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The Columbia Association might ask lawmakers to redefine what the association is under state law, a move proponents say would protect the association and save money, but critics argue could make CA less transparent.

The proposed legislation would reclassify CA as a nonprofit community service corporation rather than a homeowners association.

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The issue, CA President Phil Nelson wrote in a board memo, is that the state Homeowners Association Act is "one size fits all," its laws applying to every homeowners association "regardless of size, structure or complexity."

An increasing number of bills and amendments coming before Maryland legislators were intended for associations much smaller than CA, and "can have unintended and unforeseen consequences that negatively impact CA," he wrote.

Redefining CAwould protect it from those consequences, while also saving the association money on lobbying expenses and the cost of monitoring legislation, Nelson wrote.

"We're not going to be any less transparent," Paul Tiburzi, CA's counsel and state lobbyist in Annapolis, said at the March 22 meeting of the association board. "We're trying to protect the unique status of Columbia. You're going to decide what's best for Columbia, not legislators who may not know Columbia."

Last year, CA mulled asking the Howard County legislative delegation to sponsor the proposal but ultimately decided to first get more feedback from residents.

Andrew Stack, the CA board member from Owen Brown who heads the board committee discussing thelegislation, said he wants the board to decide what to do with the bill by this fall, in time to have it fit into the legislative schedule.

"We shouldn't be deciding it all by ourselves," Stack said. "We need to involve the public, and we need to involve the villages."

Residents object

A handful of residents, most members of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens advocacy group, testified against the proposed change at the March 22 meeting.

The group has long contended there is a need for more transparency from CA, and members believe the legislation would lead to less.

"The CA proposal weakens critical elements in the main sections of the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, namely those covering open meetings and those covering access to records," said Joel Pearlman, an ABC member and Kings Contrivance resident. "It also makes a mess of a number of other current provisions."

Also speaking in opposition was Jeanne Ketley, a Town Center resident who is president of the Maryland Homeowners Association, which seeks good governance in homeowners and condominium associations.

"I ask that CA join the homeowner rights movement rather than resist it," she said. "CA should be proposing homeowner legislation protection rather than withdrawing from it. CA could be the finest, most open, most democratic homeowners association in Maryland."

Nelson noted that the state Homeowners Association Act was not enacted until more than 20 years after CA was founded, and that the act itself incorporated much of the language that made the Columbia Association "obligated ... to conduct their operations in a transparent manner and to be accountable to property owners and residents." Those governing documents would remain under the proposed legislation.

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But opponents of the bill say CA could just change its bylaws and take away the guarantees of transparency and accountability.

The draft bill would require any nonprofit community service corporation that makes material changes to certain provisions to promptly notify the county legislative delegation members.

Some board members said redefining the association would not happen until the board decides if that's what it wants.

"Do we want it to preserve our uniqueness from state legislators ... that don't have Columbia's best interests at heart?" said Michael Cornell of River Hill, the board's chairman. "Do we want to maintain and enhance transparency?"

Cornell noted that some of the community response about transparency concerns has to do with the "fuzzy" wording. . "Maybe this is an opportunity to make language more clear so we don't have people out here angry," he said.

Board member Alex Hekimian of Oakland Mills said

he is leaning toward voting against the proposal as it is written, citing what he feels would be numerous weakened requirements regarding homeowners' rights at meetings and with CA records.

"This is a big deal in terms of transparency," he said.

Board member Gregg Schwind of Hickory Ridge, meanwhile, said saving money on lobbying and legislative monitoring should not be a consideration.

"Isn't that part of the cost of doing business?" he said.

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