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CA denies a doctor access to speak-out


An Ellicott City resident who was denied a chance to speak at a recent Columbia Association board meeting is complaining that the board broke its usual practice by refusing her access to the "resident speak-out" portion of the agenda.

"It seems they are afraid of what I was going to say," said Diane McDonald, a pediatrician who has been active in the debate over whether to fence a Lake Elkhorn tot lot in the wake of a drowning last year.

"I don't think they ever banned anybody from speaking out before, and why would they ban a pediatrician is beyond me," McDonald said.

But some members of the board -- which voted, 5-3, at Thursday's meeting to deny McDonald a forum -- said the board was justified in not allowing her to speak.

"She's not a resident," said Henry F. Dagenais, board member for Long Reach. "The resident speak-out is for residents, and not for nonresidents, to talk."

According to the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, "a governing body shall provide a designated period of time during the meeting to allow lot owners the opportunity to comment on any matters related to the homeowners association."

In the planned community of Columbia, in which the Columbia Association is a homeowners group that has an annual budget of about $50 million and manages open space and athletic facilities, property owners pay the association an annual charge based on the assessed value of their property.

In the past, however, the association has allowed nonlien-paying residents and others -- including McDonald -- to share their views during the "resident speak-out" portion of board meetings.

McDonald, chairwoman of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee of Pediatrics Emergency Medicine, said she was planning to comment on the inaccuracy of a report by the National Program for Playground Safety that said there was no need for a fence around the Lake Elkhorn tot lot.

In September, a 23-month-old boy wandered from the playground and drowned in the lake. Since then, the safety of the playground has been debated.

When McDonald approached the podium Thursday, Tom O'Connor, the Columbia Association board chairman, asked her if she was a lien-paying resident. McDonald replied "no," and O'Connor told her that she could not talk because the speak-out portion is specifically for the association's lien-paying residents.

After O'Connor's decision, Cynthia Coyle, board representative for Harper's Choice, questioned the actions of O'Connor and immediately asked for the vote, which denied McDonald the chance to speak.

O'Connor declined to comment on his actions.

Patrick Von Schlag, board member for River Hill, supported O'Connor's decision.

"The purpose of the speak-out is to have residents speak with us," said Von Schlag, who also referred to McDonald's persistent advocacy for a fence around the playground. "Others who are not [residents], the policy is to create time on the agenda to invite them to make a presentation."

Coyle, however, said the board's decision sends the wrong message to nonresidents.

"The reality is that this has never been done in the past, and why would it all of a sudden be done when Dr. McDonald wants to speak?" she said. "Now we have a blanket ruling that nonresidents can't speak."

Barbara L. Russell, board member for Oakland Mills, also voted against O'Connor's decision.

"Not only does it hamper the board from being able to receive information to make rational decisions on issues," Russell said. "But we spend thousands of dollars to encourage people outside Columbia to join our package plan and our facility. Now we are telling them to spend their dollars but don't dare try to come to our board meetings and take part in talking."


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