For a primer on the Columbia Association Board of Directors and Village Board, please read the article Columbia Council and Village Boards, explained. For information on the upcoming elections, see Columbia Council and Village Board Election Information.
The residents of Columbia are amongst the most community-centric, politically engaged, outspoken citizens you could find. And yet, despite our passion for civic engagement, there is a curious indifference towards the Columbia Association Board of Directors elections. Races are often uncontested and the elections that do occur have abysmal turnout, frequently failing to surpass the minimum threshold of 10% of eligible voters necessary to declare a winner on election day. This is mystifying considering that the decisions that CA Board makes are hugely consequential. The CA Board has broad latitude in directing CA's $70 million annual budget to enhance the quality of life of Columbia residents, whose mandatory annual assessment payments finance a majority of CA's operation.
The Rouse Project is a new community organization working to change this dynamic.
The Rouse vision of thriving, multicultural neighborhoods is fading without a convening structure in place that reflects and prioritizes the distinct needs, ambitions and values of Columbia residents and businesses today. As a result, our communities are growing less diverse and more divided, our amenities aren’t meeting our needs and our villages are failing.
The time has come for a return to the vision and ideals that built Columbia, for more accountable systems that shepherd our resources effectively and new leadership that reflects the diversity and values of our residents and businesses.
The significant investments we make in our shared quality of life through annual assessment fees paid to the Columbia Association should be invested in ways that reflect our values, strengthen our communities and serve the greater good. We believe a new approach is necessary to protect our investments, effectively promote our collective success and empower vibrant, diverse and economically robust villages.
On April 24, seven of the ten Columbia Villages will elect new CA representatives (Dorsey's Search, Hickory Ridge, King's Contrivance, Long Reach, Oakland Mills, River Hill, & Wilde Lake).
The name and imagery of The Rouse Project is clearly inspired by The Lincoln Project, but there is some commonality with Run for Something and Fair Fight as well. Like Run for Something, The Rouse Project is encouraging talented, passionate, diverse young people to run for local government. And like Fair Fight, the Rouse Project is aiming to increase voter turnout, particularly amongst those who haven't previously participated in CA elections.
Sherman Howell is a leader of the African American Coalition of Howard County (AACHC). The Columbia resident is a civil rights activist who participated in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 and is a lifetime advocate for social and politic issues affecting minority communities in our county.
Howell addressed the current CA Board during resident speak-out of the January 28, 2021 meeting. "An all-white CA Board, no matter how well intentioned it's members may be, is glaringly behind the times. It cannot pretend to adequately represent the interests of a community founded on the values of diversity and inclusion, or of people of color who are demanding that institutions represent their interests. Nor does the board adequately represent other demographic markers like age range, income, or employment status," Howell said.
He went on to challenge Board members to:
Recruit and train younger, diverse community members to replace an aging and intrenched board, and
Convene a residential advisory committee to supplement the review of prospective candidates for Columbia Association's next President.
The entire testimony begins at the 28:50 mark of the YouTube stream of the meeting, and it's worth the time to witness it for yourself.
Howell is one of 18 members of the steering committee to the Rouse Project, which includes a collection of prominent local leaders from business, nonprofit, government, and religious communities.
Rev. Paige Getty
Dr. C. Vernon Gray
Another steering committee member is former Howard County Board of Education member Sabina Taj. Taj describes The Rouse Project as "a cross sectional group of grassroot community leaders – of widely different backgrounds and serving different constituency groups - who have all come together with a single motivation – to ensure that the organization responsible for protecting and preserving the Rouse vision of Columbia is representative of the diverse and inclusive community that we are.”
To accomplish their mission, steering committee members pooled their resources and hired a Baltimore-based public relations firm to create the website and organize the social media campaign aimed at informing and aspiring Columbia residents to get involved and vote in CA elections. They also used a Baltimore attorney to file the necessary paperwork to form the organization.
The Rouse Project website contains CA Election information, a voter pledge, news and updates from local media and blogs, a Columbia vision survey to solicit input from the community, and a grassroots toolkit containing Zoom backgrounds and images that can be shared on Facebook or Instagram. The website accepts monetary contributions from whose who want to support the Rouse Project's mission, though it disclaims that contributions to the Rouse Project are not deductible as charitable contributions for federal income tax purposes.
The current CA board is in the final stages of a long process of recruiting and selecting CA's next CEO to replace Milton Matthews once he steps down effective April 30. Existing CA Board members are narrowing down the field to a set of finalists and will be conducting interviews shortly. CA intends to make their selection so the newly hired CEO can assume the position on May 1. The Rouse Project has launched a petition seeking to delay selection of the next Columbia Association President until after the April 24 CA Board Elections so CA's new leader is selected by the people who will be in place when he or she begins.
Over the past year, the community has witnessed the difficult decisions that CA has made on a number of fronts.
The organization has been forced to choose which of their services to cut and which to keep. as it reckons with a serious drop in membership revenue stemming from the coronavirus crisis. The decision to close all 23 outdoor pools last summer (8 of which are proposed to remain closed again this upcoming summer) while reopening indoor fitness centers has lead many to questions how CA prioritizes its offerings to the community. Questions have also arisen on whether CA focuses too strongly on marketing its own fitness business operations instead of focusing on its role as "the keeper of the Columbian vision" or promoting the benefits of living in Columbia to millennials, families, and other prospective residents.
Another controversial action of the Columbia Association was the Symphony of Lights legal action. In the lead up to this past year's Symphony of Lights holiday event, CA tenaciously pursued an unpopular, expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the owner and operator of Merriweather Post Pavilion to prevent the beloved COVID-safe holiday tradition from occurring. The SoL lawsuit is emblematic of a broader property right disputes over Symphony Woods between the Columbia Association (the owner of Symphony Woods) and Merriweather Post Pavilion's owner and operator. The steering committee of the Rouse Project includes representatives from Merriweather Post Pavilion and the charitable beneficiary of Symphony of Lights, Howard County General Hospital. Given the long history of conflict between key members of the Rouse Project and existing CA Board members, some steering committee members may be motivated by the property rights dispute over Symphony Woods.
I suspect that each of the members of the Rouse Project has their own specific reasons for wanting to see a CA Board that is more reflective of Columbia's diversity. Yet, I think there would universal agreement that adding new ideas, perspectives, and creativity to the CA Board could only lead to the betterment of Columbia. The service and dedication of current CA Board members should be celebrated and commended while at the same time acknowledging that a CA Board that is more representative of our community can help the organization better align its offerings and amenities to meet the needs of all demographics. And at the of the day, increasing awareness and community engagement in the governance of the Columbia Association is no doubt a positive thing for our community.
The million dollar question remains: Who is going to step up and run to serve on the Columbia Association Board of Directors?