A difficult year changed views on schools chief

Just over a year ago, three of the five Howard County school board members were so desperate to retain Superintendent John R. O'Rourke that they promised to renew his contract when the time came or pay him a year's salary.

But over this past year of grade-tampering scandals, key personnel departures and an increasingly distant relationship with the superintendent, they changed their minds.

"Over this past year, it became obvious to me that I had made a mistake," said board member James P. O'Donnell. "We need a different leader if we're going to do the best we can for Howard County."

The school board told O'Rourke on Jan. 15 that it would not renew his contract when it expires June 30 because of concerns about his leadership style and lack of collaboration with board members.

Columbia is preparing for 25-story condo tower

Developers have begun promoting a 25-story tower of luxury condominiums and offices that will rise near the lake in Columbia's Town Center, promising amenities such as a rooftop pool and spa and $1 million penthouses with panoramic vistas.

Advertisements for Altaire on the lake, a mixed-use high-rise planned for the site of a former Bennigan's restaurant and an office building, describe it as a "monument to luxury living." Prices range from $300,000 to more than $1 million, according to the ads.

Rouse subsidiary Howard Research and Development Corp. has approved the conceptual site for Altaire, said Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse Co. vice president and general manager of Columbia. But the builder has not applied for approvals from Howard County.

Council makes decisions on comprehensive rezoning

Dozens of Howard County property owners learned the final verdict on how they may use their land as the County Council took a long, sometimes confusing series of votes Monday night, but for others the waiting will continue.

In what council Chairman Guy Guzzone called an attempt to "be quick but careful," the fates of nearly 200 properties were decided in a huge rezoning bill.

In addition, the council banned roadside vendors on a 3-2 party-line vote, and unanimously approved a lucrative deferred pension program for county police officers.

CA hires security guard for its council meetings

Columbia Council meetings have become so heated and at times hostile - crowd outbursts, loud commentary during public testimony and occasional obscenities - that the association in James W. Rouse's planned community has hired a security guard to keep the peace.

"We're volunteers; we should not be subjected to the fear of our lives," said Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown village, who added that she feels much safer now that the unarmed, uniformed guard is present. "Some of the meetings are just out of control."

Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown said she hired the guard after meetings escalated beyond what she considers normal impassioned behavior. At a budget hearing last month, village managers were reluctant to ask questions because of the heated atmosphere, she added.

Several on CA board want more business in the open

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 the Columbia Association - one of the nation's largest homeowners associations - conduct more of its business in public and document its executive sessions appropriately.

Open-meetings measure garners broad support

A bill that would clarify the state's Open Meetings Act - and skirt a Howard Circuit Court ruling that limited those who could take legal action to enforce it - received broad support from groups that included statewide media and the attorney general's office at a legislative committee hearing Wednesday in Annapolis.

"It's important this bill move quickly," said Barbara Coit, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters before the House Health and Government Operations Committee.

The bill would delete wording in the state law that says only people "affected adversely" by a public body's failure to comply with the Open Meetings Act may sue in circuit court, and would replace it with phrasing that says "any person" may sue.

Antonetti pays fine, settles pay dispute, is to retire

Robert J. Antonetti Sr., the Howard County elections administrator who defied a state Court of Appeals order to pay an ethics fine incurred during his tenure in Prince George's County and sued the county election board last year for more pay, has settled the case and agreed to retire March 31 - four weeks after Maryland's presidential primary.

His departure will end a tumultuous 3 1/2 -year term marked by legal wrangling.

The 67-year-old elections official said Thursday that he has ended his battles with the Howard board over his pay and with state ethics officials over a $7,500 fine. He said he has paid the fine, which Suzanne Fox, the state Ethics Commission's executive director, confirmed.

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