Friday, February 22, 2008

Barbarians at the Gate

I attended the Columbia Association Board of Directors Planning & Strategy Committee last night. I went to show my support for increasing the annual contribution that CA makes to the Columbia Festival of the Arts. For as long as I can remember, the CA contribution to festival has remained static at $95,000.00. This money is used primarily to help fund the free, three day LakeFest program of the sixteen day festival.

This year, the Board of Trustees of the festival requested a $15,000 increase from CA. As I have previously written, this years fundraising for the festival has been directly impacted by the slowing economy. Festival volunteers are pulling out all stops to make up for the shortfall. The request to CA was one of these ongoing efforts.

First, the good news; CA will not reduce this years contribution. That was actually proposed by Councilperson Cynthia Coyle (Harpers Choice). After watching Ms. Coyle in action last night I can honestly say that she is either the dimmest bulb on the council or simply an obstructionist. Councilperson Coyle and Councilperson Barbara Russell believe that the festival is “flush with cash.” They believe this because they erroneously misinterpreted a contribution made to the festival from The Rouse Company Foundation.

The foundation made a contribution to an endowment for the festival in lieu of continuing to make annual gifts. The object was to establish something more long term to insure the festivals long term survival. The intent is for this endowment to produce an annual income that would be equal to the previous annual gifts. Unfortunately because the endowment fund has not actually earned much money yet (it was only established this year), this had the resultant effect of actually reducing the amount of money that the festival would have received this year from the foundation. Instead of being “flush with cash” the festival is like a Columbia homeowner. Our home is worth more on paper than it would be in readily available cash. That is hardly being “flush with cash.”

Both Ms. Coyle and Ms. Russell said they got their information from “the newspaper.” A statement from Steve Sachs, the former chair of the festival Board of Trustees detailing the facts of The Rouse Company Foundation gift was read by CA president, Maggie Brown, at the meeting. The statement claimed that the CA board members had injured the festival fundraising efforts by these statements. Both Ms. Coyle and Ms Russell remained unapologetic for their previous statement and simply reiterated that they believed what they had read in “the paper.”

The bad news is that the CA Board voted 5 to 4 to deny an increase in the annual contribution. Those voting against the increase along with Ms. Coyle and Ms Russell were Councilpersons Evan Coren (Kings Contrivance), Phillip Kirsch (Wilde Lake), and Henry Dagenais (Long Reach). Evan Coren, who also chaired this particular committee was blatantly pandering to both Coyle and Russell all evening, not just on this issue. It was quite obvious to the very small audience (less than five people including myself) that Coyle, Russell, Kirsch and Coren are all under the influence of the Alliance for A Better Columbia. I am beginning to question what a “better Columbia” actually means to these people. I don’t think it looks like any place I’d want to be.

It wasn’t all bad. There are good people on the board too. There just aren’t enough of them. Last night the festival friends were Tom O’Connor (Dorsey’s Search), Miles Coffman (Hickory Ridge), Pearl Atkinson-Stewart (Owen Brown) and Michael Cornell (River Hill). After listening for an hour and a half to the discussions about staff salaries, the sister city program (it now has some new multi cultural name) and the festival funding request, I would have to categorize these four councilpersons as the guardians at the gate. We are very lucky to have them on the council. Right now they are outnumbered and it is getting harder to hold back the barbarian hordes.

Just my opinion of course. Still, I challenge anyone to attend a CA board committee meeting and draw your own conclusions. It is high drama of Columbia politics. This particular meeting even had a surreal nature to it. Ms. Russell was unable to attend in person (I know not why) but she was present on the speakerphone. I guess that is at least better than Gail Broida (Town Center) who was not in attendance at all (again I know not why).

The bottom line is that The Columbia Association has seemingly been taken over by a people are closely aligned with The Alliance for a Better Columbia. That should scare anyone who cares about Columbia.

The Alliance for a Better Columbia is a darling of the local papers. Alex Hekimian, the president of the organization is often portrayed by the papers as a spokesman of a leading community group. The problem for me is that this organization is basically Alex Hekimian. For at least fifteen years he has been the only president the organization has ever had. I would be very surprised if the ABC board of directors hadn’t changed that much in so many years either. I am willing to bet that their active membership does not exceed 300 people. Three hundred people led by one guy, having a major influence on the direction of an organization that touches the lives of the majority of people in Howard County. Scary.

Real citizen’s organizations have succession in leadership and dynamic boards. In this way they attempt to more accurately reflect a wider range of opinion and thought. That just ain’t happening at the ABC.

In my opinion of course. This is my blog after all. You don’t have to read it if you don’t like it.

For those who agree, we need to do something. We need to do something big. We need to act soon before it is too late. The barbarians are at the gate. We are outnumbered.


Anonymous said...

If that's your view of organizations, what do you say about HCCA?

wordbones said...

I have no experience or first hand knowledge of the HCCA. I'll leave thatfor others to comment on.


Columbia26 said...

One would want to know in what newspaper(s) Ms. Coyle and Ms. Russell read that the Columbia Festival of the Arts was "flush with cash".

Individuals in the position of elected public representatives have a responsibility and presumed accountability with respect to the words and statements they use about persons or organizations.

Making unsubstantiated statements based upon un-attributed newpaper articles or upon the often used phrase "people tell me" does not meet that test.

Joe McCathy must be smiling.

jim adams said...

I am posting my thoughts, questions, or what ever comes out of the following comments in complete innocence. I am not a resident of Columbia, nor have I attended any of the meetings for the groups you mention.

The economy is slowing so I feel requesting an increase would be irresponsible, and I applaud the volunteers who want to make up the shortfall. I hope you and some of your interested readers are part of this group.

I have attened three meetings in the last couple of weeks, in reference to items far less important than the Columbia Association, representing areas of the county with less population, and more people were in attendence than the four you mentioned at the Columbia Association. This may be telling you something.

I don't know Alex hekimain, but it sounds as if Alex is doing a great job for somebody or some group, to have been in the same position for 15 years. Is there no one who can replace Alex?

What is it you plan on doing, or did you just want to vent?

I hope you accept these thoughts, as I mentioned at the beginning, as coming from someone with complete innocence. I mean no offence.

Anonymous said...

Before it's too late? It's not too late to continue to contact other organizations who've been nowhere near as generous or as consistent as CA when supporting the festival.

A few details would be helpful.
1. How large a contribution was generously made by the Rouse Foundation to create the endowment?
2. When was the contribution made?
3. When was the endowment created?
4. How much money has the endowment earned thus far?
5. In what has the endowment's funds been invested? (An answer indicating with some specificity local economy investment would be a good answer here.)
6. What was the festival's cost last year?
7. What will the festival's cost be this year?
8. How much have other contributor's reduced their contributions from last year to this year?

The post sounds like CA's support isn't appreciated all that much.

Try this next time (most people who generously volunteer their time feel better when they do):

Dear CA (and by that I mean Columbia's residents, property owners, and businesses therein),

Thanks again for the very generous contributions and consistent support. We look forward to many more years partnering to provide great festivals.

wordbones said...

Jim Adams,

While it is true that most organizations are tightening their belts as a result of the slow down in the economy CA may be a notable exception. Recent commercial developments such as the Gateway Overlook shopping center have added to the CPRA assessment base. More office buildings underway in Columbia will do the same. In short, CA revenues are actually increasing.

Anon 9:03,

You should misinterpret my post to read that the festival is not grateful for any contribution that it receives. It is very grateful to CA and all of the other supporters.

The CA contribution should also be taken in context. CA gets a nice return on this investment. Their name is prominently displayed as a major sponsor. The CA money they contribute is "leveraged up" by the additional dollars the festival raises and The festival serves all residents of Columbia with its three day free Lakefest celebration.

My post was only partially about the festival funding anyway. The real issue is that the CA board is now dominated by folks who have an agenda that I believe is at odds with most people who live in Columbia. They are not forward thinking people. After watching both fellow board members and staff spend 15 minutes trying to explain a simple accounting item to Cindy Coyle I was left wondering why would anyone would put themselves through this.


Anonymous said...

In short then, the festival's revenues are also increasing.

Personally, I'm glad that CA Board members will stop and ask questions if they're unclear about any financial situations. If the still unanswered questions above are any indication of the interaction that occurred at the meeting, I'm all the more glad.

Hindsight's 20/20, but, cards on the table, pro forma statements and color cash flow charts work wonders in such situations. Hyperbole, not so much.

wordbones said...

Anon 11:01 (and I assume 9:03),

I didn't answer all of your questions about the festival finances because for one I don't know all of them. That being said I was not the making the request to he CA board, Karen Dixon, the current festival board chair and Steve Sachs, the former festival chair made the appeal. I can assure you that the disclosure was very thorough and very transparent. You can visit he festival offices and get all of the details on the endowment if you wish. Another reason I didn't answer at least one of your questions is because the answer is already in the post. If you are going to pick at my argument you would be well served to read more carefully.

The bottom line is the festival of the arts is an incredible community organization. It is made up of over 1200 volunteers spends around a million dollars annualky to put on the sixteen day festival. It brings to Columbia a wide variety of national and international artists, conducts masters classes and workshops for students, and holds a three day festival, parade and art park at the lakefront that far exceeds any other summer event in town.

The Columbia Festival of the Arts does more to foster community in Howard County than any other event. Do yourself and your neighbors a favor by supporting this worthwhile event.

It is easy to be against something. It takes committment to be for something.