Village Boards and the Columbia Council, explained

INTRODUCTION

Want to make a difference in our community? Columbia Association (CA) and Village Board election season is nearly upon us, so now is a time to consider getting involved on the ground level of local government. Volunteering to serve on either your Village Board or as your village's representative on the Columbia Council (i.e. The Columbia Association's Board of Directors) is a fulfilling and low-barrier way to participate in our democratic process and help contribute to the ideals of Columbia. As a member of the Hickory Ridge Village Board myself, I can personally attest that it's well worth your time and you can indeed help to make a positive impact in our community. These two elected bodies are the most hyperlocal form of governance in Columbia and are an easy and rewarding way for Columbia residents to roll up your sleeves, run for something, and get involved.


This article provides a primer on these two bodies. I’m working on a separate article compiling a village-by-village breakdown on each village’s unique election process, key dates, and what positions are up for election. For now, just note that most villages require individuals to declare their candidacy in March and elections will occur in April. The Columbia Association is planning an information session at 10 AM on February 20 for candidates interested in running for the CA Board of Directors.


Here's the description of CA and Village Boards direct from CA's website:

Columbia’s nine villages and Town Center are organized into 10 Village Community Associations that work for you. In April, residents in each of the associations elect representatives to their village boards, which direct the business affairs of the associations, as well as a representative to the Columbia Council to serve as the 10 members of Columbia Association (CA). Columbia Association is a nonprofit public benefit organization, created to nurture the Columbia vision and to enhance the quality of life for people living and working here. The council elects itself to serve as CA’s Board of Directors, which is the governing body of CA. CA’s president is the eleventh member of the board.
CA’s Board of Directors is the final authority on all matters regarding Columbia Association. CA’s board reviews policy and budget matters develop strategic initiatives, addresses community issues and appoints CA’s president, who oversees a team of approximately 1,300 professionals who carry out the day-to-day operations. Columbia Association provides a variety of amenities, including 40 recreational and community facilities, 3,600 acres of permanent open space, 94 miles of pathways, more than 170 tot lots and several parks. Howard County Government provides other services, including trash collection, local highway maintenance, snow removal, police and fire protection, libraries and public schools.
As it develops its policies and priorities, CA’s Board solicits advice from residents and resident advisory committees. The advisory committees, which are appointed by CA’s board with specific charges, ranging from ad hoc groups to longer-term committees, such as the Financial Management Committee or the Architectural Resource Committee. Residents are encouraged to attend board meetings to express their opinions during Resident Speakout.
Through an ongoing strategic planning process, CA’s board and Columbia Association senior professional team work together to systematically identify and address those issues that are most important to the community, and its continuing well-being. If you would like to be involved, please contact CA’s Board or members of your village board with your concerns.
CA’s Board of Directors holds meetings twice a month, on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month.

The Columbia Association

The Columbia Association (CA) is similar to a governmental organization in that it collects mandatory assessments from Columbia residential and commercial property owners and uses this revenue to enhance the quality of life of constituents through their vast array of recreational, cultural, and community services. In a typical year (i.e. pre-COVID), CA revenue typically exceeds $70 million and they employ ~1,300 individuals. The Columbia Association (CA) Board of Directors is an elected body of residents (one from each village) who volunteer to lead the organization's strategic direction and to represent the interest of residents. CA Board members are responsible for approving all major decisions: financial, operational, capital improvements, and legal. CA is the closest thing that we have to being the keeper of Columbia's vision and guardians for Rouse's ideals.


Jessamine Duvall, the current CA representative from the Village of Hickory Ridge and former Hickory Ridge Village Board member, offers her perspective:

As someone who consciously chose to move my family to Columbia because of its unique values and characteristics, I care deeply about the future of our city. Serving on the Village Board or the CA Board can feel like a thankless job at times, but it is extremely rewarding to know that you have a voice and can advocate for your community’s future.
I have seen the way Village Boards can influence residential and commercial development in their neighborhood, advocate to CA for the needs of their residents, and build a sense of community within their village.
At the CA level, the Board sets the direction for how Columbia Association uses residents’ assessment dollars to better our city. If we want Columbia to be a community of choice for years to come, everyone who cares must get involved.
It’s our money, so we all deserve a seat at the table. If you don’t see yourself represented at the CA Board level, stand up and take your place. We have to BE the change we want to see happen in Columbia.
Serving on the Village Board and the CA Board has helped me develop my leadership skills and has made me aware of the many wonderful things happening in our community as well as the complicated challenges we face as we build the future of Columbia.

Certainly, over the past year, we have witnessed the difficult decisions that CA has made as they have been forced to reckon with the financial impacts of the pandemic and prioritize which of their services to cut and which to keep. Over the coming years, CA will continue to develop and refine its own organizational mission and purpose as it contemplates questions like:

  • What role should CA play championing Columbia as a great place to live, work, and play rather than marketing its own business operations?

  • How does CA prioritize the services they are best known for - pools, pathways, tot lots and open space - that provide limited or no revenue but great value to the entire community compared to their fitness business operations?

  • What is the best way for CA to nurture and enhance Columbia's core values and founding principles, particularly as we grapple - at a local and national level - with issues such as racial and economic injustice?

These challenges are compounded by the need to hire a new Columbia Association CEO/President - the individual that will lead the organization in the future. Current President/CEO Milton Matthews is stepping down effective April 30 and the current Board is in process of selecting his replacement. With so much at stake, the questions for Columbia residents are: Who do we want making these decisions? And does the current Board of Directors reflect the diversity of our community?


Ashley Vaughan of Harper's Choice came very close to winning a seat on CA's Board in early 2020 as she campaigned to bring a millennial voice to the CA Board. Here's her take on the importance of having more diverse Board representation:

I’ve lived in Columbia for over 20 years and always assumed I would run for the Columbia Association Board… when I retired. The reality is that younger residents must be involved now. The decisions the board is making today will impact Columbia for years to come. We need representation across generations, as well as racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, if we are going to live up to the diverse and progressive community Columbia is advertised to be. The process for applying to run is simple – the real challenge lies in educating our neighbors on why it is important to participate, both as candidates and voters, in our village elections.

Here's a look at the current Board. Below that are detailed demographic charts to compare Howard County age and racial/ethnicity demographics to further illustrate the evident disparities.


Village Boards

Each Village in Columbia has a non-profit community association that supports a range of services for the residents of the village. The Village Board guides operations and priorities, establishes policies, oversees the budget, and appoints committee members and the Village Manager.


The Village Board serves as an advocate for its community and works to be a forum for all different viewpoints. Despite having little formal power, Village Boards do have influence over what's happening in their community. Organizations (such as Howard County Government, the Columbia Association and Real Estate developers) typically consult with Village Boards on their plans for the area as a way to get community buy-in for a project. For example, a residential or commercial developer may first present their plans to the public at a Village Board meeting in order to give the community a chance to weigh in and provide feedback prior to pursuing formal county approvals, as applicable.


Personally, my favorite part about being on a Village Board is working together on a Board with a diverse, smart, talented team of other committed community members. We have a fantastic group in Hickory Ridge - all of us bring different experiences and ideas to the table, but share a commitment to improving the quality of life for Hickory Ridge residents.


All homeowners and tenants of the village are members of the Village Association. Villages are financed from a portion of the revenue that CA collects from property owners. This revenue is used to provide residential services, operate neighborhood center(s), host events, and to pay the salaries of a Village Manager and other village employees. The Village Manager supervises village staff, finances, communications, events, facility rentals, resale packages and resident services. A separate function of the village association is handling applications and enforcement of exterior alterations of Columbia homes in accordance with the covenant requirements of that village. These issues are handled by a separately appointed architectural committee made up of village residents (another volunteer opportunity). Covenant issues are rarely elevated for Board consideration unless there is a serious issue.


The primary obligation of a Village board member is attending village board meetings. Our village holds meetings twice monthly that each last about 2 hours, though some villages hold meetings only once per month. The meetings themselves are always interesting as you get into the details on issues relevant to your neighborhood. Our meetings consist of resident speakouts, guest presenters (including CA representatives, Howard County government reps, and real estate developers to update the Board and community members on issues pertinent to the village), updates from our village manager on village operations and neighborhood news, Board action items, and an update from your village's Columbia Association representative on what's happening at CA.


Conclusion

If any readers are considering running for a position on your village Board or CA, please let me know! I'm happy to talk more about my own experience and share some ideas and resources.

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