Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Private Meetings

General Growth is holding a series of private meetings with a wide range of community groups to discuss it’s vision for the future of Town Center in Columbia. I happen to think that this is a wise approach. It gives the company a chance to respond directly and appropriately to individual concerns.

I have attended one of these briefings. It was informative and there was healthy dialogue between the developer and the invitees. That is what is required to refine a vision and build it into a plan.

That is what GGP says it wants to do. They emphasized time and time again during the presentation that what they are discussing in these meetings is a vision, not a final plan. That, they insist, will come after absorbing the feedback from the various community stakeholders.

Some folks don’t like this though. In today’s Sun, June Arney reported on these meetings and the reactions of some of these folks. Alex Hekimian is challenging whether any village board members or Columbia Council members can legally attend these meetings since they are not open to the public and the press.

Hogwash.

These are GGP’s meetings. They can dam well invite whoever they want. They are not presenting a final plan, they are looking for feedback. Have you ever noticed what happens when a meeting is open to everyone and the press, especially when the topic is a hot one like Town Center?

The big mouths and politicians dominate the dialogue as they vie for being quoted by the press. That’s why some of the politicians don’t like them. They can’t grandstand.

I hope my elected representatives attend one of these meetings. That's what they are supposed to do. Go. Listen. Learn. Form an opinion. Report back.

Then they can grandstand and pontificate all they want.

18 comments:

Mr. Drew said...

The problem with private meetings is you can tell one group one thing and another group another thing. The fact the developer is having private meetings should set off alarms.mr

wordbones said...

Mr. Drew,

In this community if you tell one group one thing and another group something else you are going to get called on it.

No, I believe private meetings are the way to go if you are trying to have meaningful dialogue.

The GGP people are not trying to hide anything. They readily allowed me to take whatever pictures I wanted knowing full I would likely post them on this blog.

-wd

Walter Mitty said...

I wonder if Columbia would have been possible if the Rouse Company was not allowed to hold private meetings?

Mr. Drew said...

Perhaps Columbia would be better...

Walter Mitty said...

If you think Columbia would have gotten off the ground without private meetings, think again. As a matter of fact, the Rouse Company was buying the 14,000 acres on which to build Columbia anonymously. Not even the sellers knew who they were selling to. There were even rumors circulating that the Germans were purchasing the land to build a giant Volkswagen plant.

I cannot believe there are people who think a private developer has an obligation to conduct every meeting in the public. That is as crazy as Lloyd Knowles walking out a Tower compromise talk because the public was not invited. Private meetings allow parties to get past rhetoric and create something meaningful- which can then be discussed publicly.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Mitty,

It's not that anyone thinks a private developer has any obligation to have meetings in public.

The point is that many public and private organizations are legally required to have open public meetings. Read up on the Maryland laws governing homeowners associations.

GGP can request private meetings of these organizations, but it's those organizations' responsibility to decline such invitations if the meeting terms GGP requires violate statute or organization bylaws.

So, hogwash to the concept that these meetings are soley GGP's. Quoting Jeff Spicoli, "You know, I've been thinking about this, Mr. Hand. If I'm here and you're here, doesn't that make it our time?"

Acceptance by the public of proposals is best sought in public forums, especially when those proposals will require public approvals, public sacrifices, and public funds.

wordbones said...

Anon 9:23,

You just don't get it. These meetings that GGP is hosting are intended to help them refine a vision that will become thier plan. They are looking for feedback, not approval. Any public official attending these meetings would not be violating the open meetings laws. If they decline to attend do to political posturing they are doing a disservice to their constituents, plain and simple.

-wb

Anonymous said...

So, let me try to get what you're selling here then. You and Mr. Mitty are forwarding the idea, more or less, that public meetings cannot bear any fruit because, you claim:
1. politicians are so motivated to use such events to further their own political ends that
2. the meeting is monopolized with such posturing to an extent that
3. no other productive interaction occurs?

I've been to public meetings where very hot issues were discussed, where neither #1, #2, nor #3 occurred, seeing diverse, civil, and healthy input from public and private individuals and groups. In fact, having a larger body able to participate in such events allowed for much greater interaction, some parties' contributions triggering feedback that would not have occurred otherwise. Smaller private meetings provide much less opportunity for such complimentary interactions.

When you say private meetings give GGP a chance to respond "appropriately" to individual concerns, what individual concerns would necessitate such a response be private? When GGP wants to have a private meeting with CA's board to discuss "sensitive issues", what's so "sensitive" that it can't be made public to all CA members/lien payers?

And if GGP is being handed, by the County, the honor, privilege, and considerable responsibility of drafting this master plan affecting not just their property, but also County property, CA property, and many facets of our community, it just doesn't sit well that "private" meetings with public officials and boards of public groups are necessary to get feedback or formulate "it's [sic]" vision. Wasn't this supposed to be our vision, a 30-year County vision for Town Center anyway? If the County had retained the responsibility for drafting the 30-year vision, I doubt it would be requiring these separate private meetings with homeowner associaiton boards and other community groups. The open-to-the-public Charette sessions brought considerable results. These private meetings are a stark contrast.

"Any public official attending these meetings would not be violating the open meetings laws."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't GGP request a meeting with the CA Board as a whole, not just individual members? If the CA Board was to meet as a body with GGP, homeowners assocation laws and CA's own open meetings bylaws are applicable. It gets fuzzier when considering an individual, who happens to be a CA Board member, individually attending one of these private meetings; however, one would have to ask why that individual was invited vs. any other member of the community who wasn't on the CA Board. It would certainly appear the invitation was extended to the CA Board member individual specifically because of their position on the CA Board.

Walter Mitty said...

Anon- why do you think the CA board should not be able to attend a private informational meeting with GGP? Do you mistrust your board member? GGP is looking for concentrated feedback from the higher ups of various groups before going public with their ideas. The CA reps should be in tune enough with their constituents to provide enough feedback for GGP to produce a plan that can be vetted in public. For goodness sakes, I don’t even see the purpose of having a CA board if they are neutered to the point where they can’t even have discussions with anyone in a private informational meeting. No decisions are being made by the CA board, so I don’t see the relevance of you comment.

Anonymous said...

"Why do you think the CA board should not be able to attend a private informational meeting with GGP?"

Quoting the Maryland Open Meetings Act, §10-501:
"(a) It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that, except in special and appropriate circumstances:
(1) public business be performed in an open and public manner; and
(2) citizens be allowed to observe:
(i) the performance of public officials; and
(ii) the deliberations and decisions that the making of public policy involves.
(b) (1) The ability of the public, its representatives, and the media to attend, report on, and broadcast meetings of public
bodies and to witness the phases of the deliberation, policy formation, and decision making of public bodies ensures the
accountability of government to the citizens of the State.
(2) The conduct of public business in open meetings increases the faith of the public in government and enhances the
effectiveness of the public in fulfilling its role in a democratic society."

"GGP is looking for concentrated feedback from the higher ups of various groups before going public with their ideas."

There will be decisions the CA Board will need to make related to the proposals GGP will at some point reveal. Without CA membership observing and understanding the interaction between the CA Board and GGP and related deliberations from such interactions, the CA membership cannot fully exercise necessary oversight of its leadership and its assocation. Keep in mind the true "higher ups" are the members, not their representatives - the Board.

"Do you mistrust your board member?"

No, I trust my Board member. I trust my Board member to oversee CA's operation and to vote in the membership's best interest. That trust, however, does not require relinquishing the check and balance of oversight of deliberations and decisions. Quite the opposite as my trust in my Board member is reinforced because of such transparency.

"The CA reps should be in tune enough with their constituents to provide enough feedback for GGP to produce a plan that can be vetted in public. For goodness sakes, I don’t even see the purpose of having a CA board if they are neutered to the point where they can’t even have discussions with anyone in a private informational meeting. No decisions are being made by the CA board, so I don’t see the relevance of you comment."

No decisions are being made by the CA Board - yet.

Tom said...

Anon- The last time I checked HOA's are not covered by the Maryland Open Meetings Act. This Act only covers recognized government bodies. CA and the ten Villages come under the Maryland HOA and Maryland corporate law.
I wish people would stop confusing who CA and the Villages really are under the eyes of Maryland law. This kind of thinking has resulted in the CA Board not even allowing its staff to have private discussions which goes way beyond even the limits you quoted in the MD Open Meetings Act. So now the process is moving forward with no CA Board input only post facto commentary. I've alway found I can have more influnce before something is etched in stone than after. Let's stop playing games and start trusting one another. I was always taught that life is about trusting people until they do something to loose the trust. To date none of parties in the Downtown redevelopment process have done anything to loose the public's trust. There is still probably at least a year of DPZ and Council hearing for the trust to continue to build or to be shattered. I am still in the trust mode.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Tom, you are correct: CA is subject to Maryland corporate law, Maryland HOA law (as I previously mentioned twice), and CA's own bylaws (as I also previously mentioned twice). My reference to the passage in the Maryland Open Meetings Act was because its verbage succintly addressed the rationale for open meetings in general, that rationale directly addressing the first question Mr. Mitty posed, providing a response I hoped would be more explanatory than simply again reiterating my two previous references to the HOA law and CA's bylaws.

And, yes, I agree, one can have more influence before something is etched in stone than after. But will it really be etched in stone after these private meetings, being a fait-à-complit, going unrevised after being presented for consideration before final approval? Or, as you mentioned, will there be another year before things are really etched in stone, an opportunity for the community, including CA's membership and Board to study, comment, and effectively participate in the review, revision, and approval process?

I certainly hope the former's not the case and the latter is, as there have been concerns expressed regarding lack of detail in the framework, traffic overloads and other impacts from possible proposals to increase Town Center's density, a mere 30 or so days for review of the framework, and limited prior notice of the few public meetings to discuss the framework.

I doubt anyone's playing games. Unlike you, I was taught trust was to be earned (don't accept candy from strangers, watch out for a big wooden horse left as a gift, get things in writing, etc.). Anyway, trust can best be gained, and maintained, through familiarity and open, frequent, and public communication. At this point, the local community doesn't have a substantial amount of experience with General Growth to provide that familiarity, at least not compared to the decades of familiarity previously had with the Rouse Company. Some of us understand GGP more than others. Many of us do want to understand GGP more, but, for now and for many, private meetings delay wider understanding and trust building opportunities.

wordbones said...

Anon,

I noticed from your post that you were commenting at a quarter to three in the morning. Perhaps it is this sleep deprived state that causes you to continually miss the point.

Once again, these are not meetings to present a plan. These are meetings to share a vision. They are merely intended to generate feedback. No policy is being discussed, no deliberations are being held, no business is being conducted. There is absolutely no reason why a public official cannot or should not attend.

The simple fact remains that more information can be shared and more discussion can be held in a private meeting.

-wb

Tom said...

Anon - Sorry your parents never allowed you to go trick-or-treating as a child. Your life would have been totally more enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

"No policy is being discussed, no deliberations are being held, no business is being conducted."

Yet, the subject matter to be discussed will, because of the considerable scope of the proposed changes, inevitably have multiple impacts in the near- and long-term future for CA property, CA's members, and the community at large.

Thus, it is fair to deem such an event to be not just information gathering on the part of GGP, but also information presentation to, information gathering by, and potentially also discussion by, the CA Board (if it did participate in such a private meeting) of matters on which it would later further deliberate and upon which conduct business.

The issue isn't CA interacting with GGP to provide feedback. That is a good idea. The issue is CA's obligations to perform in an open manner being in conflict with GGP's request that these interactions instead be conducted in private.

wordbones said...

Anon,

You know we could just continue to go back and forth on this. You are unlikely to agree with me and I will continue to insist that you are dead wrong and seriously misguided.

Nuff said.

-wb

Anonymous said...

June Arney's follow-up article.

Anonymous said...

Nice invective. I could be 'dead wrong' if we lived in an oligarchy where public matters were regularly worked out in private. Thankfully, the Constitution says we don't, instead enjoying a free press and open meetings as safeguards to ensure the public's trust and interests are perpetuated.

Yes, I am unlikely to agree:
- with your conflicting assertion that public officials can't be trusted to act in the public's best interest in public meetings because such forums offer publicity, but those same public officials should be trusted to act in the public's best interest in private,
- that private meetings between GGP and some community stakeholders (a subset chosen by GGP) to refine its vision from which to create its plan best serve the entire community's interest, and
- that persons beholden by their positions' responsibilities in public or private organizations to adhere to open meetings regulations can rightly participate in closed meetings such as these.

At the beginning, you wrote: "I hope my elected representatives attend one of these meetings. That's what they are supposed to do. Go. Listen. Learn. Form an opinion. Report back.", but you then later wrote: "No policy is being discussed, no deliberations are being held, no business is being conducted", but then wrote: "more discussion can be held in a private meeting". So, there'll be listening, learning, discussing, and forming opinions, but there won't be deliberations?

Black's Law Dictionary (the preeminent law dictionary for U.S. law and cited as an authoritative legal reference in plenty of Supreme Court Cases) says "To deliberate is to examine and consult in order to form an opinion...". So, which is it? They will go and listen and learn and discuss in private and, as you instruct they do, form an opinion? Or won't they? Or is it that they should form an opinion on the 30-year vision, but not form any related opinion on the resulting 30-year plan?

Again, thankfully, the CA Board does seem to 'get it' relative to seeing there isn't a significant disconnect between the vision and the plan (regardless whether either is labeled as belonging to GGP or the County) when it comes to dealing with either. Both the County and the CA Board seem to see all of these matters as interconnected parts of the greater process of developing a proposal to revise the Master Plan for Town Center, CA even repeatedly calling this phase the "vision plan" in their 11/15 response to the County's draft framework.

It appears the 11/29 Flier also concurs with the need for open meetings throughout this process, from front page coverage, to the editorial, to the editorial cartoon, to letters to the editor.