Columbia elections marked by apathy COLUMBIA

April 23, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

If this year's Columbia elections hold true to form, apathy will be the most obvious common denominator.

Even before a vote is cast, the signals are clear.

Only one-third of the village board and Columbia Council races ++ are contested. And the voter quotas set by some villages show remarkably low expectations. In the Village of Long Reach, for example, just 50 voting households out of 4,700 are needed to validate tomorrow's election.

Several candidates running for elected positions have commented on the lack of participation and suggest increasing community involvement as a top priority in their campaigns.

Council candidate Mark Riso of Hickory Ridge says, "I'm a strong believer in a lot more participation than I've ever seen here." Harper's Choice village board candidate Gloria Goldman says she wants to see "a return of the pioneer camaraderie" of Columbia's earlier days.

Those familiar with Columbia's multilevel system of community representation attribute the historically low number of contested races to time constraints, fear of elections, contentment with current representatives, a lack of understanding of the system and a decrease in interest once a village is fully developed.

A lack of heated contests contributes to voter apathy, says Bob Berlett, chairman of the election monitor committee in Oakland Mills, which has a voter turnout quorum of 10 percent of households and no contested races this year.

"We've been lucky to make 11 or 12 percent; there are no floods," says Mr. Berlett. "When an election is not contested, it doesn't take much apathy to drop below 10 percent."

Mr. Berlett, a former village board member, believes Columbia has a "silent majority" that follows community issues and understands the quasi-governmental system.

Since 1988, two out of every three council and village board elections have been uncontested. In several instances, village boards have had to appoint members after the election because of a shortage of candidates. That will be the case in Wilde Lake this year.

Wilde Lake manager Bernice Kish says the election process itself sometimes deters residents. Three residents have indicated an interest in being appointed to the board.

In some years, residents have expressed more interest in appointment than in running for the volunteer offices, said Kings Contrivance village manager Anne L. Dodd. The board appointed a member in 1991 because of a shortage of candidates.

"It's difficult if you're not politically inclined, but want to be involved in the community, to put yourself on the line and run for election," said Ms. Dodd.

The council and village board positions aren't political, in a traditional sense. The council acts as a board of directors for the Columbia Association, a nonprofit corporation that charges property owners annually to operate recreational and community facilities, run social programs and maintain grounds. The 10 village boards act as advisory councils for grass-roots concerns.

Still, many view the positions as political rather than as community service, said Pam Mack, association vice president of community relations.

Village board members may be "enthusiastic," but some who aren't active in the community view the boards as "superfluous," said Charles A. Rees, a former Kings Contrivance village board member who resigned to run for the council.

"They see it as just another layer of bureaucracy we all have to pay for," said Mr. Rees, who advocates studying the role villages should play in Columbia governance.

Harper's Choice village board member Laura Waters says many residents might not realize that they are members of a community association that makes decisions about how to spend residents' money.

She perceives that the village board has become "cut off from the people," possibly because Harper's Choice is fully developed, and advocates a "more activist" board.

Alex Hekimian, president of the citizens watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, says residents become involved in community affairs on an issue by issue basis.

He says he believes some residents shy away from involvement because of Columbia's corporate nature -- The Rouse Co. controls development, and the Columbia Association functions as both a public and private entity.

"Some people think it doesn't matter what they do -- a company town is a company town," he said. "Developers and staff are going to control the town no matter what we do."

Mr. Berlett says he views the lack of challengers in elections as a sign of "a high degree of satisfaction."

"People are not annoyed, or disappointed in jobs being done by council representatives," he said. "I feel strongly if the public doesn't like what they're doing, some interest will be mounted for a contest."

Most of the 10 villages require 10 percent of households to vote to make an election official. Others, such as Kings Contrivance, where 99 voters are needed this year, and Long Reach enacted less stringent requirements. In 1991, Owen Brown failed to meet the 10 percent requirement, forcing a special election.

Participation is limited in eight villages by covenants restricting eligibility to one vote per household. In River Hill and Kings Contrivance, anyone over 18 may vote.

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