A Counterweight in Incorporation Fight

COMMENT

March 19, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

Throughout the debate over the incorporation of Columbia, a cohesive and impartial argument against such a change has been the missing element.

The whole idea of incorporation, which has been championed for months by a group known as the Columbia Municipal League, lends itself to simple declarations about democracy and self-government. It has fueled a petition drive that has so far generated 3,000 of the 10,000 signatures needed to put incorporation on the ballot.

But the mom-and-apple pie appeal of incorporation has done little to answer the nagging questions about the effects such a change would have on the 27-year-old planned community.

It was perhaps naive of those involved in incorporation to believe that their effort would not be met with resistance. The fact that the opposition has grown into an organized campaign made up of individuals with integrity and knowledge on the subject can only be a welcomed event.

Now, perhaps, we can get some answers about what incorporation means and what it does not.

Columbians for Howard County is, as its name implies, a group that contends that Columbia is better off as part of a larger county government.

But members of the group contend that their warnings about radical change in Columbia's governance will go far beyond that.

Concerns about boundary lines, size and cost of government and relationships between the city and county are at the crux of their drive to prevent incorporation.

Fran Wishnik, a former Columbia Council member who has joined Columbians for Howard County, recently raised the possibility that the petition drive for incorporation may itself be flawed and invalid.

She points out that because the Municipal League has failed to adequately define all the areas that make up Columbia, there is probably confusion about who would be eligible to vote and who would be required to pay municipal taxes under incorporation.

"I venture to say the signatures gathered so far under this wording are probably invalid," Ms. Wishnik says.

Municipal League member Rabbi Martin Siegel argues that the opposition is too consumed by the details of incorporation. Yet ,, details are precisely what residents need to make an informed judgment.

One of a number of assumptions made by those who argue for incorporation is that the government created to replace the Columbia Association would be smaller and more efficient. Proponents never say, however, what mechanism would be put in place to guarantee this.

Even if that could be accomplished, there seems an obvious danger in creating an institution that holds its expenditures to a certain level in perpetuity.

What would happen in a crisis or through the course of natural growth if Columbia's governance were not able to expand beyond its current level?

A system that would not allow residents to improve the services they receive would undercut another major argument of proponents: that incorporation is more democratic.

Little could be more undemocratic than denying citizens self-determination. Still, the promise that incorporation might bring the city closer to democracy is compelling in light of the current system.

The Columbia Association's current rules, which effectively limit voting to one vote per household, invites criticism because it discourages participation.

But this weakness of the current system may not be enough to argue in favor of scrapping it for something much more radical.

Proponents have also tried to tout incorporation as a traditional form of governance. But the idea that incorporation would encourage citizen participation because residents would be more familiar with how the system works only goes so far.

It does not account for the enormous apathy that exists toward elections elsewhere that are more open than Columbia's. That apathy is a result of a high level of distrust and frustration with government. Where is the guarantee that by emulating the traditional process, Columbians will be less apathetic?

There is a lot to be said for the idea that the current system works well in many respects. But it would be disingenuous of Columbians for Howard County to suggest that a system that denies participation to a large number of residents should not be changed. In fact, the group has conceded that Columbia's governance needs fine-tuning, which could mean changing the election rules.

Doing that would require a concerted effort, if it is possible at all. No group has yet emerged to effectively take on that challenge.

Meanwhile, discussing the pros and cons of incorporation should intensify in light of the fact that now at least two groups exist to speak to different aspects of the issue. Unless something concrete can be produced in the end, though, it's all just a lot of talk.

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

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