The Columbia Council is having second thoughts about allowing residents to put community issues to a vote, and it may scrap the idea this week -- less than a year after it was adopted and before it has even been tried.
Several council members -- voicing concerns that "vocal minorities" could use the nonbinding referendums to push their agendas and create conflict in Columbia -- are questioning whether the drawbacks of the new voting right outweigh its benefits. They say the balloting might be unworkable and could be used to make them look bad.
Friday, Councilman Michael Rethman said he has reversed his position on referendums and will propose rescinding the untested new right in the Columbia Association (CA) bylaws at the council's meeting Thursday.
During a four-hour work session Thursday night to establish procedures for the referendums, Mr. Rethman called the voting right -- first approved in April -- "fundamentally flawed."
"It can be used to consistently and repeatedly hamstring the council and the Columbia Association," Mr. Rethman, of Hickory Ridge village, said. "We're designing something that will cause more unnecessary acrimony in this town. I think it feeds right into the plans of a small minority of people who have agendas . . ."
"It opens a large door for bitter, acrimonious criticism that the sky is falling, which is given credibility when it's reported whether it has any basis in fact or not. It's an opportunity for a very vocal minority . . . to attempt to drive a wedge through the community," he said.
Councilman Gary Glisan, of Oakland Mills village, added: "It has the potential to make [the council] look foolish. I want it to be a positive thing to get feedback from residents."
The council is so threatened by the idea of community votes that Norma Rose, one member who supports referendums, fears the idea will be scrapped altogether this week. "There's a strong sense that the council knows best, that this would be disruptive to what is basically a very good system," said the Wilde Lake village representative. "There's an unwillingness to let go of some authority."
In an interview before Thursday's council work session, Ms. Rose said a council-appointed committee's recommendations on how to conduct the nonbinding votes are being "absolutely torn apart."
"There are those who want to make it as difficult as possible to have an advisory vote," she said. "Do you really want to give residents the opportunity to express views in this form or not? The fact that the process has been so scrutinized and worked over by [association] staff and council members suggests pretty strong opposition to doing this."
Mr. Rethman didn't say which groups or individuals are in Columbia's "vocal minority," and Councilwoman Evelyn A. Richardson only described them as "naysayers out in the community who seem to have access to the press . . . ."
But council members likely were referring to the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a group formed as a watchdog to CA in 1987, which frequently has criticized the nonprofit association's spending and accountability to residents.
"As far as we're concerned, council members are the vocal minority," responded Alex Hekimian, the group's president. "They're only elected by 10 percent of the people in Columbia, at most. Who do they really represent? Their own interests and very, very few residents."
The council sometimes makes itself look bad already by its decisions, Mr. Hekimian said, noting as an example a current proposal to build a $1.4 million recreational vehicle parking facility in exchange for the Rouse Co. placing more land under the CA annual levy.
"An advisory referendum isn't going to change that much," Mr. Hekimian said.
A leader of the Columbia Municipal League -- the citizens group that wants to turn Columbia into a city and possibly do away with CA -- questioned how the council can know whether a viewpoint is limited to a minority without a vote.
"Nobody can appoint themselves the majority. There has to be a consultation," said Rabbi Martin Siegel, vice president of the group, which is trying to place the question of incorporating Columbia on the ballot as a binding referendum under state law. "To me, that's the rock-bottom issue: Is there going to be a real democracy?"
The debate over whether the use of a nonbinding referendum, or an "advisory vote," would cause disruption or provide the council with valuable feedback has continued since the idea was proposed during a review of CA's charter about 18 months ago.
Through such votes, residents could petition certain issues under CA's purview to a Columbia-wide balloting -- providing a measure of public opinion that could be used but would not have to be followed by the council and CA.