Columbia Council candidates clash over the need for sweeping changes

April 12, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Columbia has so little activism and political debate, and residents know so little about how the unincorporated community is run that "five guys with Springfield rifles could take over our town," says Columbia Council candidate Barry Blyveis.

The candidates for council in Owen Brown village are easily distinguishable: Mr. Blyveis, who has shown no qualms about challenging the status quo, and Karen Kuecker, who moved up from the village architectural committee to the village board to her current position as council chairwoman.

The Owen Brown election is one of four contested ones on April 23 for the 10-member council. Because of the candidates' differences, it could bring changes.

The council sets policy and the operating and capital budgets -- about $40 million this year -- for the private, nonprofit Columbia Association, which charges Columbia property owners an annual fee to manage recreational facilities, community programs and open space areas.

Mr. Blyveis, a board member of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens advocacy group that often has criticized the Columbia Association and advocates incorporating as a special tax district or municipality.

He suggests that association leaders have stone-walled those attempts.

The association should be run as a tighter financial operation, says Mr. Blyveis, who charges that the incumbent has lacked leadership in that area.

"She's a very nice person, but she lacks the most important quality of a member of the Columbia Council, and that's skepticism," says Mr. Blyveis, a trial attorney for the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Ms. Kuecker, who has expressed support for Columbia's system of quasi-governance, says the council can improve the association's operations and Columbia's quality of life without making sweeping changes.

The four-year councilwoman, who is a personnel analyst for county government, says Mr. Blyveis' assessment is off target.

"Believe me, I am skeptical of certain things," she says, declining to elaborate.

Ms. Kuecker says she understands the association's budget, has more experience in community involvement than Mr. Blyveis and has formed strong working relationships with council colleagues, association managers and Owen Brown village board members.

"I think that's worth a lot," she says. "I think I still have to be open to change and better ways if there are better ways.

"I do my very best to deliver a quality product for the entire community."

Mr. Blyveis says residents accept too much on blind faith, describing Columbia as a "company town" run by "a benevolent despot."

The association is a "self-contained organization, with money coming in and no accountability," he says. "You really wonder what's going on."

He says "a feeling of obligation" spurred him to join the Alliance for a Better Columbia, which tries to gauge community sentiment and represent those positions.

He says he doesn't subscribe to an "attitude" in Columbia that "there should be no waves, no dissent."

At the same time, he acknowledges, the Columbia Association performs many duties well, which keeps a generally affluent populace content and apathetic.

Ms. Kuecker says that residents

seem satisfied with the facilities and services the association provides.

She says she wants to increase the "value" of living in Columbia by maintaining facilities and pathways and becoming more active in enforcing property covenants and helping residents make repairs to homes.

"The image we want to project, even though we're almost built-out, is that we're still a vibrant community," she says.

Mr. Blyveis has had two run-ins with Columbia and Rouse Co. officials over property covenant issues -- a dispute involving his unapproved vegetable garden in the 1970s and a disagreement on whether he should have been required to repaint his house several years ago.

As a member of the Columbia Forum's governance study committee, Mr. Blyveis clashed again with association officials. Some committee members contended that Columbia could save millions if it could borrow money at lower interest rates offered to public corporations. But association officials, including Ms. Kuecker, appeared to oppose any changes from the outset, he says.

"That told me something is rotten in Denmark," he says. "If people in Columbia knew how much money could be saved, they'd be outraged."

Ms. Kuecker has said that the Columbia Association, which functions more like a large, private homeowners association than a municipality, might be the community's best option for the future.

Cutting costs does not always take precedent for Columbia residents, many of whom moved to the community seeking "a quality place to live," Ms. Kuecker says. Most residents realize that a cut in the property charge rate would mean a reduction in services that enhance Columbia, she says. For example, residents "went ballistic" several years ago when the association proposed increasing nursery charges at athletic clubs, she says.

But Mr. Blyveis says there's some room for reductions, citing the Sister City student exchange program, which generates $5,000 in fees and costs about $52,000 to send about 25 students and four chaperones to France and Spain each year.

"I like the idea, but it's not something CA should be doing," he says.

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