Forum presents over 100 ideas to reshape Columbia Proposals include changes in council

October 11, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

A new report marking Columbia's 25th anniversary says th community needs to look seriously at changing the way it is governed, open a center for heightening appreciation for ethnic diversity, and entice the city's developer to build housing in Town Center.

"These recommendations really strike at the heart of what Columbia is today," said Morris Keeton, president of the Columbia Forum, a Columbia think-tank that organized the four-year project looking at possible improvements.

The report, entitled "An Agenda for Columbia," was pulled together by 12 committees that examined a wide range of issues from transportation and housing to downtown development and governance.

While the 56-page report contains more than 100 recommendations for improving life in the city, it does not offer any specific ideas about how to put them into practice. Specifics, said David Tucker, the author of the report, should come from the public after the report is distributed at a conference Oct. 25 at Atholton High School.

Mr. Keeton said he expects the recommendations for governing the un-incorporated city of 65,000 to generate the most controversy.

But recommendations aimed at closing a widening schism in Columbia's diverse ethnic and cultural groups and getting the Rouse Co., Columbia's sole developer, to enhance a car-oriented Town Center with a sprinkling of housing, retail and cultural areas may well spark debate.

Three key recommendations for changing Columbia's governance would make the Columbia Council chairmanship an elected office and replace Columbia's one-vote-per-household system by allowing every resident over 18 a vote in village and council elections. Council terms would be two years.

Council members now sit for one year and appoint their chairman. Except for two villages, voting in Columbia is limited to one vote per household.

Alan Schwartz, a Columbia lawyer who headed up the committee that examined the governance issue, said his committee believes the recommended changes would get more citizens interested.

"We found enormous apathy in elections in many of the villages," said Mr. Schwartz. "In some villages you are lucky if you see a 10 percent voter turnout for village or council elections. That's got to be changed if Columbia is to be a vibrant community."

Lengthening council terms would bring stability and consistency the council, as well as provide enough time for a member to become knowledgeable on issues, he said.

The added stability and experience of council members and having a chairman elected community-wide would add a stronger sense of independence from the Columbia Association, said Mr. Schwartz.

The non-profit Columbia Association, collects annual property assessments from homeowners and businesses and operates community facilities, such as pools and community centers. The Columbia Council must approve the association's policies and its $30 million budget. Critics have sometimes charged the council with being a rubber stamp for policies developed by association staff members.

"There is a perception among residents that the council wasn't as strong as the Columbia Association," said Mr. Schwartz. "A chairman who is elected by the entire community would bring at least a perception of power, and independence from the association."

Alex Hekimian, chairman of The Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens advocacy group, says the organization supports the Forum's proposed governance changes. "If you change

governance, you change everything else," he said. "And it's time for a new system of government in Columbia."

Karen Kuecker, a Columbia Council member who assisted the governance committee, agrees that changes are needed and she supports two-year council terms. She's not so sure about electing the council chairman.

"I worry that the chair would turn too political, if elected community-wide," she said. "The council needs to retain its political neutrality."

Mr. Schwartz's committee recommends appointing a commission to examine the financial implications of establishing Columbia as either a special tax district or a municipality with limited functions. He believes Columbia could save $25 million in bond debt through such a change.

While the suggestions on improving how Columbia is governed seem destined to generate debate, ethnic factionalism and racism hold serious potential for disrupting Columbia's future, said Karen Reeves, an employee training specialist who assisted the cultural and religious diversity committee.

During the past two years, Columbia, envisioned as a hub of racial harmony and inclusion, has seen several incidents of racial and ethnic extremism, including students openly exchanging racial slurs, swastikas painted on school property, and hate literature circulated in neighborhoods.

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