After basking in a year absent of significant controversy, the Columbia Association board of directors recently started backsliding to its old bickering ways.
Now, the board is attempting to play nice again. And it has called in a professional facilitator to help members mend strained relations.
But that did not prevent a fiery, hourlong debate Thursday night that twice escalated into shouting, in which the 10- member board argued about whether members should share views outside a board meeting and whether they must say those views don't represent the entire board.
At issue were e-mails one board member wrote that others characterized as filled with innuendo.
One board member, Cabell Greenwood of River Hill, said he requested the facilitator session because he was concerned about the tone of some of the board's communications.
But the discussion turned into a trial of board member Phil Marcus, author of the e-mails.
Greenwood made a motion to close the session to the public, explaining that he felt the board members - who govern the town of about 96,000 - would be more candid out of public view.
A number of residents who packed the meeting room grumbled about the possibility of a closed meeting, saying under their breath that they pay the homeowners association hundreds of dollars in annual assessment fees and should be able to watch the board in action.
But once Greenwood's motion failed, almost all of the residents promptly left the meeting.
"As long as we take public money, our dirty laundry is public," said board member Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake.
The board, which also acts as the Columbia Council, earned a reputation for dysfunction years ago, with tempers flaring in 2000 and early 2001 during the national search for a CA president. When some board members backed a white candidate instead of a black candidate, other board members accused them of racism.
In 2001, the council adopted a list of "board/council values" to encourage civility among the group. Among the values are: "When differing with someone's position, first acknowledge it by summarizing his or her point of view. (Or, ask for such a summary if someone differs with you. 'Did you understand my intention? What was it?')"
During the 2002-2003 term, the board recovered and acted collegially. However, since the new board took office in April, turbulent moments have arisen, with a clear line between board members' stances.
Members noted that divide Thursday night.
"One side talks to itself, the other side talks to itself," board Vice Chairman Tom O'Connor said. "We need to get past that."
The board's recent turmoil was sparked by a proposal to add more than 2,100 residential units to Columbia, most of them in Town Center, which is seeking to promote more of a "downtown" feel. The proposal has divided Columbia's 10 villages.
Marcus, of Kings Contrivance, wrote two e-mails to Town Center Village Board Chairman Garry Chandler in which he criticized Town Center officials for not attending a meeting that Marcus had organized for village representatives in an attempt to develop a consensus on the proposal.
Marcus wrote in a July 29 e-mail that the village's stance has "produced rumors that TC [Town Center] quietly got something of value, current or future promises, from [Rouse]."
Board Chairman Miles Coff- man had called Marcus' e-mails "absolutely unacceptable," and board member Donna L. Rice of Town Center had said she was "appalled by the content and the tone."
Marcus and Rice, who sit side by side at the board table, would not talk directly to each other at Thursday's meeting.
Some board members were especially upset that Marcus' first e-mail did not clearly state he was representing himself and not the board.
The second e-mail offered the postscript: "[F]or the record, and in case someone does not get it, I am not speaking as a member of the CA Board or Council but as an individual who [cares] about Columbia."
Coffman said that if Marcus had made it clear in his first e-mail that he was stating only his personal view, "I'd have no problem with it."
Facilitator Jim Dalton called the debate over Marcus' e-mails an "anger-loaded issue."
Association officials estimated Dalton's price to be about $500 for a half-day's work, as he talked with the staff and board members before the meeting to determine their needs.
Board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, who voted to close the meeting, told the board she felt the meeting should not have been open to the public because it focused on Marcus' actions.
But Marcus said that other board members had opened the issue when they publicly condemned his actions at the Aug. 14 board meeting, when two village representatives told the board they were offended by Marcus' e-mails. Marcus was out of town and didn't attend that meeting.
"You made it public when I was 400 miles away and I couldn't speak out," he said.
Board member Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, noting that the facilitator had met with the board about five times, was exasperated that the panel appeared to be making no progress toward better relations. She said the board's relations are decent until a major controversy surfaces.
"It doesn't do any good, I don't think, spending endless hours going through this exercise when we don't follow through with it," she said. "Why are we doing this?"