Rebel works from within

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Alternate Thursday nights find Chuck Rees in a corporate board room making what he considers "good faith" decisions on the best interests of the nonprofit Columbia Association. But weekends, the Columbia councilman is outside local libraries with a petition in hand, asking Columbia residents to join an effort to replace the private association that runs the unincorporated community with a city government.

Columbia's Benedict Arnold? The mention of the infamous American Revolutionary general and traitor draws a guffaw from Mr. Rees.

"No, I wouldn't say that," says the 56-year-old University of Baltimore law professor.

Neither would the association's spokeswoman or his colleagues on its elected, 10-member council. But they agree that Mr. Rees marches to a decidedly different beat -- one set by Alliance for a Better Columbia (ABC), an ad hoc citizens group established in 1987 to act as the association's watchdog.

"I don't see a conflict of interest there," says the Columbia Council's vice chairman, David W. Berson, of River Hill village. "I think Chuck is trying to seek the right path for the people of Columbia. I don't fault him at all for that, but I think he's doing things in the wrong order."

Adds Pamela Mack, Columbia Association's community relations director and a former council member: "I believe it's certainly within his right to support" incorporation.

Mr. Rees says he sees no conflict between representing the Kings Contrivance village on the Columbia Council and his activities to replace the association with a more "open, democratic and responsive" governance.

Elected council members play a dual role, he says, representing residents of their villages and serving as the Columbia Association's board of directors. But the directors have the fiduciary duty to ensure the financial stability of the association, whose corporate charter calls for its "perpetual" existence.

The association has a $32 million budget funded partly by charging an annual levy on Columbia property owners. It oversees recreational facilities, community programs and parkland in the new town of 80,000 residents.

Mr. Rees, a longtime agitator for change in Columbia, is a leader of the Coalition of Governance Concerned Columbia Residents, which launched the petition drive aimed at putting the incorporation question before Columbia voters as a referendum. This coalition is not the same as the ABC group, but has some common interests.

"I am a representative of the residents of Kings Contrivance village and I don't think the Columbia Association is serving the interests of the residents very well," Mr. Rees says. "I think it represents [Columbia Association] senior staff, and to some extent [The Rouse Co., Columbia's developer]. I think a new form of government could do better."

Mr. Rees says his point of view on the association should come as no surprise to those who elected him to its council from the Kings Contrivance area. "I did run on a platform that was critical of CA," he says. "I think people knew what they were voting for."

Council members also knew what to expect. "Chuck has never pretended to be anything but what he is," says Councilwoman Hope Sachwald, of Harper's Choice. "Everybody knew he was a member of" the ABC group.

On the council, Mr. Rees frequently votes in the minority -- often a minority of one. To his colleagues' consternation, he persists in bringing up pet issues, among them the claim that the association overcharges residents on its annual levy and hasn't exhausted options for refinancing its nearly $90 million debt at a lower interest rate. The levy is not tax deductible.

Councilman Gary Glisan, of Oakland Mills, credits Mr. Rees for stirring productive debate, but says he can be frustrating to work with.

"I don't quite follow some of his positions. There's no discussion, and then he votes against something or abstains," Mr. Glisan says. "As far as a well laid-out agenda, I don't think I've seen that."

James V. Clark, chairman of the incorporation coalition, says he admires Mr. Rees' tenacity and integrity and appreciates the knowledge he brings to the coalition as a Columbia Association "insider."

"It's a lonely role he plays, always outvoted," Mr. Clark says. "My hat's off to him for being able to stand it and to joke about it."

Mr. Rees brings humor to his rebellious role, but "don't underestimate his fervor," says Alex Hekimian, founder and president of the ABC group.

Wearing a golf visor and a bag of golf clubs slung over his shoulder, Mr. Rees opened his testimony at a hearing last year opposing Columbia Association's controversial $5.2 million golf course by bellowing: "Fore!. . .No, against."

He recently appeared at a Columbia Forum meeting, decked out in a captain's hat and a homemade cardboard boat around his waist, to remind the think tank of its 1989 to 1992 "Columbia Voyage" -- a study of Columbia's future. Mr. Rees participated on a Voyage task force that recommended exploring alternative forms of governance.

Mr. Rees, a Portland, Ore., native and former middle school teacher, graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970 and began his legal career at Piper & Marbury in Baltimore. In 1973, he became a professor at the University of Baltimore, where he teaches civil procedure and constitutional law, and moved to Columbia with his wife and two daughters.

In the late 1970s, he served on a Columbia Council-appointed committee that investigated governance options with an eye toward lowering interest rates on Columbia's debt. In 1979, the council voted to stick with the current system. In the early 1980s, Mr. Rees led a successful grass-roots campaign to change Kings Contrivance's voting rules for Columbia elections from one vote per household to one vote per person.

Then he tried to inspire a residents' revolt in 1991 to reduce the Columbia Association's annual levy, which he says increased by 65 percent on his property in one year.

He argued that the association's exemption from state tax law allows it to assess property at a higher percentage of market value than governments and to avoid phasing in or capping levy increases -- resulting in what Mr. Rees considers "overcharges" of 25 percent to 50 percent.

Just before his election to the council in 1993, he represented a fellow ABC member in an unsuccessful court challenge of the association's annual levy.

Mr. Rees, who's referred to Columbia as a "company town" because of The Rouse Co.'s influence, says the developer set up the new town to promote "reliance on expertise rather than community participation."

"What was missing was the chance of people who were going to live here to have input into how they'd be governed," he says. "There's still a lot of that flavor of expertise vs. democracy. A lot of times expertise isn't what's needed. What we need is more resident input, more democracy."

He says he's grown impatient with the council's own governance study. The council plans to sponsor three symposiums in March on the topic, about 15 months after first forming a governance committee.

"What's needed now is not more study but some action," Mr. Rees says. "Coming from a lawyer, that's quite a bit because you always like to study things first."

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