Rouse, Siegel debate incorporation

January 13, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Two pillars of Columbia -- founder James W. Rouse and Rabbi Martin Siegel -- squared off yesterday in a radio debate on incorporating Columbia, a debate that turned heated and personal outside the broadcast booth.

The angry words exchanged at the WAMU-88.5 FM studio by Mr. Rouse, the developer and philanthropist, and Mr. Siegel, a leader of the drive to turn Columbia into a city, underscore some of the intense feelings generated by the incorporation movement.

Incorporating the 27-year-old planned community of 80,000 residents could lead to a revolutionary shift in power among leading institutions in Columbia and Howard County.

Hunched over microphones across a table from each other on the National Public Radio station's "Diane Rehm Show," the two men held the first head-to-head debate on the issue since a group now known as the Columbia Municipal League Inc. launched a petition drive last fall to bring the question before voters.

Mr. Rouse, 80, said in October that he was against incorporation but did not plan to actively oppose the petition drive. But on the air yesterday he challenged Mr. Siegel's qualifications to evaluate Columbia's governance -- in a clash that continued off the air.

The heated exchange was prompted by the rabbi's acknowledgment that he hadn't attended a meeting of the Columbia Association (CA) in his 23 years as a civic activist -- meetings that he called largely "ornamental."

"If he's never attended a public meeting in Columbia, his interest in Columbia or his knowledge of Columbia has to be very, very limited," Mr. Rouse said during the 25-minute debate.

Off the air, the developer added: "It's too damn bad you don't understand Columbia."

To which Mr. Siegel fired back: "Maybe you don't understand Columbia."

During the show, the rabbi emphasized that the huge, nonprofit association -- established in 1965 by the Rouse Co. to provide services and facilities for the new community -- operates more like a corporation than a public body.

The private organization is not responsive or accountable to residents, he said.

"Columbia is a very nice place to live," Mr. Siegel said, "but it's reached the stage where the people have to govern."

He said he's involved in the incorporation movement because he believes residents should have a chance to vote on the community's governance, exercise more control over its destiny and gain a stronger sense of identity.

Association called 'expensive'

Mr. Siegel also said the association is a "very expensive" operation that needs better control over its spending. He questioned whether the Columbia Council and village boards -- all elected by property owners -- exercise any real power. And he lamented the apathy of Columbia residents, most of whom don't vote in community elections.

"The citizens have been put to sleep," said the 61-year-old leader of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, who was named by Columbia Magazine as one of the 25 residents who made a difference during Columbia's first quarter-century. "The most important thing is to wake us up," he said.

Mr. Rouse countered that Columbia was thoughtfully planned to operate within Howard County, rather than as a separate entity. Incorporation could cause harmful divisions, he said.

"It's been a remarkable thing to build this relationship that exists between the farmers and the city people in Columbia," he said.

Mr. Rouse said Columbia's unique system, featuring village homeowners' boards and CA, encourages "high participation" by residents. "It's all run by the people," he said, denying that the Rouse Co., from which he retired in 1979, is involved in running Columbia or the CA.

He noted that CA has a cap on the rate of its property lien, has operated with an annual surplus since the mid-1980s and is reducing its accumulated operating deficit. "This is highly efficient government," he said.

And he criticized the incorporation movement, saying a city of Columbia would create a costly, additional layer of government that is "absolutely unnecessary."

Co-workers on housing

Mr. Rouse and Mr. Siegel, who have known each other since the early 1970s and have worked together on housing issues, differed sharply on the degree to which residents are involved in shaping Columbia's policies and its future.

"The community participation in Columbia is enormous," Mr. Rouse said.

"It is simply a myth. It doesn't exist," Mr. Siegel responded.

The on-air debate sharpened when Mr. Siegel claimed that CA executives really run Columbia because the elected Columbia Council lacks an independent staff to deal with complex issues and a $32 million budget.

"That's a total myth!" Mr. Rouse said.

The council directs the association, which levies an annual charge on Columbia property owners to manage recreational facilities, maintain parkland and run community programs.

Three Columbia residents called the radio show, all saying they were satisfied with the way Columbia is run. They asked Mr. Siegel how incorporation would benefit residents, and he responded that it would be a cheaper, simpler system.

A plea for agreement

Ms. Rehm, the show's host, concluded the segment by saying to the guests: "I hope you work out your differences."

But as they left the broadcast booth, Mr. Siegel let Mr. Rouse know that he was upset about his on-air questioning of his lack of attendance at CA meetings. He angrily cited his years of participation in community projects.

"I spent 23 years working to improve this community," Mr. Siegel said. "I greatly respect you, but I deserve the same respect."

Then he questioned whether Mr. Rouse has lost touch with the community he created.

Said the rabbi: "Maybe what you know is what people tell you."

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