Sharpening Columbia's Edge

June 12, 1992

Once on the cutting edge of city planning and social idealism, Columbia has grown into a respectable and successful community.

To their credit, some residents are taking advantage of the fact that the city marks its 25th anniversary this year by dusting off the old goals and taking a hard look at the future.

Toward that end, a forum examining the way Columbia is governed drew 150 people last week -- an impressive number for a Saturday morning. While final recommendations won't be aired until fall, the forum uncapped a clear desire for change in the way the city is governed. Also made clear is that there is no groundswell for radical alterations.

From soup to nuts, options range from the radical and politically explosive approach of incorporating the city to the more benign approach of making changes within the existing structure. Neither would accomplish all goals for all people.

Having reached maturity, Columbia is looking and sounding more like a traditional city. For its increasing population of elderly residents on fixed incomes and those who already feel overtaxed, incorporating the city has a certain allure.

It would allow residents to claim tax exemptions for the payments they make to provide for Columbia's amenities, from walking paths to pools and recreational centers. It would also be a complicated and highly charged process, and one that the county council is not likely to sign off on.

A more reasoned approach would be to work within the existing system by changing the way the Columbia Association functions.

The association is the quasi-governmental agency that provides services to residents. It is overseen by its legislative arm, the Columbia Council. Established when Columbia was much smaller -- there are now 75,000 people in the city -- the council and association are in need of overhaul, according to critics.

One option would allow residents to vote for a chief executive to oversee the association, perhaps installing what would amount to the city's first mayor. Such a move might increase participation in Columbia's village elections, which to date have produced low turnouts.

Details would have to be worked out, but indications are that such an idea might find a receptive audience.

A survey conducted last year by the Columbia Forum, which sponsored last Saturday's event, concluded that a majority of city residents are opposed to a new form of government but felt that some change might be necessary later.

Depending on the decision made, Columbia could position itself again on the cutting edge.

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