A sign in open space notes that the area is owned by the Columbia Association. (TBM / Jason Whong)

What’s wrong with the Columbia Association and why did it have such problems with its recently hired CEO?

The recent resignation of Columbia Association CEO Lakey Boyd culminated months of uncertainty about her fate. It is not clear what were the problems that led to her negative performance evaluation last year — which neither Boyd or the board has shared. From the outside it appears the board, made up of elected representatives from Columbia’s 10 villages, wanted to micromanage its CEO.

The people who want CA to be better and different have to overcome obstacles created by the same person they want CA to emulate: Jim Rouse. 

The Columbia Association is an odd duck of an organization. Legally, it is a $72 million homeowners association, the largest in Maryland. It was created by the Rouse Co. because they wanted to build a city, but they couldn’t create a municipality out of the Swiss cheese of land ownership that is Columbia, with large pockets of outparcels owned by others. They also wanted to provide its 14,000 acre development with community and recreation facilities before residents actually arrived, financing them with debt that the residents would ultimately pay for with a property lien.

The role of CA is clear in its original legal name — the Columbia Park and Recreation Association. For almost two decades, the CPRA was controlled by a board made up of Rouse Co. officials, with elected village representatives making up an advisory Columbia Council. 

That Columbia Council is now the CA board. All this is based on property covenants that everybody who buys a building or piece of land originally owned by the Rouse Co. must sign. The problem with perpetual covenants on property is just that: They are designed to be perpetual, everlasting and hard to change.

Even in the good old early days of Columbia, the turnout for village elections was low, maybe a few hundred people. As Columbia and its residents have aged, the CA board has become more of a maintenance operation and the board, all unpaid volunteers, has limited power.

Some people envision CA as the embodiment of Jim Rouse’s vision for Columbia as a diverse, multifaith, integrated “garden for growing people,” as he would say. CA’s CEO would be the “mayor” of this enlightened city. 

But the real “mayor” of unincorporated Columbia is not the chief executive officer of the Columbia Association. It is the elected executive of Howard County, a Black man who has lived in Columbia for many years, raised a family here, and despite some missteps, represents the values of Jim Rouse. 

Through artful gerrymandering, two thirds of the Howard County Council — three out of five members — live in Columbia. A majority of its state legislators live in Columbia too, among them two of the most powerful people in Annapolis, chairs of major money committees in the House and Senate. 

A majority of these representatives are women, two are Black, two are Asian. We have a diverse school board as well. What I’m suggesting is that our elected officials at the local and state level fully represent the progressive values that Jim Rouse espoused and have become mainstream ideals. 

All these diverse officials oversee the basic services we depend on: streets, schools, libraries, public safety, police, fire and emergency services, trash, even the parks and playing fields that didn’t exist before Columbia. 

Expecting the Columbia Association to change its stripes is a waste of time. Keep the pools and community buildings running, maintain those 3,000 acres of open space and all the pathways through them. 

Here are a couple of quick fixes I recommend for CA: Recruit some younger, more diverse candidates for the CA board and then mail a ballot to every household in the village with a postage paid return envelope. Include candidate information in the mailing. 

Two: Stop hiring CEOs based on a national search. We didn’t get competent county executives like Calvin Ball, Allan Kittleman, Ken Ulman and Jim Robey with a national search. They came from here. Interim CEO Dennis Mattey has been with CA forever. Why bring in somebody who doesn’t know the organization and the community the way Mattey does?

Third: Have the CA board adopt the Policy Governance model and get trained in it. This model for nonprofit and corporate boards has been around since the 1970s. Fundamentally, it requires a board to set policies, budgets and limits, and then oversee that they are carried out by the managers they hire. It is designed to prevent the board from meddling in everyday operations. It’s been used widely by community college trustees and other nonprofit boards. Check it out on Wikipedia.

One reply on “Opinion: What’s wrong with the Columbia Association?”

  1. As you said The Columbia Association has a micromanaging board. The same issues the affected Lakey Boyd, continued from her predecessor and most likely her successor.

Comments are closed.