City status sought for Columbia

September 13, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Even the most attentive Columbia voters may discover a campaign for change they have never heard of when they go to the polls today.

A new coalition that wants to incorporate Columbia is launching a petition drive that members hope will trigger a referendum allowing voters to decide whether the community of 80,000 should become a municipality.

"Historically, there have been uprisings among Columbia residents urging a change in government, but they succumb, die," said James V. Clark, 70, chairman of the Coalition of Governance Concerned Columbia Residents.

"This is the first time it's gotten to the petition-signing stage."

The coalition plans to station supporters at a number of Columbia polling sites.

"This is an ongoing effort," Mr. Clark said. "We're making history. We're on the line."

The coalition would need to collect signatures from 25 percent of Columbia's registered voters, then submit the petition for the County Council's approval or rejection. If approved, a referendum -- including a vote on a proposed city charter outlining powers, duties and limitations -- would be scheduled as a special election or at the next general election.

Columbia is run by the private, nonprofit Columbia Association (CA), a quasi-governmental corporation that manages Columbia's recreational facilities, community programs such as school-based child care and camps, and open space areas such as lakes and paths. The association is directed by the 10-member Columbia Council, made up of one representative elected from each Columbia village.

The association's annual property charge of 73 cents per $100 of assessed property value comes to $547 for a $150,000 home and is not tax-deductible.

The coalition of about a dozen members -- most of whom are longtime residents of the 27-year-old planned community -- has been meeting privately since April. Members say they decided recently to embark on a more aggressive effort to bring about change.

"We agreed this is the best way to go; the timing is right," said Mr. Clark, a consulting business owner who has a doctorate in education. "To do otherwise risks being like predecessors who researched it to death, talked it to death."

The coalition's drive coincides with a Columbia Council effort to evaluate advantages and disadvantages of Columbia's governance and seek improvements while minimizing costs.

Councilman David W. Berson, the governance committee chairman, questions the wisdom of a ballot question, saying it wouldn't inform residents of the costs and benefits of incorporating.

"We need to know why people feel the way they do, then come up with alternatives," he said, adding that it is possible some changes could be made within the current framework.

Association officials declined to comment, saying the issue is a policy matter for the council.

The coalition says Columbia lacks a sense of identity and that residents lack control of its destiny. Rabbi Martin Siegel of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, a coalition spokesman, said he admires CA's services but that residents "have been lulled to sleep."

He bemoans the paltry turnouts for Columbia elections, saying that "nothing's at stake" in an environment controlled largely by private interests.

Coalition members say that changing from a large property owners association to a municipality would provide financial advantages, including the ability to deduct the annual property charge from income tax returns and lower interest rates on bonds.

It also would ensure a more democratic voting system -- Columbia voting rights now are based on property ownership -- and a more responsive, accountable government, they say.

"What served Columbia in the past quarter-century won't serve in times to come. It defies logic," said Mr. Clark. "We're at 80,000 and growing, second to Baltimore, and we're under a homeowners government."

Others say Columbia's distinctive structure, including the 10 village boards, works well, encourages civic involvement and should be left alone.

"I don't see a particular need for a major overhaul," said James Loesch, a former council member.

Several council members said residents seem content with the wayColumbia is run. Councilwoman Evelyn A. Richardson of Dorsey's Search said a lack of "burning issues" is a sign that "things are pretty good."

She said residents identify with their villages and are "proud to be part of the new town."

Councilwoman Hope Sachwald of Harper's Choice said residents have more opportunities to participate in Columbia than those in many other places because they can express their concerns at the "grass-roots village level."

Rabbi Siegel, however, contends that the village boards lack authority, attract little interest and contribute to a system that is too diffuse.

Mr. Berson said he is concerned some residents would vote their "pocketbook" to make Columbia a municipality just to allow deduction of the annual charge. He said few Columbia residents appear to be captivated by theoretical, "good government" issues.

"I feel less government is best government. It seems a lot of people feel that way," Mr. Berson said. "There's a negative to putting a new government in place. There would have to be offsetting benefits."

Howard County Councilman Paul Farragut, a Democrat who represents west Columbia, said the CA operates effectively and that he doesn't support incorporation.

"It would just create more division between Columbia and the rest of the county," he said. "The county provides quality services, and Columbia gets its fair share."

But Republican state Del. John S. Morgan, a Laurel-area representative, said Columbia has "come of age. It's good for them to try to have a more responsive government structure than CA provides."

He said incorporation could boost Columbia's political power in the county and state.

"They'll be a much more cohesive entity," Mr. Morgan said. "They could go to Annapolis and say, 'We are the city of Columbia.' The city of Laurel has benefited from that enormously."

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