Conflicts strain Columbia's leadership

The often-fractious Columbia Association board of directors had one good, collegial year recently, but now seems split again.

In the term that ended last spring, the biggest controversy was a fox that got its paw stuck in a trap near an association golf course, and the 10-member board seemed ready to shed its reputation for bickering.


But the majority that once kept the peace now appears nearly evenly split, bringing personality clashes to the fore once again among the homeowners association's leaders.

There have been lively debates over legislation that would limit the association's assessment revenue, arguments over closed sessions, and one board member was accused of verbally abusing association staff.


Board Chairman Miles Coffman said a trigger of the renewed conflict is that more board members now share the opinions of the Alliance for a Better Columbia (ABC), a citizen watchdog group whose ideas usually clash with the board majority and association staff.

"To be quite honest, there are more people that take the ABC view of the world," Coffman said. "And they're flexing their muscles."

In last year's election, Vote Smart - an issues-oriented group that shares some members with ABC - backed four candidates who now serve on the board: Joshua Feldmark, David Hlass, Phil Marcus and Barbara Russell.

Marcus, who is an ABC member, criticized Coffman's comments.

"I think it reflects very poorly on his appropriateness to serve as chair," said Marcus, who represents Kings Contrivance. " ... At the same time, it's pretty candid also. I'll give him credit for candor."

Marcus' candor in criticizing CA staff also has been the subject of criticism.

Half of the board has sided with the staff, claiming Marcus' blunt e-mails and loud outbursts - including asking Sheri Fanaroff, the association's general counsel, during a meeting: "Did you even graduate from high school? Do you even have a high school diploma?" - were inappropriate.

Russell, who represents Oakland Mills, said Coffman sometimes uses ABC as a scapegoat, and she said the half of the board he is referring to isn't always unified in its stance.


"We aren't unduly influenced by each other, and we certainly don't take orders or directions from someone outside of the board," she said. "I have a record of nearly four years of independent thinking on the board."

CA President Maggie J. Brown said that each infusion of new board members brings its own "uniqueness to the group," and the body "has functioned as it should."

"In the end, I do believe that the board works for the betterment of the community and with the residents foremost in mind," she said.

The wedge between board members became more intense over Del. Shane E. Pendergrass' legislation that aims to impose a 10 percent mandatory ceiling on rising property assessments in Columbia.

CA's covenants require that the annual charge - which is based on property assessments and is the association's main source of revenue - be collected on the maximum assessed property value, rather than phasing in higher assessments over three years, as the state does. Pendergrass' proposal comes after assessments jumped an average of 33.4 percent east of U.S. 29 last year and 47.4 percent in West Columbia this year.

In heated debates, the board has evenly split over the bill. Coffman and one half of the board claim the legislation could lead to the demise of CA by taking away its autonomy. The other half claims those fears are unfounded and believes the community needs the financial relief.


The board has not agreed on its final stance regarding the legislation.

The board voted 6-4 Jan. 22 to ask Pendergrass to change the legislation so it would be voluntary. She refused. A week later, a motion to accept Pendergrass' legislation failed, 5-5.

Now, board members can't even agree on which vote is binding.

Marcus' comments have been another flash point.

Several board members also feel there are too many closed meetings. Russell is leading that charge. Brown and Coffman have denied that the board has done anything wrong by meeting in closed sessions.

The board's behavior has not hit the heated pitch of 2000 and early 2001, during the national search for a CA president. Then, accusations of racism flew as some board members backed a white candidate instead of a black candidate.


In 2001, in the wake of the discord, the board adopted a list of "board/council values" to encourage civility. 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?')"

When Coffman took over as chairman in the 2002-2003 term, he helped soothe divisions.

"Last year I worked very hard to settle it down," Coffman said.

Russell said she is frustrated "that we waste so much time dealing with these issues. People get disgusted with this kind of behavior and this never-ending strife."

"I sincerely regret that we have slipped back into this mode."