Vote on referendums postponed by council

April 15, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The Columbia Council postponed last night until April 28 a vote on whether to allow eligible residents to put issues on the ballot in village elections.

Any such referendum would be advisory only and not binding on council members, who function as the Columbia Association's board of directors.

Most of the 20 residents who addressed the Columbia Association's governing body last night favored the idea.

"I am a great advocate of participatory democracy," said Helen Ruther, a longtime Columbia resident and former chairwoman of the county Planning Board. "If we are prevented [by legal obstacles] from taking giant steps, we should take baby steps."

Ms. Ruther said the requirement that 2,500 residents eligible to vote in village elections sign a petition before an issue can be placed on the ballot "means that only matters that are genuinely confrontational" will be placed on the ballot. "It will hardly bring frivolous matters to referendum," she said.

Representatives of the village of Dorsey's Search weren't so sure. William Thies, speaking on behalf of the village board, urged the council to table or modify the proposal, saying it was "harmful" to village governance.

A Columbia-wide referendum would interfere with the autonomy villages now have, he said. "A nonbinding referendum has no purpose other than to gather signatures," he said.

Evelyn A. Richardson, who represents Dorsey's Search on the council, called the referendum proposal "a feel-good measure [that] is not the panacea it appears to be."

If the association adopts the idea, "it will bring out the ax-grinders, the naysayers and the people against things," she told her colleagues on the council. She said her board feared that many of the recreational amenities now available to Columbia residents would not exist had referendum powers been in effect earlier.

Councilwoman Norma L. Rose of Wilde Lake, the chief architect of the referendum idea, said she is surprised at the concerns it is generating.

"I'm told we're a quasi-governmental agency," she said. "All we are proposing is a quasi-referendum. . . . I don't understand all the pessimism I hear about what the citizens of Columbia are going to do with a very limited right."

Hope Miller Schwald of Harper's Choice seemed to speak for most council members when she said the 10-member body should postpone a vote until they can take proposed amendments to the referendum proposal back to their village boards.

"I'm for it, except for the comfort level" around the table, she

said. "As much as I'm for it, I would like for all of us to be comfortable and vote for it."

Two council members offered modifications to the proposal. Fran Wishnick of Oakland Mills wants the council to appoint a committee of five residents to recommend procedures for implementing the referendum process.

She said the committee would settle such things as determining the validity of petitions and how they should be worded. Her amendment would require the committee to report back to the council six months after its appointment.

Ms. Rose said that if the council accepted Ms. Wishnick's proposal, it would delay making a decision on the referendum idea for at least six months. She reminded council members that the referendum was first proposed in a committee the council established last June and that the committee had met 10 times through Feb. 15.

"We reported to the council that the charter be amended to include [the opportunity] for referendum," she said. However, the legal obstacles proved too great and the committee recommended that any referendum be nonbinding, she said.

Council Chairwoman Karen A. Kuecker, who favors a modification of the referendum idea, said that allowing residents to express themselves in village elections once a year may not be enough.

"I suggest we look at retaining the concept of the advisory vote opinion while allowing another means of getting responses," she said. Those other means include putting petition issues in the Columbia Association's quarterly insert in a local newspaper and in the council's own publication.

"These options would provide a more timely means of getting the pulse of residents on the petition issues," Ms. Kuecker said. "We could allow a brief point-counterpoint in the publications. Residents who are interested could respond through a survey ballot or a special telephone number."

Most council members said they needed until April 28 to decide so that they could share the suggested amendments with their village boards. All except Ms. Rose and Chuck Rees of Kings Contrivance voted for the postponement.

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