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Ways to get word out


After a year in which the Columbia Association was sometimes perceived as spinning out of control, the association is fighting back with a little spin of its own.

The association has beefed up its Web site, planned twice-monthly news conferences and started looking for public relations help.

The measures are intended "to get out more of the story and let people make up their own minds" about the association, said Adam Rich of River Hill, a member of the Columbia Council and its communications committee.

The Columbia Association's public relations used to be handled by Pam Mack before she lost her job as vice president for community relations during a period of turmoil in March. The position has not been filled.

The turmoil itself - as much as the loss of the association's de facto spokeswoman - has convinced some Columbia officials that it is time to concentrate on public relations. Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty resigned under pressure in May after 20 rocky months at the helm of the homeowners association, which provides recreational and other services to the community's 87,000 residents. The association also forced out its general counsel, Shelby A. Tucker King, in March.

"It was very frustrating last year, even before the turmoil, trying to get all the information that we wanted to get to the press and to the residents," Rich said. "Some of the good things that were getting done were not getting communicated."

Rich said, for example, that the upgrading of the association's bond rating from A1 to Aa3 by Moody's Investors Service in September 1999 - which made it cheaper for the association to borrow money - was never communicated to the public.

"It became a nonevent," Rich said.

In a pilot program, association officials will hold 20-minute news conferences before regularly scheduled Columbia Council meetings this month and next. The first is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Council members or association officials can make brief statements, then take questions from reporters, said Councilman Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance, chairman of the communications committee.

Residents are welcome to attend the news conferences, but they will not be allowed to ask questions, Halpin said. People can do that during the "resident speakout" portion of every council meeting, he said.

The Columbia Association has also made changes to its Web site. Filled with colorful Columbia scenes and information about the community, the site did not include Columbia Council meeting agendas until recently.

Now the agendas are there, and the site is updated after each meeting to summarize what action, if any, was taken on each agenda item.

The council is considering hiring a person or a firm to provide public relations services. Halpin said no decision is expected until after a new Columbia Association president is selected, something the council has said it hopes to accomplish before January.

Preliminary discussions are being held to determine what type of services are desired, said Patrick O'Malley Jr., the association's purchasing manager. The cost has not been determined.

"The eventual goal is to provide the press and the public with a contact point or person to call to get information," Halpin said.

Columbia Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice said polishing the association's image isn't the motivation behind the news conferences, improved Web site and proposed public relations services.

"It has nothing to do with trying to improve the image of the Columbia Association," Morrison said. "To me, that's not what it's about. If that has the effect of improving it, fine. But my goal is to improve the flow of information."

Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge said he thinks improved communications could help the association avoid strife. He said that when neighborhood pools closed this year, people seemed as upset about the lack of notice as they were about the closings themselves.

As for whether a little spin would have helped the Columbia Association better muddle through the McCarty-era turmoil, Coffman was doubtful.

"I think some of those issues, no matter how they would have been communicated, would have been tough," he said.

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