The Baltimore Sun

CA needs to be more forthcoming

The Alliance for a Better Columbia is committed to the goal of lowering the Columbia Association's annual assessment charge by 7 percent in next year's budget. Eliminating the payment of bonuses, which have increased by one-third over the past three years, would be a major step in this direction. Imposing some limits on the growth of employee benefits, which are set to increase by 45 percent over the 2007-to-2010 period, would also be warranted.

When corporations as well as local governments are responding to the current financial storm by controlling employee costs, CA spending should not be allowed to increase at recent annual rates in excess of revenue growth as projected in the Conditional FY 2010 Budget.

ABC has been attempting to acquire information pertaining to CA staff costs since May and has learned that 32 employees have been paid monthly business mileage allowances and an additional 12 have been assigned take-home vehicles. ABC was informed by Maggie Brown, president of CA, that these monthly business mileage allowances are reported to the IRS as compensation and therefore taxed, which raises the possibility that the reimbursed travel was not related to employees' job duties. If the travel had been business-related, any reimbursement for their out-of-pocket costs would not have been reportable as employee compensation.

In October, ABC also requested information pertaining to bonuses paid to CA staff, including officers. CA responded by sending a copy of its IRS 990 Form, which tax-exempt nonprofits are generally required to file. Although this form lists the total compensation paid to officers and the entire staff, it does not specifically address bonuses.

Although CA initially provided some general answers, ABC's requests for clarification have not been satisfied. Instead, Ms. Brown has responded that the retrieval of the requested data would involve "significant" but unspecified costs and that regardless, CA was not under any legal obligation to provide the data.

This response raises two issues for ABC. What is CA getting for the approximately $2 million that was spent to implement the Lawson Financial System, which is designed to readily retrieve the type of basic information ABC has requested? In addition, CA's determination of its legal obligations is at odds with multiple opinions issued by the Maryland attorney general's office regarding requirements of the Maryland Homeowners Association Act for the disclosure of financial information in response to requests from lot owners.

ABC encourages Columbia residents to express their outrage at this entitlement mentality to their representatives on the CA board.

Joel Yesley, Columbia

The writer is president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia.

The people of Columbia must make voices heard

Currently the process to select the new president of the Columbia Association is under way. Do the people of Columbia really care?

It's hard to know because the process for governing the Columbia Association is unique in the world and not at all consumer-friendly.

This odd governing process was set up by the Rouse Co. over 40 years ago, mainly to help ensure the successful development of Columbia and thus to protect the Rouse Co.'s financial investment and interests.

The CA board was controlled in the early years by the Rouse Co.

Control was gradually turned over to community representatives elected from each village called Columbia Council representatives. These representatives also serve as the members of the CA board of directors. The CA board has the responsibility of governing the corporation.

A problem arises, however, because CA is also a homeowners association. CA would probably be the largest homeowners association in the world except for the fact that the only actual members of the association are the 10 council representatives elected from each village who then become the voice for all of the residents and businesses in Columbia.

The specific problem is that the representatives of the homeowners association also are the only members of the CA board of directors (the CA president serves as an ex-officio member). The council representatives/board members thus serve two masters - the interests of the homeowners association and the interests of the corporation.

Over the years, however, some members of the CA board and the top officials of the corporation maintain that there is no conflict of interest because what is good for the corporation is good for Columbia's homeowners and business owners. Based on my eight years of experience as the elected council representative from Oakland Mills and as a member of the board of directors of CA, my last year as the CA board chair, I couldn't more strongly disagree.

This must change. The Columbia Association board and the CA president must serve the community as well as the corporation. Both must operate in a much more open and transparent manner, not according to the protective and secretive rules that corporations and corporate boards live by. In my eight years on the CA board, I was unable to convince a majority of CA board members to go down this road - not for lack of trying.

We now have an opportunity as a community to make that change by choosing the right CA president. First, the person who is chosen must have the ability and experience to run a corporation with a $60 million annual budget in an efficient and effective manner. Second, he or she must be able to respond not only as the president of a corporation but as a leader to a homeowners association that represents approximately 100,000 people.

If the people of Columbia do not let the members of the CA board know that they want to be heard and considered, and that they want the activities of the CA Board and CA officials to be open and transparent to all, and that they want the choice of the new president to reflect these values, then it will probably be business as usual at the Columbia Association for years to come.

Barbara L. Russell, Columbia

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