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8 Ideas to Reform Columbia Association and Village Board Elections

Tomorrow is CA Board and Village Election Day! I think turnout will be historic. Love it or hate it, you can't deny that The Rouse Project has been successful in their mission to increase interest in this year's election, encourage participation in the governance of CA, and help inspire some great candidates to run.

And while this year's turnout can be attributed to the presence of The Rouse Project, here are eight ideas I have to reform the CA elections to help permanently increase interest, participation, and number of qualified candidates seeking to represent us on Village Boards and the Columbia Association Board in the future.

I think that with reforms like these, an organization like the Rouse Project may become unnecessary because these could help increase the qualifications and diversity of candidates and make it easier for residents to participant in our governance.

  1. Village Harmonization: Right now every village in Columbia sets their own specific rules on who can vote and who can serve on a Village Board or be the Village's CA representative. Thus, things like candidate eligibility, candidate submissions requirements, dates and deadlines for submitting candidacy, term lengths (1 year v. 2 year), election procedures, voting methods, voter eligibility etc. are different in each village. This makes the process confusing for residents and reduces voter turnout. Villages should work towards harmonizing these requirements so all 10 villages do things exactly the same way and on exactly the same schedule. This could be done by creating a CA election committee (comprised of a representative appointed from each village) tasked with reviewing existing village requirements and recommending a standard set of rules and procedures. The recommendations that come out of committee could then be brought back to each village for approval and adoption into each village's bylaws.

  2. Biennial Election Harmonization: Currently 7 out of the 10 villages elect their representatives to 2 year terms. The other 3 village's representatives serve 1 year terms. This is why only 7 of the 10 members of the CA Board of Directors are up for election tomorrow. If, as part of the village harmonization described above, all villages agreed to have 2 year terms and the terms were synched up, then CA elections could occur every other year, so that all positions on the CA Board and all 10 Village Boards were up for election at the same time and serve the same 2 year term. This would mean we only have to do CA and Village Elections elections every 2 years, making elections more significant and important, with less voter fatigue from having to vote every single year. This could happen starting as soon as 2023, if the village's all agreed to harmonize procedures, used 2022 as a transitionary year by setting only 1-year terms for all positions up for election in 2022, and thus starting with harmonized 2-year terms beginning in 2023 for all CA and village positions.

  3. Term Limits: CA Board members terms should also be capped at 2 or 3 terms (so individuals can serve no more than 4 or 6 years if each term were 2 years).

  4. Centralized Election: Not only does each village come up with their own unique election rules, but each village has to organize their own election themselves. And as we see this year, each village does their election slightly differently. Again, confusing for voters. But, it is also a large expense incurred by each village (~$5k to $8k per village to mail out ballots to all residents and set-up electronic voting). It is also a time-consuming job for village managers, staff, and volunteers. Centralizing village elections to be organized by CA (or a separate independent organization) would increase economies of scale (saving $$) and freeing up village employee's time. It would also make voting significantly easier since all Columbia residents would vote in the same manner, and could help to provide more transparency and enhanced security in election procedures.

  5. Board of Directors Salary: The CA Board are currently community volunteers who receive no compensation for the 10 to 20 hours a week they typically put in to oversee the $70 million organization. It's a time-consuming, thankless, and difficult job. In order to attract the best qualified candidates, members of the CA Board of Directors should be paid. If each CA Board member received a salary of say $15,000/yr (which is what Howard County Board of Education members receives [BTW, HoCoBOE members should be a full-time job with a salary that is reflective of that]), then CA Board salaries would represent only 0.2% of CA's annual expenses. Village Board's should remain unpaid volunteers.

  6. Campaign Contribution Disclosure Requirements: It remains to be seen whether the money spent in this year's election is a one-time thing or the new normal, but moving forward, there needs to be some type of mandatory campaign contributions and expenditure disclosure requirements. That should include both personal and corporate contributions whether they are made directly to a candidate or to a PAC or LLC that is attempting to influence the election. I'm not familiar enough with election law as it pertains to Columbia Association elections, but CA should do whatever possible to require a full and complete disclosure of contributions and expenditures made moving forward.

  7. Committees: There should be more opportunities for unelected residents to volunteer to serve on advisory committees or other task forces charged with providing input or overseeing a specific project. Examples include the aforementioned election reform committee, age-based committees (such as a family advisory committee, a seniors advisory committee, and a young adult committee), a racial equity committee, and a 'Welcome to Columbia' committee to help come up with ways to inform new residents about the uniqueness of living in Columbia. These would provide lower-barrier ways for residents to get involved and engaged in our CA governance without quite as much responsibility or time commitment as serving on a Village Board or on the CA Board of Directors, nor without having to go through a potentially hostile election.

  8. Outparcel Opt-In: This is definitely more of a half-baked idea, but it would be great to provide an option for residents of outparcels in Columbia to voluntarily pay an annual assessment (at the same rate structure as lienholders) in order to receive full benefits and voting privileges of any other residents living on CA property. While this may not make financial sense for households now, it could become more reasonable if corresponding changes were made to the CA revenue model to make certain amenities (hint: outdoor pools), free to CPRA payers. Let's provide an opportunity for neighbors in outparcels to participate in the CA experience if they so choose.

What do you think of these ideas? Does anybody have other suggestions on how to increase participation and encourage more participation in CA governance?

On a final note, I'm planning to post my CA election predictions tomorrow early afternoon just as polls are closing, so stay tuned. I was right on target with my predictions for last November's local elections, but I think these ones will be much much harder to predict.

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