As a result, very little information gets communicated at a Columbia community meeting. It is subsumed by catharsis and in that turbulent emotional release the focus transforms from information to motive (of both individuals and organizations) until the evening protracts to judgments of right or wrong. Timelines get skewed, all past indiscretions are presented anew, as though the topic considered was a conspiracy put into place years ago, only to manifest itself that particular evening. All of that happened in Oakland Mills last Tuesday night. It is important to say that this type of event is not unique to Oakland Mills, but they do have their own certain style.
Howard County Citizens Association President Stu Kohn was in attendance, and this is how he characterized the meeting:
“The residents are not happy and down-right angry. Many spoke out about their concerns. The common theme was the lack of transparency and that Oakland Mills has much of the concentrated subsidized housing. They are very concerned about schools, crime, quality of life, and property values.”
The meeting itself started with some introductory remarks by Oakland Mills Board Chairman Bill Gray and County Councilman Calvin Ball. Howard County Housing Commission Director Tom Corbo gave a brief explanation of the current state of subsidized housing in Oakland Mills, an overview of the Housing Commission’s plans (and future possibilities) for the Verona Apartments, and the different types of subsidized housing programs in Howard County. Lastly, former Oakland Mills High School Principal Frank Eastham shared a few remarks with the crowd. In particular, he shared that as a boy he received free lunches at school as part of an assistance program, and to not put a particular face or location on the folks that receive Free and Reduced Meals in Oakland Mills today.
The meeting then pivoted to “resident remarks,” in which Oakland Mills residents were allowed three minutes each to state their concerns. It was at this point that the meeting was essentially turned over to the Oakland Mills Improvement Association. Part of this was staging. At the beginning of the meeting, the Oakland Mills Village Board took seats along the perimeter of the room, allowing the County officials to sit at a table in the front. Secondly, OMIA came early and signed as a block at the beginning of the meeting. Of the 26 people that spoke, 10 of them were identified as members of OMIA. In fact, they were nine of the first twelve to speak. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but the result was that OMIA got their message out, with little interruption, and I’m not sure everyone that wanted to speak had a chance due to time considerations.
On the other hand, OMIA came prepared. Each speaker had a slightly different take on their opposition to the Verona apartments purchase. In addition, they kept pretty close to the 3-minute time limit. That was impressive. The aforementioned Ginny Thomas was the first speaker. She set the tone of the evening by weaponizing the Howard County Housing Commission. Specifically, Ms. Thomas stated:
“Why is Oakland Mills being targeted?...Oakland Mills is a target, 21045 is a target, and the reason is simple. We have a lot of affordable rental units that have grown old over the years.”
“Councilman Jen Terrasa is here, and I want to compliment her because in North Laurel the Housing Commission was ready to put something there. 95 people showed up and Jen Terrasa carried the ball, met with Ken Ulman and it’s been reversed. So I would like to congratulate North Laurel citizens. You can name other places in the County where people have defeated projects. So we don’t have to take this, guys.”
That being said, there were a number of other speakers of note. A gentleman named Wendell did not support the Howard County Housing Commission purchase, but did explain at length that before coming to this decision, he had proactively visited with people that live around the Village Center. In this act, he explained, there was no “us” and “them,” only “us.” That was a wonderful moment.
The Presidents of the Stevens Forest Elementary School PTA and Oakland Mills Middle School PTSA both voiced opposition, but spent much of their time speaking about the children, staff and educators at their schools. These neighborhood leaders were eloquent in their description of the conditions in their schools; about challenges, caring, and celebrating the entire student body. Anyone involved in this discussion should seek them out, sit on their hands, and listen.
All told, much of the evening could be summed up by two speakers. The first, a woman who identified herself as a long-time Columbian announced to the crowd that she had found a website that provided tenants the ability to comment on their apartments. She found the comments relating to the Verona, and after describing moldy walls and disrepair, the crowd cheered and clapped. Conversely, the last speaker, much younger in age than the average of those attending, came to the podium with two children in tow. She told the crowd that she is a current resident of the Verona apartments and explained the conditions in her apartment. This woman was clearly frustrated and there was a lot of emotion in her voice. After explaining her plight, all she could say is “Just tear it down.” As she repeated this phrase a few times, waves of laughter rolled through the crowd. The juxtaposition of these two Oakland Mills residents; one older and one younger, one an owner and one a renter, and the crowd reaction when speaking on the exact same topic, left me worried about what was really going on here. I keep thinking that maybe I missed something. Maybe there was something going on beyond my field of vision. Maybe someone farted. All I know now is that late Tuesday night, one woman went back to her comfortable home believing she contributed to the discussion and another woman went home with her children to a home in distress knowing that more than 150 people laughed at her.
In the end it was a night with a lot of no’s, a lot of cheering and a lot of clapping, but I don’t think many people learned much. Maybe that was not the intent. I can only hope that in the future, rational discussion and respect will carry the day. I hope that all interested parties understand that the best solution, and probably the only solution, will involve negotiation and compromise. I hope for a better Oakland Mills.