Columbia at a Crossroads: I

December 06, 1993

At last, there is some real dissension within the Columbia Council. The body that runs the non-profit association which oversees Columbia's recreational facilities, its social programs and common grounds is not known for harboring rabble-rousers. But that has changed with the election of Norma Rose and Chuck Rees.

With a refreshing inquisitiveness, they have dared to question the seemingly knee-jerk, affirmative response the council brings to nearly every proposal floated by the association's staff. The council's willingness to rubber-stamp staff recommendations was never more evident than in a recent decision to reappoint the association president and all division heads, with nary a question. Reappointment was heretofore considered pro-forma, except that Ms. Rose and Mr. Rees chose to abstain. In doing so, they increased attention on an organization that commands a $40 million annual budget (culled from property taxes and membership fees), but faces little scrutiny.

Despite the enormous investment made by all Columbians, the council and association appear to be of little interest to a majority of residents. Elections of village board and council members draw a small percentage of eligible voters, as do most meetings, even though Columbia's educated populace turns out greater numbers for state and county elections. This apparent apathy is decried by all the association's elected representatives, although they disagree on the remedies. Council rebels have at least brought new ideas to the fore, including instituting a "one-person, one-vote" system for village elections, rather than one vote per household; reducing the association's spending and its $80 million debt and opening some Columbia facilities to residents at a reduced price.

It is too early to say whether Columbia should move toward a more standard form of municipal government, by incorporating or becoming a special tax district. Given the current state of other cities, there is little reason to believe such a change would be a cure-all. It is good, however, to see Columbia's future being discussed. The debate is a manifestation of the growing pains of a new city and a sign that it is coming of age after a quarter-century marked more by success than failure.

First of three parts.

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