Moving Forward For Columbia
This is an open letter to the Columbia community about the perception that some community members seem to hold about Columbia Association (CA).
From my professional career working in a variety of communities across the country, I’m aware that people in every community hold differing points of view around any given issue. In my first year here, I have seen and heard my fair share of opinions, characterizations and representations about CA as an organization. As I have said before, many are absolutely fair and accurate. However, some are misrepresentations, misinformation and, in some cases, even accusations about CA and its leadership.
CA’s silence around some of these issues creates space that can be – and often is – filled with inaccuracies and incomplete information. That is detrimental to this community and our ability to serve Columbia. As CA’s leader, I feel like I have to speak up and speak out with transparency, facts and clarifications. I commit to continue to do that as we all move forward together.
For any community member that has heard parts and pieces of information around the topic of the Symphony of Lights lawsuit settlement, I want to share the relevant facts as CA knows them to be true. I know this statement is extensive, but, for those who are interested or perhaps confused by the complex legal issues involved, I hope you value the context this information and timeline offers when presented in its entirety.
In June 2020, CA and the Inner Arbor Trust filed a lawsuit against the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission (DCACC) and It’s My Amphitheater, Inc. (IMA). When I started as CA President/CEO in May 2021, there was clear division in the community around the lawsuit, and it was a priority to find a way forward.
In November of 2021, CA, DCACC and IMA entered into a settlement agreement. The settlement resulted in a definitive outcome that benefited our community, protected open space and closed out the expenditure of valuable resources. It ensured that the community tradition of Symphony of Lights is able to take place while achieving the protection, respect and sustainability of Symphony Woods, which CA is proud to own and maintain.
The settlement in November 2021 seemed like a significant milestone at the time. I anticipated CA could open a new chapter of focusing on working for the benefit of the community and resetting relationships across Columbia. But November 2021 was not the end.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, CA received a request from a resident for a copy of the agreement. In November and December 2021, a total of nine residents asked for a copy of the agreement. The other two parties to the agreement received zero requests for the exact same documents.
CA’s attorneys’ position was that the agreement was confidential and not subject to release pursuant to the Maryland Homeowners Association Act for multiple reasons. Among those reasons was that attorneys representing all of the parties mutually agreed that the settlement agreement would be confidential. Since the settlement agreement was between three parties, CA was not the only entity relying on the confidentiality that was agreed to. This is why CA was compelled to approach the other two parties to the settlement agreement to ask if they would be willing to release the agreement to the public.
CA worked with those parties and attorneys regarding the potential release of the confidential settlement agreement starting in January 2022. CA was notified in March 2022 by the two other parties to the settlement agreement that they were prepared to release the agreement. In March 2022, CA released the agreement to the nine residents that requested them as promised.
Up to this point, the amount of continued time, focus and resources that CA staff dedicated to this matter – after full execution of settlement was achieved – was significant. But it at least seemed the chapter was fully closed. We thought we could move forward. But March 2022 was not the end.
A constituent took this matter to a state delegate, who contacted the Maryland Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for their guidance around the requirement for CA to release documents pursuant to the MD HOA Act. CA was unaware that OAG had been contacted regarding this matter.
OAG issued an advice letter to the state delegate on May 6, 2022. It was only when CA obtained a copy of the advice letter that we found out about the inquiry. It’s also important to note that in these circumstances, the information provided by the OAG to a state delegate is only advisory in nature and not an official legal ruling of any kind.
In that advice letter, OAG stated “It is my view that the document in question would be subject to disclosure under the law. It is possible, however, that there are facts of which I am not aware that would change that conclusion. This office is not able to engage in the type of fact-finding that would allow me to reach a definitive conclusion.” This is a direct quote from the OAG letter. As you can see, it is clear that the letter did not offer conclusive findings.
The OAG letter was mentioned during Resident Speakout on May 12, 2022. During those comments, the OAG letter was mischaracterized and misrepresented. Subsequently, the OAG letter has been referenced on social media. Once again, we saw that letter mischaracterized and misquoted to inaccurately assert CA acted in violation of Maryland law.
After reviewing the letter, CA contacted OAG directly. CA shared a number of facts of which OAG had not been made aware, offered additional clarification surrounding the circumstances and explained CA’s position surrounding the timeline of the agreement’s release. OAG acknowledged that CA’s position was valid and reasonable.
In summary, there was a lawsuit among community organizations that was lengthy and became divisive. CA successfully settled the lawsuit to terms that were beneficial to the community and to CA. The settlement agreement stopped significant spending, moved to end divisions and was meant to turn our focus back to serving Columbia. That was November 2021. We are now in late May 2022, and this matter continues to come up. We find ourselves continuing to address a completely executed legal agreement that has been released to the nine residents that requested it. The baseless allegations and misrepresentations are creating divisions, pulling CA’s focus away from the community and requiring our organization’s resources to be spent on an issue we worked hard to resolve months ago.
It is time to finally move forward. CA staff cannot do that alone. If you believe that there are more important and urgent matters for CA to allocate our attention and resources to, please be vocal in the venues we currently have – including Resident Speakout, email and social media. We welcome your ideas and feedback.
I believe that together, we can do better, look forward, think bigger and achieve more. It’s what Columbia was built for, and it’s what our community deserves.