Ashburn Village HOA Elections: ‘Most Divisive In History’

From Leesburg Today

Oct. 15, 2010

Story written by Erika Jacobson Moore:

Ashburn Village residents are facing the most contentious community election since their HOA was established more than 20 years ago. A slate of three challengers and candidates, including one incumbent, is seeking to unseat three incumbents, including the sitting president and vice president.
Four of the Board of Directors’ seven seats are up for election to two-year terms. The election will take place during Ashburn Village’s annual meeting beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21.

While Ashburn Village has stayed out of many of the debates that have raged over various issues in recent years, it was an internal question that caused this election to take the course it has. During the past year a committee has worked on plans to renovate the Ashburn Village Sports Pavilion, plans that went before a community with some unenthusiastic response at the beginning of the year. In May, the Board of Directors voted to change course, scaling back the proposed changes and phasing the project over several years to reduce the cost and keep residents’ assessments as low as possible.

With only a week left before the vote, residents must sort through a lot of contradictory information, from the challenger slate characterizing the current board as out of control with spending, the incumbents who say they are working to balance the community’s needs and a new committee of residents hoping that voters will arrive at a reasonable middle ground.

“It all began with the sports pavilion,” challenger Karen Guthrie, a former member of the Board of Directors, said. “We weren’t paying attention to what was happening, and then when we heard $33 million and a 30-year mortgage, we all went, ‘What?'”

Guthrie and other residents soon launched a Web site, www.ashburnneighbors.org, with articles calling into question the work related to the Ashburn Village Sports Pavilion and the HOA’s governance as a whole, most importantly its finances.

“Our basic premise is that we want total transparency,” Guthrie said. “We want fiscal accountability.”

Out of discussions with a group of residents who had growing concerns about the sports pavilion project and the work of the sitting Board of Directors came the slate of four candidates: Guthrie, former Broad Run District supervisor candidate Jack Ryan, resident Gene May and current director David Austin. Guthrie last ran for the board in 1998, when she lost her bid by one vote. After deciding to run as a ticket, the four created a pledge to residents that includes fiscal accountability with HOA dues as low as possible, open communication with residents, a review of the HOA staffing and fostering inclusive representation of residents through the board.

“We feel that the lack of open communication was exemplified by what happened with the sports pavilion,” Guthrie said. “We know that people will only come to board meetings once it impacts their backyard.”

The slate of challengers said the committee that was formed to discuss potential renovations to the sports pavilion did not advertise their meetings well enough, leaving a majority of residents in the dark. Board President Doug Carlson says all meetings were published the same way all HOA meetings were and anyone could have attended.

Guthrie and the other candidates have taken particular umbrage with Carlson, accusing him of abusing his position as board president to the disadvantage of other residents, particularly those that might oppose his positions and calling him “the man behind the curtain” on www.ashburnneighbors.org.

For his part, Carlson said it is “sad that [the election] has been lowered to this level” and calls the many criticisms made against him and the current board “completely false.” Carlson noted that he has had to ask for postings to be taken down from www.ashburnneighbors.org for the false statements.

“They have made false statements to homeowners about the conditions of our finances,” Carlson said. “It’s just become extremely confrontational and we’ve decided to take the high road.”

Carlson, along with Vice President Bob Graham and Director Richard Nutwell, is running for reelection to the board during the annual meeting.

Guthrie, and other residents, have called into question the board’s handling of the annual budget, asking why HOA dues are rising in a falling economy and demanding easier access to the community’s financial records, but Carlson said there is no conspiracy to hide information.

“We have told these individuals to come into the office [to look at the budget and finances]. We have no problem showing anyone anything. If they just took the time to go in and look at it, they would see it is not true,” Carlson said about accusations of failed audits. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. We would have to report that to the community.”

But Guthrie maintains things are not as open as they seem and a request under the Freedom of Information Act is “practically required” to look at the documents. As a community that is completely self-run and self-managed, Guthrie, Ryan, Austin and May take issue with the rate at which the staff of the HOA has grown.

“We just want to find out if this is really saving us money, or is it costing us money,” Guthrie said.

As the opposing sides have gotten closer to the election, more and more issues of a personal nature have been raised.

In September, the challengers were outraged that all seven of the candidates’ profiles and petitions did not appear in The Villager, the community’s HOA newsletter. Instead all seven of the candidates were listed by name and had a photo included. Residents were directed to the Ashburn Village Web site and to the 2010 annual meeting packet that was sent to each homeowner for the complete information.

The reason given was lack of space, but the slate of four candidates challenged Carlson’s wife’s involvement in putting together The Villager, and questioned whether she used her influence to keep the information out. But Carlson said his wife has nothing to do with the final makeup of the newsletter, and, for five years, has only edited articles in the newsletter. She has no control over what is included, or what is left out.

Most recently, accusations were made that Carlson directed another board member to prevent Guthrie from electioneering at the recent Villagefest, something Carlson says is “patently false.” He said he only learned of the situation while working in the beer tent during the event, but those who brought the alleged incident to light stand by their accounting of what happened.

It is not only Guthrie, Austin, May and Ryan who are speaking out against the current board. Several other residents have submitted letters to the editor and e-mails calling for change. Just as many others have written in calling for residents to ignore the “vitriolic” nature of the www.ashburnneighbors.org blog postings.

To help combat the divisiveness in the community a new committee has emerged to provide a middle ground for residents, and help keep the focus on the important issues for Ashburn Village. In a letter sent out last week, the Committee For Keeping Ashburn Village Vibrant and Progressive agreed that a number of people have minor complaints about their own experiences, but “when you look at the community in general, when you look at the environment in which we live every day, when you realize what’s available to us as a community…we all quickly understand that the way we are governed by our Board of Directors is pretty non-invasive and respectful of the quality of life issues important to us and our children. And when we want input to that process-given our predisposition to apathy until we think we’ve been aggrieved-we can have it. While nothing is perfect, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The committee announced it was endorsing Carlson, Graham, Nutwell and Ryan for the four open seats on the Board of Directors, saying they are “proven leaders and have demonstrated their individual and collective concern for the future of a diverse Ashburn Village community…”

Randy Rawson, who was a staunch opponent to the Ashburn Village Sports Pavilion project when it was first proposed, said it is “discouraging” that the election has taken such a negative turn that has “taken people’s focus away from the things that should matter.” Rawson acknowledged that the committee is “on-the-fly” and made up of people he and his wife have known or met who are interested in the workings of the HOA, but do not want to get involved in the negative politics. The committee has grown to between 75 and 100 people, he said.

“We are people wanting just what our name says, to keep the Village vibrant,” Rawson said. “Everyone I know on the committee is concerned about expenses, concerned about budgets and don’t want to spend too much. But we want to spend money when we need to. That takes a lot of work and takes some pretty planned spending.”

Rawson said the committee is committed to looking toward the future, to the homeowners and generations that will be coming to Ashburn Village. “You’ve got to look down the road and think about what it is going to look like with the changing demographics.”

By putting out their endorsements, the committee is hoping to “bring down the temperature of the debate” in hopes that the middle ground will make more people likely to take part in next week’s election.

“In a community like this, with basically 5,000 folks, there is such enormous apathy,” he said. “That’s how the sports pavilion problem came about. And this is where the decision is made. We have a representative democracy. We elect people to make decisions for us.”

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