3 Columbia Council seats to be contested golf course will be major issue

April 18, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Only three of Columbia's 10 villages will see contested races in next weekend's Columbia Council election, but the issue that bitterly divided the council for much of the last six months -- whether to build a $5.2 million golf course -- will again be in the forefront.

Mike Rethman of Hickory Ridge and Roy T. Lyons of Long Reach, residents who were outspoken in support of the controversial Fairway Hills Golf Course, are challenging incumbents Charles Ahalt and Gail Bailey, who voted against it.

Paul Amico, another golf course proponent, is running in Kings Contrivance against Charles A. Rees, who opposed a second course. They are vying to replace Charles Acquard, who isn't seeking re-election.

The golf course proponents stress that their interests extend beyond golf, and that their support for the project is based partly on financial and quality of life considerations.

The council approved the project by a 5-4 vote in March.

Hickory Ridge and Kings Contrivance feature candidates who are members of the watchdog group, Alliance for a Better Columbia (ABC). The alliance advocates reducing spending and the annual property lien, decreasing recreational fees and promoting a more responsive government.

Most council races are uncontested, which is the norm in Columbia. The five unopposed incumbents on the 10-member council are: Norma L. Rose of Wilde Lake, Suzanne S. Waller of Town Center, David Berson of River Hill, Evelyn A. Richardson of Dorsey's Search and Fran Wishnick of Oakland Mills. Karen A. Kuecker of Owen Brown and Chairman John M. Hansen of Harper's Choice are not up for re-election.

Council and village board elections will be Saturday.

In the last year, the council has wrestled with how to offer more value to those who pay the lien, compared to nonlien payers who pay to use Columbia pools, health clubs and other facilities that are operated by the nonprofit Columbia Association.

Concerns about tightening the association's $30 million operating budget are likely to dominate council meetings this year, as well.

In Hickory Ridge Mr. Rethman, village board chairman, and Mark Riso are challenging incumbent Charles Ahalt. Mr. Ahalt, an ABC member, frequently criticizes the Columbia Association's spending and bookkeeping.

"The whole thing is nothing but deception, deception, deception," said Mr. Ahalt, 74, about the association's financial reports. "Nothing's the truth. I want to get the truth across to the people."

Mr. Ahalt wants to "take CA out of the hands of the dreamers and put the taxpayers in control." He contends the association doesn't adhere to contractual obligations to reduce a roughly $80 million capital project debt and obscures information about annual operating losses.

Mr. Rethman, 41, said he believes Mr. Ahalt is a "fringe player" on the council, leaving Hickory Ridge without a strong presence.

"I like Charlie, he works hard and he's a fine man," said Mr. Rethman. "But you can't stand on the outside and scream and expect action. He did that before he was on the council and after. Unless you build a coalition and convince people your views are better, you're wasting your time."

Mr. Rethman advocates conducting an independent review of the association's services to determine which jobs would be cheaper to contract out; assuring that Columbia receives its "fair share" of county services since the association functions more like a recreation and parks agency than a government; and restructuring recreational facility rates to increase value for residents without pricing nonresidents out of the market.

Mr. Rethman said the golf course is an "investment" he expects will generate profits to subsidize the association's money-losing operations.

"Many of us who supported the golf course are viewed as fiscal libertines, when in fact, I'm fiscally conservative," he said.

Mr. Riso, 31, said he wants to increase the public's participation.

"I'm disheartened by the lack of public attention to what's going on around them and the lack of effort to solicit ideas," he said. "I'd make more of an effort to be more visible."

Mr. Riso said cutting the lien -- 73 cents per $100 of property value -- is the council's duty, but not if Columbia's amenities are jeopardized.

In Kings Contrivance, Mr. Rees and Mr. Amico, both ABC members, differ on the golf course issue. Mr. Rees opposed adding to the association's debt; Mr. Amico said now is an ideal time to build a golf course because interest rates and construction costs are low.

Mr. Amico, 39, said the same reasoning should apply to other projects being considered to meet growth. He advocates evaluating Columbia's facilities to determine future new projects, worthwhile renovation projects and revised membership policies to avoid facility crowding.

"We need to come up with a plan to address what we're going to need when Columbia is finished because we're not that far away," he said. "I only want to build facilities that can pay for themselves."

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