Having just celebrated its 25th birthday, Columbia now has a town hall. Or does it?
The Columbia Association, the quasi-governmental agency that provides services to residents, moved to the city's downtown last week. Officials hope the move, which included putting the association's name outside the new building, will improve visibility for the organization and make its new location tantamount to a town hall.
Unfortunately, what the move really amounts to is symbolism with little substance. Try as they might, those at the association are going to have a tough time selling their agency as town government the way most people envision it.
A non-profit corporation, the association operates in a twilight zone, neither public nor private. The Columbia Council, the association's legislative arm, is elected but acts more like a board of directors. And Columbia residents have been historically uninterested in the village elections from which council members are culled. All this has resulted in an association alienated from the community it serves.
Soon, however, some recommendations will be forthcoming that could bridge the gap and perhaps give the association some real status as town government. The Columbia Forum, wrapping up months of work, is expected to release next month a series of suggestions about Columbia's future. The topics covered will range from the arts, communications and cultural diversity to downtown development, economic growth and education.
A critical component of the report will focus on the subject of governance. Although the report is not expected to recommend massive change, such as mounting an effort to incorporate the city, it almost certainly will suggest that the current structure undergo some overhaul. A positive step would be to have someone running the council who is elected at large, in effect creating a Columbia mayor.
Whatever the Forum does, it will take interest on the part of residents and a mobilized community to produce significant change. Until then, it won't matter where the Columbia Association moves, Columbia will not have a town hall.