Candidates hedge on incorporation of Columbia Most say questions remain unanswered CAMPAIGN 1994

October 27, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Most Howard candidates for county and state offices hedged last night on whether Columbia should incorporate as a city, saying too many complicated questions remain unanswered to take a position.

"At this juncture, there are many more questions than answers," said Mary Lorsung, Democratic candidate for County Council in District 4 and the former manager of Columbia's Harper's Choice village. "If the question was on the ballot in the next six months, I don't think there would be enough answers to make a decision. The public debate has only just begun."

James V. Clark, leader of a citizens coalition that is circulating a petition to incorporate the 27-year-old planned community of 80,000 residents, is stirring the public debate. He asked candidates for county executive, County Council and the

General Assembly for their positions at a forum last night sponsored by west Columbia villages.

Mr. Clark said he wasn't surprised by the noncommittal responses, especially considering many candidates haven't returned his inquiries in recent weeks seeking their opinions.

"There's some tap dancing," he said last night. "There's fear. It's muddy out here as to what the public wants."

The Coalition of Governance Concerned Columbia Residents must collect roughly 10,000 signatures -- 25 percent of Columbia's registered voters -- to put the question of incorporation on the ballot. It has gathered about 2,000 signatures.

Council must act

The County Council would have to approve a referendum before the incorporation question -- and an accompanying city charter outlining powers, duties and limitations -- could be placed before Columbia voters in a special election or at the next general election.

Columbia, which doesn't have a city government, is run by the Columbia Association (CA), a nonprofit, private corporation that serves as a huge, multiservice homeowners association. Coalition members say they are seeking a more responsive, accountable governance, while others say CA is uniquely structured to manage and improve Columbia.

All candidates said they support the right of Columbia residents to determine their own destiny through an election, but most expressed reservations about the financial implications of incorporation and the potential effects on the entire county.

"The only thing that gives me pause is that by incorporating Columbia, it could create more of a gulf than sometimes exists between Columbia and the rest of the county," said Andrew Levy, a Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates from western Howard.

County Councilman Darrel Drown, a Republican running for the Ellicott City-Elkridge seat, said he previously lived in Montgomery County, which has many municipalities offering a range of services.

"There's some duplication of effort," he said, citing as an example Takoma Park's police and parks agencies. "Why somebody would want to duplicate effort and possibly increase taxes doesn't wash with me, but if the people of Columbia want to do it . . .

Two support idea

However, two candidates did take stands in favor of incorporating for Columbia -- Republican Charles E. Scott, a candidate for delegate in west Columbia and Elkridge, and Republican Riaz Rana, Ms. Lorsung's opponent in the west Columbia County Council district.

"The key issue is democracy," said Mr. Scott, who has helped the coalition gather signatures. "Columbia was set up as a homeowners association. It's matured to the point where it should have a democratic government."

Mr. Rana said he favored self-determination for Columbia residents when he ran for state delegate in 1978, and still does.

The Columbia Council studied incorporation in the late 1970s and drafted a charter, but was unsuccessful in an attempt to introduce legislation in Annapolis to create a special tax district.

Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker said more information is needed on the costs and benefits of incorporation and which services Columbia would assume from the county. His Democratic opponent, Susan B. Gray, agreed that a thorough financial analysis would be necessary, adding that she would try to ensure that Columbia residents would receive adequate information to make a decision.

Mr. Clark said the coalition has "given much thought to the ramifications of incorporation" and plans to develop a charter with input from residents at town meetings. But the coalition now is focused on getting the question on the ballot.

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