Start Time: 7:37 pm
End Time: 10:01 pm
Meetings that end within the Board optimal 3 hours are always cause for celebration, but I left last night's meeting frustrated, angry, and generally disappointed. I had a hard time putting my finger on exactly why until I started thinking about what I was going to post today.
Cergy-Pontoise, France Sister Cities Program
This is yet another agenda item that I will not miss. As a refresher, the Board was considering whether it would fund travel for up to four CA Representatives to attend the Twinning Celebration in Cergy-Pontoise, France this September. This group would consist of one Board member, one Staff member, one member of the Advisory Committee, and one other attendee selected by the President of CA. As I have acknowledged from the beginning we are not talking about a lot of money. Airfare per person was calculated at approximately $1,500. In fact, I wonder if this expense even required the cognizance and involvement of the Board, particularly in light of how our role was executed.
Something about this vote has bothered me from the start. Amongst the ten Board members, there has been a presumptive attendee. That has colored all subsequent discussions and made personal what should have been removed. Debating whether or not someone should receive free travel to France (business trip or not) in front of that person invites favor-mongering and self-dealing by the Board. It is just bad business, regardless of the amounts at issue. Reflectively, I think the Board should remove itself from the pool of attendees if it is going to give itself the role of deciding whether anyone attends.
With that background, I believe that so long as the Columbia Association has decided to participate in the Sister Cities program, we have an obligation to send representatives to those events. As a compromise, I said that I would vote for 50% fare for four people. I also noted at the meeting that I do this begrudgingly and that the definition of a compromise is that neither side leaves completely happy. That was not satisfactory for some Board members, who attempted to amend the recommendation of the ERC for 50% to allow full fare paid by CA lien-payers. Thankfully, that vote failed, but I found it interesting that these Board members were willing to sacrifice some measure of consensus (something I have been told I don't care enough about) for a narrow vote on a controversial topic.
I found myself being the swing vote as the 50% measure passed 6-3, one abstention. One of the members voting against the proposal said that they would only support 100% fare, which, if I had voted against the measure as originally planned, would have sacrificed the prospects of any attendees at the altar of stubbornness (5-4 is not a majority vote). So if you don't like this vote, blame me. I do.
Things became even more uncomfortable as one Board member nominated the presumed attendee de novo without any previous notice or earlier readings. It was the cherry on top of the whole thing. Thankfully, the motion was withdrawn. I
hope this Board thinks about last night and whether we are comfortable with how it all went down. We need to find a way to prevent any future self-dealing votes or at least have some significant disclosures at the front end so the public is fully informed. In effect, we took a good program with a lot of merits and brought it into the mud.
Capital Improvements Program
President Phil Nelson showed why he is best suited to be the CEO of a $60 million organization last night. Strong organizations are built off of the right people being in the right places at the right time. The Columbia Association was new in the 1970's, burgeoning in the 1980's, and a standard bearer in the 1990's. Unfortunately, since the 2000's CA has found itself pinned between an aging infrastructure and changing demographics, which simultaneous crumble under our feet and bind our hands from moving forward. The Aquatics Master Plan is a great example. I, like everyone else in Columbia, want to see CA be the new innovative leader in Aquatics Programming. Our vote last Spring to keep all 23 pools open significantly hindered that goal. IF we keep all 23 pools open THEN we are financially restrained from offering something new. We will be evaluating the future of Splashdown and a new Indoor Aquatics facility, but our overall approach to Aquatics will not be "new and innovative", it will be staid and comfortable. That is the choice that the residents encouraged us to make, and one that I am comfortable with.
As Phil presented last night, we have these decisions all over Columbia. What decisions to we make about the old as we consider the new? Forget Symphony Woods and the Lakefront. This is the most important topic for our organization for the next 30 years. It was one that Columbia, as a City, made in 2010. Are we a 1970's living history museum, or do we stay on the forefront, risking failure, while pursuing excellence?
Along the same line of having the right people in the right places, I am very happy that the future policy decisions undertaken by the Board in this respect will be managed by the Planning and Strategy Committee with Ed Coleman as Chair. This is a All-Star group of Board members handling our most important work.
CA's Changing Demographics
Phil also provided a second presentation about "Columbia 2022" (sounds like a apocalyptic thriller: "Escape with your life...while preserving Jim Rouse's legacy"). As we all know, the make-up of Columbia residents is different now than it was in 2000 and will be even more different ten years from now. I was surprised to see that around 1970, Columbia was close to 90% white! That flew in the face of the history I had either been told or allowed myself to believe about what this community was like in the bell bottom days. One of the largest changes that CA will need to account for is the graying of our community as a larger percentage of residents fall into the 65+ category.
Reviewing these presentation, I wondered how accurate demographic projections have been found to be. If I'm 55, planning to retire at 65, am I counted as a future 65 year old resident, or does the data consider the migration of retiring adults? I also wonder how much Columbia redevelopment will change the face of Columbia. We can all admit that Columbia will be a very different place ten years from now, and that "new place" may not fit the "old Columbia" that some people wish to protect. Will they move? Will the "new place" draw new people and redefine itself with the new demographic?
As you can tell, I find more questions than answers when I try to think of planning for new demographics. I love Columbia...but Jane loves the old houses in Ellicott City. I look forward to seeing how this discussion progresses.
This is a small matter, but one I wanted to include as another item that kept me up late. One of our residents asked during Resident Speak-out whether the Board had been informed as to what members of the General Assembly had requested we file a bill reclassifying CA under state law. If we had been a little more flexible as a Board, we could have just said "no", but in true Jeopardy fashion, we can only ask questions. As such, this "question" was then put on the Resident Tracking form to be answered by staff. After I may the foolhardy inquiry to ensure that we were only responding with what we had been told, and not making an inquisition as to which Assembly members we would put on the carpet, other Board members accused me of "circumscribing the question" and "playing games". (Funny to see which members make these types of accusations in light of everything noted above). These Board members then told Staff to make an affirmative inquiry as to who had made the requests.
I'm not trying to play games. I just think we play a dangerous game when we hang our legislative partners out to dry, particularly when the inquiring party is from the Alliance for a Better Columbia, which has shown a steady opposition to the legislation, with underlying accusations at every turn. If we call out these members, we are injuring our position as an honest partner. There will be a day when legislators are no longer willing to work with CA, as we've already seen at the County level. The CA Board invited that future last night.
That's all for today. I hate to be so negative, but in order to give you an honest account of my perspective on last night, that's where I am. I am quite certain that other Board members would give a very different view.
Have a great Friday doing what you love!