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Residents share their thoughts at 'Columbia Speaks'

Pat Thomas, of Columbia, takes part in the Columbia Association's "Columbia Speaks, CA Listens" Town Hall-style forum held at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center on Saturday, Oct. 18.
Pat Thomas, of Columbia, takes part in the Columbia Association's "Columbia Speaks, CA Listens" Town Hall-style forum held at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center on Saturday, Oct. 18. (Provided by the Columbia Association)

Does the Columbia Association offer the right mix of programming and services? Does CA need to change its governance structure? How effective is its community outreach?

These questions, and others, were the topics of conversation last weekend at a CA-sponsored town hall meeting called "Columbia Speaks, CA Listens." The three-and-a-half hour long event was a first for the organization, and it served as an opportunity for CA's leaders to hear input from residents it normally does not hear from.

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CA is a nonprofit, homeowners association that manages many of Columbia's amenities, including pathways and open space. Despite being a private nonprofit, it acts a lot like a public organization. It funds most of its $65 million budget from a tax-like fee collected from residents living within certain boundaries in the community, and it is governed by a board of directors made up of residents elected from the community's 10 villages.

CA's unique structure makes community outreach a key issue for its leaders, which is why the new event was organized. The purpose of the meeting, which was held Oct. 18 at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, was to gather a variety of unsolicited opinions from a cross-section of residents.

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Board member Nancy McCord, who served as chairwoman of the committee that organized the event, said she considered it a success.

"I was really proud of it," said McCord. "The whole point was to give people an opportunity to speak without hindrance, and I thought that people were given that opportunity."

The 83 people in attendance were divided into 16 tables of four to seven people. At each table was a moderator, provided either by Howard Community College or hired consultant Justice and Sustainability Associates, and a secretary to record the conversations. Following a social hour and introductions, the tables were give 25 minutes to discuss three topics: programs and services, governance and communications and engagement.

Following each table discussion, a short 10-minute Q & A session was held with CA President and CEO Milton Matthews. The questions came from the audience and were delivered to Matthews through a moderator.

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At the end of the event, a 15-minute summary of the day's themes was presented to the entire audience. The themes included both strengths and weaknesses reported by the group.

McCord said CA staff is currently preparing a full report of the comments that will be presented to the board later this year.

"We haven't gotten the full feedback yet, once we do that we will have a better idea," McCord said of the comments. She added it was "hard to say" what will stand out and become issues the board will address.

McCord and Matthews said every question asked by a participant will be answered in the next 30 days. Residents who could not attend or who have additional questions can submit them to Engage@ColumbiaAssociation.org until Nov. 17.

Richard Blank, a resident of Long Reach, said he thought the meeting was productive. He said he wanted to attend the event to applaud the Columbia Association's responsiveness to a previous issue he raised last year regarding keeping an outdoor pool open for lap swimming into the fall.

"I think CA deserves credit for that, and I wanted to encourage them to continue to do that," he said.

He said the main issue at his table revolved around governance and transparency.

Heidi Abedelhady, a resident of Harper's Choice, said she liked the face-to-face opportunities the event presented.

"I appreciate that they are asking for live feedback. I think that makes a difference more so than email feedback or paper feedback," she said.

She said governance was also an issue at her table.

"Often times when we bring up issues as residents, we realize the lines are really blurred," she said. "We were asking for more clarity on the governance of CA, and how the village connects to CA and their role within the county."

Lilah Haxton, a resident of Kings Contrivance, also said the format presented a different angle than a traditional public hearing.

"This was an informal event that seemed a little more interesting to do," she said. "My table was very diverse. Each of us were from different Columbia villages and different ages."

She said CA could improve on resident outreach.

"It seems like they are using their traditional forms of engagement, and I think for a younger community, the way you reach out is different," she said. "My message for them was to be more broad and look for additional ways of reaching out."

McCord said she thinks the event could become an annual tradition. She said the next one would likely be at a different location and could be during a different time of day – this event was held from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

She said one of the criticisms she heard was that the 10 board members sat at their own table, and that they weren't dispersed among different tables.

She said the board would explore changing that, but that they did it so that board members would not, incidentally or purposefully, influence the conversation.

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