Columbia meets 3 finalists for association president

The Baltimore Sun

All three finalists hoping to become the next Columbia Association president said yesterday that they're prepared for the job after decades of community management experience, and they vowed to operate with transparency and strive for the best possible downtown redevelopment plan.

About 100 residents had their first chance at the public forum to see and hear the remaining contenders in a 20-month process that began with more than 500 candidates. But no one in the crowd got to speak to them directly.

Milton Matthews, CEO of the Reston Association; Phil Nelson, city manager of Troy, Mich.; and Rob Goldman, 19-year vice president of CA for sport and fitness, were escorted one at a time to a stage at the Long Reach Village community center. Each made a few opening remarks and then answered the same 10 questions during the 90-minute session. Each then left the building.

"I thought it went very well. I wanted all of them to have equal footing on the questions," said Tom O'Connor, the Columbia Association board chairman who moderated the forum. But O'Connor encountered one resident upset that all the questions were submitted in advance and screened by the board before the first candidate emerged.

"I think it's ridiculous," said Mel Markus, 66, a resident since 1970. "I think the first question that should be asked is if they would be comfortable being asked questions in a live forum."

O'Connor said the forum's primary purpose was "to allow the board to observe the candidates in a public setting."

The queries ranged from inside issues like staff bonuses and golf course operations to the candidates' views on environmental sustainability and the General Growth Properties redevelopment plan for downtown Columbia. None said they love or hate the plan, and each vowed to work with the developer and the county to achieve the best result. Asked what CA's most serious problem is, none of the three identified one.

Matthews, 54, a native of Virginia's Eastern Shore, said he has been reading about Columbia since studying urban planning in college. He drew heavily on his experience guiding the Reston, Va., homeowners association for the past four years.

He said he viewed the GGP redevelopment plan "as a first step" in a long process, adding that he's worked before with Greg Hamm, a GGP vice president and Columbia's general manager.

"The Columbia Association must be at the table," he said.

Nelson, 59, who grew up in Kansas, used humor in several comments. The windy weather outside, he said, made it feel like home, and he joked that his wife was looking forward to seeing the backyard again after a snowy Michigan winter. He also flattered his listeners, describing Columbia as "a great community you should be proud of." Of the GGP plan, he said, "It's what the community wants that's the most important part of anything."

Goldman, 59, showed off his intimate knowledge of the association's programs and the current issues and said he has been impressed with GGP's employees and consultants.

"I also truly believe they're trying to do what's best for the community." He closed with a story about town founder James W. Rouse that drew applause.

Relating a holiday dinner gathering years ago in which Rouse reminisced at length about his travails getting the town planned, financed and built, Goldman recalled the punch line.

"What warms my heart and makes it all worthwhile is that the damn thing works," Goldman quoted Rouse.

"It would be the honor of my life to lead this association," he concluded.

After the meeting, Markus was somewhat mollified.

"I thought it was helpful. I admit it was efficient this way," he said, though he still wanted to ask a question from the floor.

"I would have liked to hear what their vision was for 2009."

Last week, Matthews and Nelson received rave reviews from officials in their home towns.

Robin Smyers, board chairman of the Reston Association, said in a telephone interview that she has "the utmost respect and regard" for Matthews and his professionalism.

"I think the world of him," she said. Reston is smaller than Columbia, with about 60,000 residents to Columbia's nearly 100,000. The Reston homeowners association's annual budget is about one-fifth of CA's roughly $60 million.

Nelson inspired similar comments from Troy Mayor Louise E. Schilling. Nelson has been city manager there for the past three years.

"He is highly regarded," she said, both experienced and personable, though reserved.

"He has a strength about him," she said.

The city of 88,000 is about 20 miles north of Detroit and has an annual budget of $152 million, she said.

Goldman has unsuccessfully applied for the top job before, but insiders have been successful before. Maggie J. Brown, the outgoing president, got the top job in 2001 after years spent as a CA vice president.

"He could obviously hit the ground running," Markus said.

Brown's term expires May 1. The board is expected to choose her successor this week.

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