Columbia village board elections can be complicated, with different rules in each village. Read about the problem of low turnout, plus a look at what seats are up for election in April, plus deadlines for becoming a candidate.
Editor’s Note: This article was written before the Columbia Association board accepted the resignation of its president and CEO, Lakey Boyd.
With the current leadership imbroglio consuming the Columbia Association, Columbia residents might take comfort in thinking voters could have the last word in the next Board of Directors election.
In many of Columbia’s villages, they couldn’t be more wrong.
In the case of CA board elections, the process is complicated at best. There are no universal standards to govern elections in the separate villages, some limit the number of votes per ownership or tenancy, and some simply install uncontested candidates without even holding an election.
To make matters worse, CA voter turnout is abysmal even when elections actually are contested.
In Hickory Ridge, where there are 3,300 property owners eligible to cast votes – in addition to the single votes that may be cast by single family rental tenants – Village Manager Laura Mayton confirmed that there were only 592 votes cast in 2022, 815 in 2021, and 436 in 2018.
Columbia was designed to be a welcoming, self-directed community. Why then do so few people vote in its elections, and can anything be done to encourage more participation?
Communication appears to be the common answer to both questions, but again, it’s complicated.
“People are not well informed about Columbia and what makes it unique and different,” said Brian England, president of BA Auto Care and a CA director representing Hickory Ridge.
Recalling the educational film that welcomed him as a new resident, England said he’d like to see Columbia’s visitor center resurrected, at least virtually, so that incoming residents can better understand the planned community and their role in it.
“This is becoming more important with downtown development and the addition of 5,000 or 6,000 new units,” he said.
Joan Lancos, who served as a CA director from 1988 to 1990, said it doesn’t help that each village center has its own articles of incorporation and bylaws. “Many residents don’t even know that the option to vote is there.”
The fact is that villages have always had problems generating voter turnout.
“We’re a city of 100,000 people but we don’t have a tv station or radio station, and we no longer have a weekly newspaper,” Lancos said. “The only way people really learn about the important things going on here now are through blogs, which are written by random people who may or not have random agendas.”
Mailings could be useful, but they aren’t free, and some villages limit how much money candidates can spend on a campaign, hamstringing their ability to communicate.
“The way the election process is set up doesn’t match with the reality of what it takes to run a campaign and try to get people to vote,” Lancos said.
Spitting in the wind
The Rouse Project, an effort spearheaded in 2021 by a collection of community leaders, was ostensibly aimed at broadening the field of candidates and engaging more voters. It tried and failed to bypass the throttle that is built into the system.
Jean Parker, Merriweather Post Pavilion’s general manager, was one of The Rouse Project’s directors and also thinks holding CA elections simultaneously with Maryland elections could help with turnout.
“The board is not representative of the community it serves,” Parker said. “The system is broken and needs restructuring, and the business vote also needs to be activated, since their contribution makes up the largest share of Columbia Parks and Recreation Association assessments.”
Elected by default
Online voting is a strategy used by some village associations to make it easier for more eligible residents to cast votes, but it hasn’t helped.
Even if it did, the election might not even be held. Bylaws for at least four village associations deem a candidate to have been elected by the members if the number of candidates is less than or equal to the number of vacant director positions.
That’s exactly what happened in Oakland Mills, Owen Brown, and Town Center in the 2022 election.
At the CA Board’s January work session, public outcry over a lack of transparency in the board’s ongoing dispute surrounding CA President Lakey Boyd’s job security was directed at Board Chair Eric Greenberg (River Hill) and Board Vice Chair Ginny Thomas (Oakland Mills). Board member Bill Santos (Wilde Lake) failed in a motion asking these members to step down and allow new leadership elections to be held.
Regardless of any culpability the chair and vice chair may or may not share for the current situation, it’s clear that voters had no say in Thomas’s election in 2022.
“That’s an area of great concern when you have no way for voters to say no, we don’t want this candidate representing us,” Lancos said. “There’s no way around it if nobody’s willing to run to try to displace them.”
There’s no easy answer to making CA elections more democratic and more engaging, but better communication is a start.
“Jim Rouse had a vision of everybody … coming together to vote to decide on the best path forward for the whole community,” Lancos said. “In reality, that vision has never been fully realized.”
Want to run?
Columbia village elections are intended to be the same day for each village, April 22, 2023. For each village, here are the seats up for election in 2023, the length of the term for those seats, and information about nomination:
2 of 5 board seats, plus Columbia Council representative. Two-year terms. Timeline for candidacy nomination to be determined by board at its Jan. 19 meeting.
3 of 5 board seats. Nomination period set for March 1 to 14.
5 of 5 board seats, plus Columbia Council representative. One year term. Candidate statements and other paperwork accepted Feb. 1 through 5 p.m. March 13.
3 of 5 board seats, plus Columbia Council representative. Two year term.Nomination period set for March 1 to 21.
2 of 5 board seats, plus one Columbia Council representative. Petitions on election information can be picked up at Stonehouse beginning March 1.
7 of 7 board seats, plus Columbia Council representative. One year term. Board is set to finalize election calendar on Tuesday, Jan. 24.
3 of 5 board seats. Two year terms. Nomination period from March 1 to 20.
3 of 5 board seats, plus Columbia Council representative. Two year terms.
4 of 8 board seats. Nomination period opens noon Feb. 15, closes noon March 3. Two year terms.
5 of 5 board seats, plus Columbia Council representative. One year term. Deadline for candidacy to be determined.