ethics violation.

Despite residents' impassioned pleas to discuss the complaint in an open setting, the board voted, 6-4, to close Monday's meeting. The four board members who voted against closing the meeting were Russ Swatek, of Long Reach; Jeanne Ketley, of Town Center; Reg Avery, of Oakland Mills; and Klein.

"When there is a lack of communication, people fill in the blanks with their own story, and that story is rarely, if ever, a positive story," Klein said. "And we are playing right into that negative story."

Klein said one of the reasons for the closed meeting is to protect the integrity and identity of the accused and added he "totally waive(s) any consideration of privacy."

"This meeting ought to be open so the public can hear what we have to say," Klein said.

Ketley called the vote "a critical point" for the Columbia Association's future.

"CA must change the way it operates. It must be more open. It must be more responsive to the people it serves," said Ketley, who has served as the president of the Maryland Homeowners Association.

"I really encourage you to think hard about what this very decision means," she added.

Columbia Association officials cited a provision in the Maryland Homeowners Association Act that allows for closed meetings for "discussion of matters pertaining to personnel." Columbia Association's Code of Business Conduct and Ethics defines personnel as "all team members, team leaders, officers and directors."

Nancy McCord, board member from Wilde Lake who voted to close the meeting, said Wednesday that the decision was "not a matter of interpretation," and that HOA law required the meeting to be closed.

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"Even though the accused wanted to have it done in public, the board had every right to keep it in a closed session," she said.

McCord added that she felt the tone and hostility of the crowd warranted a closed session.

"There was high emotion and the board could not take its work seriously [in an open meeting]," she said.

She added the testimony from residents was "very unfortunate," and she said she thought some of the residents "jumped to conclusions" without knowing the whole story.

Residents and some board members, some of whom are listed as supporters of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown on the organization's website, also challenged the merits of the complaint.

Ginger Scott, a Wilde Lake resident, compared the complaint to the 17th-century Salem witch trials in Massachusetts.

Cynthia Coyle, a former board member and Harper's Choice resident, said she was "sorely disappointed" in the complaint.

"The work of destroying someone's reputation is serious business, and to so easily besmirch another human being's character simply because they do not agree with you, in my opinion, demonstrates a lack of ethical behavior," Coyle said.

Board members who voted against the closed meeting also denounced the complaint.

Avery argued that Klein's actions did not rise to level of an ethics violation.

"Did Alan steal anything? Did Alan embezzle money?" Avery asked rhetorically.

Swatek, the board chair, said the ethics policy needs to be overhauled and that the complaint was "another attempt to muzzle a member of the board of directors."

Swatek said Tuesday that the board reached a decision on the complaint, but he would not disclose it. He said he expects the Columbia Association to announce details later this month.

This story has been updated. 

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