Wilde Lake to challenge rule of one vote per house

January 06, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Wilde Lake village leaders have decided to go ahead with an admittedly long-shot bid to change voting rules to allow a "one-person, one-vote" system in the community's elections.

The reform effort, which will involve mailings, follow-up phone calls and door-to-door visits, will be difficult because of restrictive covenants requiring the approval of 90 percent of the village's roughly 2,200 homeowners, which includes absentee landlords.

"But if we don't attempt it, it's a zero shot, and I think our odds are much better than zero," said village board Chairman Howard Feldmesser.

"It's damn tough. Without a significant effort on our part, it won't happen," Mr. Feldmesser said. "I'm optimistic we can make it happen."

State Del. Virginia M. Thomas, D-13A, who offered to draft legislation to make reform easier to achieve, agrees that the odds for success are low.

"Quite frankly, my feeling is it's probably a waste of money. I think it's impossible to get 90 percent," said Ms. Thomas.

Eight of Columbia's 10 villages allow one vote per household, rather than per person, for Columbia Council and village board elections each April.

Changes to village association legal documents require approval of 90 percent of property owners, a standard established by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, which wrote the covenants for the unincorporated city of about 80,000.

The Wilde Lake village board recently accepted the Columbia Council's offer to provide $2,500 to a village willing to participate in an experiment to see whether voting rules could be changed, what it would cost and how much effort would be required.

The council sets policy and the budget -- $30.6 million this year -- for the Columbia Association, which levies an annual property charge to manage Columbia's recreational facilities, community programs and open-space areas. The 10 village boards enforce architectural standards and operate some community programs.

At the request of Columbia village officials, Ms. Thomas proposed drafting state legislation, narrowly tailored to the voting rights issue, to override the 90 percent requirement. But village representatives, wary of handing the issue to state lawmakers and unable to reach a consensus on whether voting rules should be changed, declined her offer.

"It should be handled on the local level," Mr. Feldmesser said.

Ms. Thomas said she is satisfied with that decision.

Those who oppose a change emphasize that Columbia operates as a homeowners' association, not a government. They also say the covenants are intentionally difficult to change to ensure continuity and stability for the planned new town.

The Wilde Lake village board accepted the challenge because it believes no residents should be "disenfranchised" and that Columbia "should no longer be a homeowners' association, but a residents' association," Mr. Feldmesser said.

No starting date has been set for the Wilde Lake campaign, estimated to last three to five months, Mr. Feldmesser said. He added that he didn't know whether $2,500 would be sufficient.

Concerns over voting rights arose last spring when Councilman Roy T. Lyons challenged a Long Reach village election in which his opponent received 276 votes from two apartment building owners. A Howard County Circuit Court judge upheld the results of a second election won by Mr. Lyons.

In eight Columbia villages, one vote is conferred for each property lot or condominium owned, including those of absentee landlords.

Renters also are entitled to one vote per household.

Owners of more than one home or vacant lot may cast multiple votes, but last year's court ruling established that apartment building owners are entitled to only one vote per property lot, not dwelling unit.

Norma Rose, Wilde Lake's Columbia Council representative, said she is proud of the village board for "undertaking such a big task," but also expressed doubts.

"I'd love to see it happen," she said. "It's being undertaken with full awareness that it might be impossible, but at least we'll know and will have made the effort."

Two villages -- Kings Contrivance and Columbia's newest village, River Hill -- have a "one person, one vote" policy.

Kings Contrivance amended its charter while it was relatively small; the council included the provision in River Hill's charter from the outset.

Councilman David Berson of River Hill said that even if Wilde Lake's effort is unsuccessful, the council "should continue to push. Eventually we'll get it in every village."

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