Columbia as a City: A Definite Maybe

COMMENT

October 09, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Someone finally pinned down Jim Rouse the other day over whether he thinks it's a good idea to incorporate Columbia, making it the second largest official city in Maryland.

The answer was, well, inconclusive.

It seems Columbia's founder just isn't sure.

"I'm inclined to think it's not the best thing for Columbia," Mr. Rouse said. "But I'm not prepared to take a position."

Ever the wise guru, Mr. Rouse may not have satisfied those who are intent on incorporating the town with his comment, but he certainly spoke for me.

One can understand Mr. Rouse, more than most, feeling that the community he planned is a pretty darn good one and nothing to tinker with in such a profound way. I certainly can't share the pride in authorship he must feel.

But I do have my doubts about the wisdom of incorporation, despite my strong desire to see Columbia move toward a more effective way of governing.

Frankly, given the apathy expressed by so many Columbia residents when it's time to vote in village elections, I can't understand why the movement to incorporate is getting so much attention.

Even those opposed to the petition drive, which is aimed at putting the question of incorporation before Columbia voters, say it could be successful.

Why? Because incorporation would mean the annual levy -- let's call it a tax -- that residents now pay to the Columbia Association for recreational services and other amenities would then be legally tax deductible?

I'm not certain that's the reason people like the idea. But the thought that Columbia would take such a radical step so that residents could save a few dollars on their taxes alarms me.

I believe in the efforts to bring one-person, one-vote to Columbia elections. And I certainly have beaten the Columbia Association about the head and shoulders in past columns to get them to be more responsive to the community; simply act more like a government and be less like a cold, corporate affiliate of Holiday Spas.

But those are ideals rooted in the notion that Columbia's apathy is caused in part by the fact that most people don't understand how its government works because it isn't typical.

A little democracy might inspire the masses, much like Jean-Bertand Aristide's return has inspired so many Haitians.

To their credit, the organizers of the petition drive aren't focusing just on the tax benefits. They insist that as Columbia has grown it has lost touch with many of the ideals for which the community was originally known. To recapture those ideals, the organizers say, the town needs an infusion of real change.

But several key questions must also be considered. Each represents a potential downside to incorporation.

* Is there any guarantee that incorporation will bring back the old ideals?

The idea of a shiny new city on the hill where people of all classes and races could live together wasn't conceived as part of a governmental structure.

In many ways, it ran against the grain of the establishment of that era. It was counterculture at a time when some people

longed for a sort of utopia. It is a quantum leap of wishful thinking to suggest incorporation can resurrect those hopeful times.

* Why would Columbia want to emulate the type of government that has its roots in the failed urban areas of our society?

Perhaps it is giving into the cynicism of modern life, but I'm not sure Columbia should aspire to have the same kind of government found in Baltimore. Maybe Baltimore will want to try Columbia's way of doing things.

* Finally, would incorporation open another can of worms?

If Columbia could successfully complete the transition to incorporation, how long would it be before city services were expanded greatly with the levy raised to pay the freight?

Bureaucracies have a way of perpetuating themselves. As it is, the Columbia Association seems to grow in sort of a measured moderation, taking its cues from market forces and the recreational demands of residents.

It is much more inclined to add a new Nautilus machine to the Athletic Club than it is to create a whole new department to address one of the community's perceived social ills.

That corporate way of thinking is not entirely a bad thing. We may not want to throw that away in the pursuit of a romantic notion that incorporation is the panacea for what ails us.

Like Jim Rouse, though, I don't want to say this petition drive is a bad idea if that's what people really want.

After all, everyone agrees that the goal is democracy -- and to create the best Columbia possible.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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