Involving Columbians in Columbia HOWARD COUNTY

August 26, 1993

It's good to hear that those running the Columbia Association are looking into the possibility of adopting more traditional democratic principles. A charter review committee, created by the Columbia Council, is studying such issues as a one person, one vote system of election and whether to allow more liberal use of referendums.

When the Rouse Co. created Columbia, it wanted residents involved, but not too involved -- or at least not powerful enough to scuttle the company's plan for a model community. A quarter-century later, the fruits of that set-up have come home to roost: Elections draw far too few people, many residents don't understand what the Columbia Association does and council members often seem out of touch with the public mood.

Such detachment was seen earlier this year in a controversy over a new golf course. The Columbia Council got stuck in an ethical swamp over whether then-councilman Joseph Merke should vote on plans for a new course that would abut -- and add value to -- his home. Mr. Merke and some colleagues tried to maintain the status quo, but they later conceded and he resigned.

The council also ran into a controversy over the lack of one person, one vote in town elections after Roy T. Lyons won the popular vote to represent Long Reach Village but incumbent Gail Bailey refused to yield. She felt that she won the election because two apartment building owners had cast votes for all of their tenants in her favor. She is still challenging in Circuit Court the seating of her election opponent. Misunderstanding in that case resulted from ambiguity in the village covenants. The Charter Review Committee must address this problem.

Not all council members are convinced that charter revision is needed, however. Councilwoman Suzanne Waller, for one, decried greater use of referendums, saying that residents already can participate at the village level. Indeed, governments couldn't operate if their every decision were subject to drawn-out public votes, but referendums can solidify support on certain issues. Ms. Waller's correct in warning that such votes can be manipulated, but it's the job of supporters on both sides of an issue to keep that from happening.

The main point is that the Columbia Council owes taxpayers a government as democratic as possible.

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