Effort to change vote rule making scant headway

August 17, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Eight months after accepting the challenge, Wilde Lake village's admittedly long-shot campaign to grant voting rights for community elections to all village residents over age 18 has barely gotten off the ground, village officials say.

"I think it can happen, but then I'm considered an eternal optimist by many," said Wilde Lake Village Board Chairman Howard Feldmesser. "I'll probably give up myself if by the end of the year we don't have a working committee."

Election rules in eight of Columbia's 10 villages allow one vote per household or property lot owned, rather than one vote per person.

Last fall, the Columbia Council offered $2,500 to a village willing to attempt the campaign, recommending Wilde Lake as a test case. The council wanted to determine the cost and feasibility of swaying 90 percent of a village's property owners to approve a change in voting rules, a standard required to amend village covenants.

Wilde Lake accepted the challenge in December and began planning a campaign about two months later, but has made little progress soliciting volunteers or educating residents, Mr. Feldmesser said. He concedes now that the original goal to institute a "one person, one vote" policy by next April's election is unrealistic.

Janet Epstein resigned as chairwoman of the "one person, one vote" committee in June. She said last week that she couldn't devote enough time to the effort for personal reasons. Ms. Epstein, who previously chaired the village's election committee, said she felt the cause was a "dead issue," according to the June 20 village board minutes.

Ms. Epstein and village board members have said that residents seem preoccupied with other issues, such as traffic safety and a recent rat infestation in the Running Brook neighborhood, Mr. Feldmesser said.

"I'm finding that's not entirely true," he said. "There's still a fair number of people who will put in the time and effort because they think it's important to have a more democratic system."

The council's proposal came in response to a disputed 1993 council election in Long Reach village, which eventually was decided in Howard Circuit Court. In that election, two apartment building owners cast 276 votes -- one for each of their units -- swinging the outcome in favor of incumbent Gail Bailey. Dr. Bailey took the issue to court after the village board reviewed its rules, overturned the election and scheduled a new one.

The court ruled against Dr. Bailey, determining that apartment owners are entitled to one vote per property lot, not dwelling unit.

Mr. Feldmesser said the village needs at least six dedicated volunteers and a chairman to mount a campaign. Three or four residents have volunteered, but the village board hasn't been able to replace Ms. Epstein.

"If there's not a leader, someone to carry the flag, it's really just not going to work," Mr. Feldmesser said.

He said the campaign -- which will require knocking on doors and making phone calls -- is particularly daunting because more than 10 percent of the village's roughly 2,200 property owners live outside the village.

Village covenants were written by the Rouse Co., developer of the unincorporated town of 80,000.

Norma Rose, Wilde Lake's council representative, said she's not surprised the campaign has languished. "We knew it was a big task," she said. "Let's face it. Volunteerism is not thriving everywhere. It takes a lot of people to deal with this problem."

Village boards throughout Columbia have expressed mixed opinions about whether changing voting rights is desirable for a community that functions more like a homeowners association than a government.

Two villages have "one person, one vote" policies. Kings Contrivance amended its charter in the early stages of its development, and the new village of River Hill has had the provision in its charter from the outset.

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