Members of the Columbia Association board of directors are free to endorse political candidates.
Responding to a complaint that Barbara L. Russell, board member for Oakland Mills, and Cynthia Coyle, board member for Harper's Choice, had improperly used their titles when they endorsed county executive candidate Christopher J. Merdon, the board voted unanimously at a meeting Thursday night that the two members were within their rights.
Russell's and Coyle's endorsement of Merdon were displayed, along with their Columbia Association board titles, in newspaper advertisements and on the candidate's Web site.
Bill Santos of Wilde Lake said at a board meeting Oct. 26 that the endorsements could have violated the association's charter and jeopardized its IRS nonprofit status, which includes restrictions on political involvement.
Some board members questioned whether the endorsements could have implied that they were speaking for the Columbia Association.
Coyle and Russell defended their actions, saying they were speaking as individuals.
Board Chairman Tom O'Connor responded to Santos' concern by scheduling Thursday's meeting, at which he read a requested legal opinion that stated the actions of Coyle and Russell were not in violation of IRS rules.
During the "resident speakout" portion of the two-hour meeting, many people supported Russell and Coyle.
"All they were doing [was] practicing their constitutional rights," said Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a watchdog group.
Some residents voiced discontent at board members accusing each other of violating the association's rules so hastily without researching the rules.
"I think this [meeting] was very much rushed," said Phil Wright, a resident of Harper's Choice and chairman of its village board. "I think if the board had sought legal opinion prior to throwing out allegations, I think this meeting would not have happened."
"Bill Santos had every right to give his concerns, but they are accusations that should have never come down to ethics or to a special board meeting," Coyle said. "The accusations should have been reviewed by our internal [legal] counsel, and if the counsel said there was an issue, then it should have been brought to a special meeting."
The board also concluded that Patrick von Schlag, board member representing River Hill, was not in violation of the association's charter when he served as campaign treasurer for Joshua Feldmark, a County Council candidate who lost in the primary. Coyle had said that Von Schlag might have violated the association's rules after the allegations were made against her and Russell.
O'Connor said an association committee is reviewing the organization's ethics policy and may suggest changes to address board members' political participation and constitutional rights of free speech.