Alliance hopes to push agenda from elected office

April 19, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, predicted "the beginning of a revolution" in Columbia after member Charles Ahalt of Hickory Ridge upended two-year Columbia Councilman James Loesch in last spring's election.

A year later, the advocacy group's founder says the "revolution" to shift influence from Columbia's corporate founders to residents and to reduce costs for property owners still has "a long, long way to go."

Columbia's governance "is not at all what it ought to be, but it's getting better," said Mr. Hekimian.

Instead of watching and criticizing from the sidelines, ABC members are increasing their efforts to work within the system. Six ABC members are candidates in this year's Columbia elections, the most since the group incorporated in 1989, said Mr. Hekimian.

One of two ABC members -- Charles A. Rees and Paul Amico -- will represent Kings Contrivance on the council, and Mr. Ahalt is running for re-election. Albert Genemans is running for Kings Contrivance village board, and David A. Hatch and Ruth Cargo are assured election in the uncontested race for Oakland Mills village board.

"I found myself feeling I'd been there criticizing and showing up for meetings when I felt something was wrong," said Mr. Hatch. "I decided to try to make a positive contribution rather than stand on the sideline and say what's going wrong."

The alliance is a vehicle for residents eager to bring about changes in the way Columbia is governed. Mr. Hekimian lists three top priorities: reducing spending, debt and the annual property lien; reducing recreational facility fees so more residents will join; and creating a "more responsive, democratic government."

The current government, in which a 10-member council acts as a board of directors for a corporation which operates facilities and maintains property, "is not acceptable for a city our size," said Mr. Hekimian.

"We've matured as a city to the point that the old way of governing has outlived its usefulness," he said. "People in Columbia are fully capable of controlling our destiny. We don't want to be considered a company town any longer."

The Columbia Forum, a think-tank studying ways to improve Columbia, agrees that the dual public and private roles of the Columbia Association has created complications as the 25-year-old unincorporated city has grown.

"What was appropriate as a model for community decision-making in a period during which the developer owned all the land and made all the decisions, may or may not be appropriate today," Forum members wrote in their 1992 Agenda for Columbia report.

Mr. Hekimian said he's thankful that several members of the current council are working toward change. Council Chairman John M. Hansen, of Harper's Choice, was an early member of the alliance but is not active, said Mr. Hekimian.

Another council member Norma L. Rose of Wilde Lake, isn't a member, but her views are sympathetic to ABC's causes.

Ms. Rose said decisions made by the council are "largely in reaction" to Columbia Association staff proposals.

"My real problem is the structure," she said. "Under the charter, there are very few avenues for accountability. Yes, the council has to approve everything. But the point at which we get information or proposals limits the kind of changes that can be made."

Ms. Rose said she doesn't support a "totally different form of government," such as incorporating as a municipality, "because I don't know how it can be achieved." But she said that within the current system, she wants to "put more emphasis on the quasi-public aspects rather than the private corporate aspects."

Mr. Genemans said his top priority is to lower the assessment -- revenue used to finance services and cover operating losses.

Village boards, which make recommendations to council members, can influence that issue, he said. Too many residents who don't use recreational facilities are subsidizing them for people who do through the assessment, he said.

Mr. Rees, an attorney, represented Mr. Genemans in an April 13 Howard County Circuit Court trial in which Mr. Genemans attempted to prove that the Columbia Association's method of assessing property is unfair. The judge ruled against him, saying that the association, as a private organization, enjoys a legal exemption allowing it to assess property at higher valuations than the state or county.

Mr. Amico, an ABC co-founder, agrees that the assessment should be reduced "in an intelligent fashion" as the population grows.

However, he adds, "I don't believe in absolutely everything" that ABC advocates.

For instance, ABC advocated calling for a referendum on the recently approved $5.2 million Fairway Hills Golf Course, while Mr. Amico supports the project.

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