Accusing their colleagues of an abuse of power, several board members of the Columbia Association, which governs the huge homeowners group, are raising protests that some of their meetings are being illegally closed to the public.
Board member Barbara Russell, one of the original residents of the 36-year-old planned community, is leading the charge. She claims that the board is shrouded in secrecy as she attempts to garner community support to make CA -- one of the nation's largest homeowners associations -- conduct more of its business in public and document its executive sessions appropriately.
"I believe we've discussed things at closed meetings that are very integral to what we are doing and have done as the board," said Russell, who represents Oakland Mills, one of Columbia's 10 villages. "And I think the public would be very interested in knowing some of the things we've discussed."
The Columbia Association's leadership denied any wrongdoing.
"The meetings are held, whether they're open or closed, within the guidelines that govern homeowners associations as far as open and closed meetings," said Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown.
Board Chairman Miles Coff- man said that in the past two years, he can recall only one closed session that should have been open, and he challenged other board members to take their concerns to the state attorney general.
Russell's concern recently has received public momentum. At a community meeting she called last month, a few dozen of the town's more than 96,000 residents expressed fear that the board was making important decisions behind closed doors about the $50 million nonprofit organization.
"It's a huge concern," said board member Phil Marcus of Kings Contrivance.
The debate comes at a time when the board is poised to make a major decision on the association's annual charge to homeowners that is based on property assessments and is the association's primary source of income. When the board approves the association's 2005 budget this month, it will decide whether to lower the rate after home reassessments recently skyrocketed throughout Columbia.
The meetings of the Columbia Association board are governed by the state Homeowners Association Act. The act allows homeowners associations to close meetings for reasons including: personnel matters; consulting with legal counsel; consulting with staff members, attorneys or other people involved in potential litigation; considering the terms of a business transaction in the negotiation stage; or if two-thirds of the board members vote for a reason that is "so compelling as to override the general public policy in favor of open meetings."
The board's 10 members -- who also act as elected representatives of their villages on the Columbia Council -- are barred from discussing what occurs in closed meetings, unless the board decides to disclose the information.
Odeana Neal, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said one of the problems with the Homeowners Association Act is that it does not provide a remedy for people who think the board may not be following open-meetings guidelines. She said concerned homeowners could take the association to court or try to vote board members out of office.
"If enough homeowners have the suspicion that something is going on that shouldn't be going on, then they need to elect new officers," she said.
Russell said the provisions for closed meetings can be interpreted broadly. Marcus said the board has a tendency to close meetings to receive advice from its counsel, a move he does not challenge. But, he said, the board will sometimes stay in closed session to take action that he believes should be taken in open session.
However, Coffman said there have been times when he has halted discussion in executive meetings because the topic no longer applies to the reason the session was closed. He also noted that the board tries to disclose information received or discussed in closed session after the meeting concludes, such as Brown's contract or legal opinions.
Marcus and Russell point to a closed session Jan. 7 that they believe should have been public. The board met to develop its stance on pending legislation by Del. Shane E. Pendergrass that would affect how the association collects its annual charge and allow a majority vote of property owners to change the association's covenants.
At the meeting, Russell said she read to the board each reason it could close a meeting, and she felt that none of the criteria were applicable. The meeting was closed, under the provision of considering business terms in the negotiation stage.
"I don't think there was anything that was said that we couldn't have said openly," Russell said. "There was no reason, I don't think, to close the meeting. And I think the meeting would have gone well if it was open."
Coffman said it would have been inappropriate for the board to publicly discuss what it wanted from Pendergrass and what it would settle for before it met with the legislator. At a public meeting Jan. 10 with Pendergrass, the board shared its views with her.
"I don't consider that any different than a contract negotiation," Coffman said.
Other board members concede that some meetings have been closed that probably should not have been.
Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake, the board's vice chairman, said he could recall of only one recent meeting that should have been closed, and the rest were to discuss matters that "vaguely related" to closed-meeting requirements.
"Too many closed meetings are just a sure sign that people are going to start questioning how trustworthy we are," he said.
Board member Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice agreed that the board has held meetings in closed sessions to discuss matters that he believes should have been public. But he said "nothing of major concern has transpired" in those meetings.
"So far, I see no real damage with some of the closed meetings, except public relations damage," he said. "There's always the suspicion of what's going on behind closed doors."
But the board majority does not agree with Russell's claims.
"I don't know what she is talking about," board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown said. "Never have I known of us closing a meeting and not having justification to do it."
The board also appears to not abide by the rule of documenting meetings held in closed session. Under the Homeowners Association Act, after a closed meeting, the minutes of the next meeting should include: a statement of the time, place and purpose of the meeting, and the authority and the vote of every board member under which it was closed.
Brown said the board could improve its documentation of closed meetings, explaining that it is not done "100 percent of the time." She said that when a closed meeting is held after a regularly scheduled public meeting, the members would formally adjourn into an executive session, which would be reflected in the minutes.
But Brown said if a meeting was called only for a closed session, that might not have been reported. She attributed that to "human error."
The association copies of minutes from only two meetings since June show the board met in executive session, while Russell recalls at least four more closed meetings during that time.
Coffman said that during board meetings he tries to publicly announce closed sessions that were held earlier, but he conceded that does not always happen. After talking with The Sun, he has asked that declaring such sessions be placed as a regular meeting agenda item.
"If that's our big violation, then somebody can slap me on the wrists," he said.