Decisions may go to ballot

January 17, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

The 10-member Columbia Council is working on a charter amendment allowing binding referendums -- direct votes of the electorate -- on some council decisions.

"A referendum would give residents a mechanism for holding the council or association accountable if there's widespread dissatisfaction," said Councilwoman Norma Rose of Wilde Lake village, leader of a council Charter Review Committee that crafted the draft proposal.

But there could be a big legal stumbling block to giving voters direct power to overturn unpopular decisions by the elected council that serves as the nonprofit Columbia Association's board of directors.

State laws governing corporations -- and the charter for the private association that manages Columbia's recreational facilities, civic programs and open space areas -- might prohibit the council from delegating decision-making authority to residents, who aren't members of the corporation, said Councilman Chuck Rees, an attorney, at a recent work session. Council representatives and the association's president legally are the only members.

"In our articles, residents have no standing except that they can elect us," Mr. Rees said.

Jeanette Pfotenhauer, association general counsel, declined to offer a legal opinion on that question.

"Before anything would come up for an actual vote, there are a number of questions about what's legally permissible and what's not," she said. "We'll do research to see if there's anything to prevent us from having a referendum."

A recommendation allowing Columbia residents to petition any council matter to a nonbinding referendum -- a measure of opinion -- apparently would be easier to enact, committee members say.

The council sets the budget, facility rates, the annual property charge and policies for the association in the unincorporated community of 80,000.

The association has a $30.6 million operating budget and a property charge, or assessment, of 73 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The rate is capped at 75 cents.

Several council members say strict guidelines should be set to ensure that referendums couldn't be called for "frivolous" matters and that a small, well-organized interest group couldn't wield disproportionate influence in overturning a decision.

"I have a concern about bringing referendums for capricious reasons," said Councilwoman Suzanne Waller of Town Center. "We have village boards and a Columbia Council where people can come and be heard. People could create incredible disruption [through referendums] to a system that in many ways works beautifully."

But the balance between legitimate gripe and unnecessary disruption has proved difficult to determine.

"We tried to put it together so Columbia would not be run by referendum," said Councilman David Berson of River Hill village. "It's not something a handful of people could invoke."

He called referendums a "safeguard against potential bad boards."

Mr. Berson said the planned $5.2 million Fairway Hills Golf Course, a hotly debated project the council narrowly approved in March, is an issue that likely would have been taken to referendum. Proposals to close lesser-used neighborhood pools or to increase rates at Columbia's recreational facilities also are issues council members think might be taken to referendum, he said.

The subcommittee has recommended a minimum of 2,500 signatures for petitioning an issue to referendum, a 55 percent majority vote for passage and a minimum of 5,000 votes cast -- although several council members argued for 7,500 -- to validate the election. It also recommends allowing one vote per person for referendums, rather than one vote per household, the current election rules in eight of Columbia's 10 villages.

The charter committee has recommended allowing these issues to be petitioned to a binding referendum, which, if passed, would compel the council to reverse a decision:

* The operating budget, if it exceeds current-year spending, or if it is less than 95 percent of current spending. Several council members recommended including an adjustment for inflation. Members are undecided whether budget line items should be subject to referendum.

* Capital projects. Members differed widely on a minimum amount, with recommendations ranging from $40,000 to $1 million.

"I don't mind it on big-ticket items, like $5 million for a golf course. That's understandable," said Council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker. "But a $20,000 tot lot?"

* Recreational facility fee increases of 10 percent or more. Council members debated whether a 10 percent increase would be too insignificant to subject to a challenge.

* Expenses approved in the middle of a budget year.

* Increases or decreases in the property assessment rate. The council leans toward opposing the recommendation, especially if the entire budget would be subject to referendum.

* Amendments to the association's charter and bylaws.

The Reston Association, a Northern Virginia association similar to the Columbia Association, provides for referendums and includes residents and property owners as members. Reston Association bylaws require approval by property owners for new construction projects exceeding $200,000 -- a base cost compounded annually by inflation.

Reston homeowners also must vote to approve a change in the annual fee -- a $250 base charge that has been adjusted upward each succeeding year according to the inflation rate. All Reston homeowners now pay the same $306 fee.

The Reston Association gives its board of directors discretion to hold a nonbinding referendum upon a resident's request, or to sponsor either a binding or nonbinding referendum on a matter of its own choosing.

Once a referendum proposal is hammered out, it will have to be approved by the full council after public hearings are held.

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