Columbia considers taking more democratic approach Committee studies changing charter

August 06, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

A Columbia Council committee is debating whether the city known for its unconventional governance should institute more traditional democratic principles, including the power of referendum, equal representation and a "one person, one vote" policy.

The council's Charter Review Committee is seeking ways to change or clarify the Columbia Association's charter and bylaws to foster more citizen participation and a better understanding of the nonprofit association that manages the unincorporated city of 80,000.

The association's structure and functions "are a mystery to many Columbia residents," council Vice Chairwoman Fran Wishnick wrote in a memo to the committee.

The committee's work could clear up some of that mystery, but "there is considerable fear that any changes would be harmful to [the association] and that the organization has been operating effectively as now constituted," she wrote.

"I'm trying to argue for not being fearful of making changes in the charter," she said at a work session Tuesday. "It's OK to do this. In fact, we have an obligation."

The committee, which has met in several informal work sessions, will seek legal advice and public comment on recommendations for amendments it plans to propose by Oct. 31.

Councilwoman Norma Rose, who proposed creating the committee, wants a charter change that would include all Columbia residents as association members. Now, the only members of the private nonprofit corporation are the 10 council representatives, one elected from each of the city's 10 villages.

"It is, in a sense, conferring citizenship on people," said Ms. Rose, committee chairwoman. "It's the American way."

Some question whether Columbia was set up to be a democracy, said council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker.

Ms. Rose said the charter was designed to help the Rouse Co. develop the city in its early stages "with minimal interference from the community." She said residents ought to have more control and involvement now.

The charter was written in the mid-1960s by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, to provide a structure of governance and rules for the planned community. The company controlled the Columbia Association's board of directors until turning control over to council representatives elected by village in 1982.

The association collects an annual charge from property owners -- now 73 cents per $100 of assessed value -- to operate Columbia's recreational facilities and community services, and maintain open space. This year the association's operating budget is $30.6 million.

Ms. Rose also advocates a provision that would allow residents to call for referendums on issues such as large capital expenditures.

Proponents of changing the charter, including council member Charles Rees, say the controversial $5.2 million Fairway Hills Golf Course approved this spring should have been subject to referendum.

Ms. Rose said she would hope for a "resurgence of community activism from this right of citizenship."

Other council members expressed concern about referendums, saying that they could prompt misinformation campaigns. Councilwoman Suzanne Waller said residents have ample opportunity to participate in decision-making at the village level.

"That doesn't replace the right of people to directly have a voice in a final decision," Ms. Rose said. "It could be a real pain to enact, but democracy is messy."

Committee members have generally agreed that a citywide "one person, one vote" policy for elections is desirable, but members were uncertain how to achieve it. Voting rights in eight Columbia villages are now based on property ownership, with owners of more than one property entitled to multiple votes.

Most villages require 90 percent approval from property owners to amend covenants, a level of participation officials agree is nearly impossible to achieve.

The committee is waiting for an interpretation from Howard County Circuit Court to determine a Long Reach village election dispute centering on apartment owners' rights to cast votes for each of their units.

Mr. Rees has suggested that Columbia could go through the state General Assembly to gain "one person, one vote," but some council members are concerned about relinquishing control to the state.

Ms. Rose said she wants to study creating equal representation because council members have equal votes but represent widely disparate populations. For example, Long Reach, the largest village, has almost 13,000 residents, while Town Center has a population of about 1,000.

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