Columbia's Flaw

March 02, 1995

For all the genius exhibited by James W. Rouse in designing Columbia, he managed to inject a fundamental flaw into the organization he created to provide services to its residents. In setting up the non-profit Columbia Association, Mr. Rouse minimized the role of government and politics in the affairs of the planned city. By limiting voting rights and insisting on non-partisan elections to the Columbia Council, which oversees the association, he handicapped the city's governance by guaranteeing that it reports to a body of political and bureaucratic novices.

The legacy of that early decision can be seen most poignantly at this time every year, when the Columbia Council approves a budget for the association. This annual travesty usually culminates in the council virtually rubber-stamping the spending priorities laid out by the association's staff, even as council members lament their inability to do otherwise. This occurs despite the fact that setting the budget is the most critical duty that confronts the council and it is given months to work on it.

This year's deliberations were only a slight improvement over previous years. The council managed to trim a paltry $200,000 from its $33 million operating budget, while cutting $800,000 from proposed spending on capital projects.

But some council members lamented that they lacked the resources to do more. The most telling comment came from Vice Chairman David W. Berson: "Unfortunately we don't have enough information on the operating budget to know which programs to cut specifically or where to cut."

To excuse the council for a lack of time to gather the information is feeble. As Councilwoman Evelyn Richardson pointed out, the council provides guidance to staff members about budget priorities months in advance of a document being produced.

Council members say they were caught off guard by the number of residents this year who said they wanted the association's spending curtailed. Members said they didn't have enough time to react. That's a poor excuse, but it carries some weight when one considers the mistake made when the Columbia concept was implemented a quarter-century ago. There is something to be said for elected officials who have the political wherewithal to give the community what it wants.

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