Merke's praiseworthy departure HOWARD COUNTY

October 27, 1992

Columbia Council member Joseph Merke deserves a note of praise for his decision to resign last week after being embroiled in a controversy over whether he should vote on a proposed golf course adjacent to his property.

In announcing his departure, Mr. Merke acted with the dignity and scrupulousness that his council colleagues maintained were always present. But as he said himself, the controversy over the vote had "tainted the [Columbia] association, the council, the budget process and my integrity." That is why he needed to step down.

The issue for Mr. Merke and his council colleagues was whether he had a conflict of interest in voting on a proposed $5.5 million golf course that would be developed next to -- and likely increase the value of -- his home.

Council members failed to understand that the question was not one of whether Mr. Merke lacked integrity and could not be trusted to vote in an unbiased way. The question was whether a perceived conflict of interest should be avoided, especially when it involves the expenditure of a vast amount of money generated through a fee that all Columbia homeowners pay. That the council members failed to grasp that fact, by a 5-4 vote, is a measure of how alienated they are from the community they serve.

There are several root causes of this alienation, not the least of which is the fact that the Columbia Association, which the council oversees, is a private enterprise with a publicly elected board. Within the murky reality of this quasi-governmental entity, who serves whom is too often skewed in favor of the corporation.

Council members should take steps while the iron is hot to reassure the community that they intend to run an open, honest process. A good first step would be to look carefully at the agenda put forward by the Columbia Forum. The Forum recommends that the council serve staggered terms; that village elections allow one-person, one-vote (currently Columbia residents are allowed one vote per household); that a chairman be elected at-large by the community, and that the council be given some independence by hiring its own staff.

Such actions could bring more trust to an organization battling a sullied reputation.

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