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Changes seen in governing structure

Leaders of a committee studying proposals for streamlining Columbia's governance say the convoluted, 37-year-old system is ripe for change.

The panel plans to make a recommendation by Sept. 30 to the Columbia Association board for revamping a system in which voting rights, election rules and Columbia Council terms vary from village to village.

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"My feeling is that there's an overwhelming majority of the board that is really looking toward making real changes," board Chairman Joshua Feldmark said.

Two years ago, another committee assigned the daunting task of drawing up a streamlining plan recommended nearly 20 changes after an extensive study. However, the association board adopted none of the proposals that would significantly alter the process.

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But members of the new governance committee say this round will be different.

The seven-member panel is focusing on two proposals - one by Feldmark and another by Andy Stack, a member of the Owen Brown Village Board - instead of analyzing the entire political process. And committee members say residents are becoming increasingly concerned that changes are needed.

"I feel very strongly this should not be another academic exercise," said Jim Loesch, the committee chairman. "Hopefully, we moved past the hypothetical and have moved to something that at least will be given a run."

Stack said residents are ready for a change, noting the recent attention to the annual charge that the association imposes on property owners. The charge has been increasing because of skyrocketing property assessments.

"There's a lot more interest in looking at CA governance," Stack said. "People are more aware, I think."

To lessen the impact of rising charges on residents, the General Assembly approved legislation this year that would limit the revenue the association could collect from sharply rising real estate values. That move shows that legislators would likely be prepared to alter Columbia's bylaws to allow its governance to be changed, Loesch said.

"The political climate has changed," Loesch said. "I think 10 years ago, the state legislature would not have touched this with a 10-foot pole, but obviously they have demonstrated their willingness to get involved."

The unincorporated community is run by the policy-making Columbia Council and the Columbia Association board for the nonprofit corporation. The same 10 people serve on both panels. Each of Columbia's 10 villages elects a council member, who then appoints himself or herself to the board.

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Both proposals aim to give more power to residents. They want to render the council defunct by making the 10 villages or village boards part of the Columbia Association and having the villages elect a representative to the board.

The proposals differ on voting rights. Feldmark wants each village to elect a board member to three-year terms in a one-person, one-vote election.

Some villages now allow each adult to vote, others allow only one vote per household, and board terms vary from one to two years.

Stack's plan would allow each village to determine how it would select its board member.

Feldmark is also proposing adding an 11th board member, who would be a full-time, paid representative elected at large and could act as the panel's chairman.

Loesch said that two years ago the committee offered the board a "smorgasbord" of recommendations - including creating three-year terms for board members and merging the council and board into one body - but did not anticipate how their board was going to view their proposals.

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This time, Loesch said, he expects the committee to be stronger because it includes two board members - Feldmark and Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search.

"I will say that absent some cataclysmic occurrence, this committee is bound and determined to ... [make] a recommendation that we think is viable and to offer it up as our collective best judgment to the board of directors," Loesch said.


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