Columbia elections disputed Murky voting rules focus of controversy


For Columbia residents who assume that they live in a "city" governed by conventional democratic tenets, the controversial Long Reach Village election could burst that notion.

The election, which has triggered charges of unethical behavior and corruption in the voting system, manifests Columbia's identity as a huge and diffuse property owners association, divided into 10 entities, with no overriding authority at the helm.

Take away two "bloc ballots" totaling 276 votes and a Long Reach challenger for a Columbia Council seat would have handily won the April 24 election. But those two ballots -- cast by owners of two apartment buildings on behalf of tenants -- vaulted the incumbent to victory.

The election has some crying foul, arguing that it was unfair, immoral and a manipulation of the rules.

But defining election rules in Columbia is no simple task. And some have criticized the objectors, saying the ruckus is being raised now only because a system that has been used since Columbia's beginnings has noticeably influenced an election for the first time.

"It sort of smacks of sour grapes," said Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens advocacy group.

In eight of Columbia's 10 villages, property owners are entitled to one vote for each dwelling unit or lot owned. But interpretations of that right vary widely among villages, even though all of the voting rules were written by Columbia's developer and are, in essence, the same.

Some villages allow apartment building owners to cast one vote for each unit; others permit one vote for the entire property. Some villages allow both owner and tenant from the same property to vote; others permit only one or the other. Some villages determine whether an owner's or tenant's vote will count based on who arrives first from that unit on election day; others have no such rule.

Consider this peculiarity: Dorsey's Search village plans to seek alegal interpretation of its voting rules to determine whether residents in a condominium development who own carports should be entitled to two votes, since the carports are listed as separate properties on voter lists.

Columbia is "sort of damned and blessed by the system," said Charles Acquard, who just completed three terms on the council representing Kings Contrivance. Each village's uniqueness "adds flavor to a vanilla Columbia. But when it gets in the way of democracy, changes need to be made."

"You certainly can't call Long Reach's election democracy at its best," he said. "It was sort of [Columbia founder] Jim Rouse's worst nightmare."

Roy T. Lyons, who lost the Long Reach election 386-157, has challenged the results, claiming that individuals who turned out to vote were "disenfranchised." Long Reach officials are seeking legal advice before responding to the challenge but have indicated that they think the election was consistent with rules.

Nevertheless, Mr. Lyons said, he intends to take legal action to bar the victor, Gail Bailey, from serving on the council if Long Reach rules against him.

"I've got that option, too, if they rule against me," Ms. Bailey said.

James W. Rouse, developer of the 25-year-old community, said he was "surprised" by the Long Reach controversy but that he wasn't familiar with the covenants and didn't feel comfortable offering an opinion.

"It doesn't disturb me to have controversy; that's a good thing," Mr. Rouse said. "But if the election process is being manipulated in some way, that wouldn't be a good thing."

There was further fallout Thursday night, when Council Chairman John M. Hansen resigned from the council, citing his opposition on moral grounds to the conduct of the Long Reach election and Ms. Bailey's continued presence on the council. The Harper's Choice village board plans to select a replacement Tuesday night.

David Tufaro, a principal of the partnership that owns Ashton Meadow apartments, resents the implication that his vote, which increased Ms. Bailey's tally by 176, was unfair.

"If people want to form a democracy, let them form it, but don't complain about the way it's set up," Mr. Tufaro said. "The Columbia Association is an oversized homeowners association, no more, no less."

The Columbia Council functions as a board of directors for the Columbia Association, a nonprofit corporation that charges property owners an annual fee to maintain thousands of acres of open space and run recreation facilities and social programs.

Comparing the Columbia Association to a democratic government is like "calling an orange a potato," Mr. Tufaro said.

He contends that as the apartment owner, he can fairly represent the interests of the tenants, who don't tend to become involved in community affairs as much as homeowners do. He criticized Columbia village boards and the council for not seeking to involve renters.

"The elected officials don't give a damn about apartment owners and people who live in apartments," he said. "They come to collect their fees but pay no attention to them whatsoever."

Changing the system is easier said than done in Columbia. Kings Contrivance and River Hill villages amended their covenants to enact a "one person, one vote" policy soon after those villages were established.

But covenants in older villages could be nearly impossible to amend, since any change requires approval by 90 percent of property owners.

"Where there's a will, there's a way," Mr. Acquard said. "What the Long Reach election created is a will."

Last year, the Columbia Forum , a think tank formed to study Columbia's future, recommended a citywide one person, one vote policy.

Hickory Ridge and Harper's Choice village managers say their voting policies are based on a 1988 Columbia Association legal interpretation, which outlined voting rights for owners and renters. Under that interpretation, apartment owners are restricted to one vote, and both owners and tenants of the same single-family residence are allowed votes. The villages are separate entities and aren't bound by the association's interpretation.

Other village managers say they have never seen that interpretation. Several said they weren't sure how the legal documents would apply should questions arise and that they are awaiting a decision from Long Reach for clarification.

"It's up to interpretation," said Anne Darrin, Dorsey's Search village manager. "If there was a problem, we'd seek legal counsel as Long Reach is doing. You can read bylaws and covenants in 10 different ways."

Owen Brown Village Manager Ruth Bohse said the village would need a legal interpretation if apartment building owners cast votes for all of the units.

Some villages have sought bloc votes from big property owners to pad vote totals. The bloc votes can help villages attain voter quorums, typically 10 percent of property owners, required to validate an election. The Columbia Association and Howard Research and Development Corp., a Rouse Co. subsidiary, own properties throughout Columbia and have agreed to cast votes for the winning candidate after results are determined.

Others who own multiple properties have made the same agreement, village managers say, but are not bound by village covenants to follow the lead of the Columbia Association or Howard Research, as evidenced in Long Reach.

Most village managers say issues concerning voting rights have not been raised in their villages but agree that there is a potential for similar controversies.

"If Long Reach prevails, I could see where in some cases #F [apartment owners] could control many village boards or the Columbia Council. There's some danger in letting that happen," said Wendy Tzuker, Harper's Choice village manager.

"We're watching Long Reach with interest. I think it will have an effect on all villages."

Cradelia Birdsong, the Town Center manager, said Columbia's growth over the last 25 years may have rendered some original provisions established by the developer obsolete.

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