In a candidates' forum this week, two long-time Oakland Mills residents vying for the seat created by the retirement of eight-year veteran Barbara Russell pledged openness, civility and advocacy if elected to the Columbia Association board.
Alex Hekimian, 64, an engineer and transportation planner who is retired from the Montgomery County planning department, and Phillips S. Engelke, 62, a graphic designer who is a vice president at RTKL, a global architecture and design firm, are the challengers in the April 26 election.
"If the CA board were the board of a private company, they would all be fired because they spend so much time and money fighting with each other," Engelke told the audience gathered at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills on Tuesday night. "I think that behavior should be called out, and where it persists, it should be made public."
The board prides itself on long meetings, rather than getting to the heart of the matter, he said in an interview.
"In the past it has been comical," Engelke said. "I think it needs more people on the board who have the skill sets to make decisions. The board is there to provide vision. That's what you're not seeing."
That reputation for infighting is not insurmountable, Hekimian, a 20-year community activist, said in an interview:
"I think a lot of the problems can be overcome if they choose civility. People can disagree without being disagreeable."
Hekimian, who served a three-year stint on the Columbia Association Board between 1996 and 1999, sees the survival of James Rouse's vision for Columbia as the greatest challenge.
"I want to help retain and enhance that concept for today's residents and future generations," he said. "I think that we have so many important decisions in the coming years, and I just want to be part of them."
Through his grass-roots work, Hekimian said, he has seen progress in the level of transparency on the board, but he still thinks the number of closed meetings is too high. He said he plans to work toward better spending of taxpayer money.
"People have been upset about the salaries of $200,000 that upper management receive at CA," he said. "On top of that, you've got bonuses, trips to foreign countries and use of cars. CA executives make much higher salaries than their counterparts in county and state government, even though it's only a homeowners association with a much smaller budget."
Hekimian is also concerned about other expenses.
People want facilities to be maintained well, and they want quality service. But those standards can be maintained at the same time that frivolous spending is eliminated, he said.
"The spending problem here borders on being egregious," he said in an interview.
Hekimian and his wife, Edy, have two adult children.
Engelke, who has served on the Oakland Mills village board for three years, said he hopes a seat on the CA board will help him facilitate communication among groups working for change in Columbia.
"CA should be in the forefront, being an advocate and being proactive about what the community wants," said Engelke, who has lived in the same house in Oakland Mills for 35 years and who travels worldwide for his work. "Here I am doing this cool property in Berlin or in the Middle East, and I come back and our town is just OK. They're worried about the grocery store in Wilde Lake. I think I could help in the discussion of what we should be doing. This is what I do for a living."
The world has changed drastically since Rouse laid out his vision for Columbia, Engelke said.
"I think the biggest challenge is how do you reinvent yourself for the next century," he said. "Does the city grow, or do we freeze it where it is right now? If we don't revitalize our downtown, when you want to go out you're going to drive over to Maple Lawn, because it has parking on the street. People want a real downtown where you can walk. People have a desire to be in a place they perceive as real."
Columbia has something many cities would love to have, trees and the preservation of open land, he noted.
"We have the best stuff," he said. "It's just what do we do with aging structures and how do we handle carefully what's left?"
This will be an especially challenging time for the person who accepts the job as CA president next year, Engelke said. He or she will have to be a diplomat and a powerful representative for CA.
"I think there is a lot of fence-mending with the county and the community and even with GGP," he said.
Engelke and his wife, Lynn, have two adult children and four grandchildren.
Six of Columbia's 10 villages will hold elections April 26 for the Columbia Association Board of Directors. Dorsey's Search, King's Contrivance, Long Reach and River Hill will not hold elections this year.
Here are this year's races:
Harper's Choice - Incumbent: Cynthia Coyle; Challenger: Lynda Maxwell.
Hickory Ridge - Incumbent: Miles Coffman. No challenger.
Oakland Mills - Incumbent: Not running; Challengers: Phillips S. Engelke, Alex Hekimian.
Owen Brown - Incumbent: Pearl Atkinson-Stewart. No challenger.
Town Center - Incumbent: Not running; Challengers: Stephen Meskin, Suzanne Waller.
Wilde Lake - Incumbent: Philip W. Kirsch; Challenger: Linda Odum.
Source: Columbia Association