Incorporation: dead on arrival?

March 23, 1995

The effort to incorporate Columbia, Howard County's planned city, could face major hurdles in the coming months. The potential stumbling blocks, which may in fact be insurmountable, could make moot a petition drive currently under way to put the incorporation issue on the general election ballot.

The Columbia Municipal League, established as a vehicle to pursue incorporation, has already toiled for months to collect 3,000 of the 10,000 signatures needed to request the referendum. But the Howard County solictor's office is in the process of reviewing whether the petition is valid as written.

Early indications suggest problems. Specifically, the law office is critical of wording in the petition that refers to property zoned as "New Town," a loose reference to Columbia. The petition does not identify areas that are considered part of Columbia but are not "New Town." Such "cheese hole" areas exist throughout Columbia, making the city's borders difficult to define. The community of Dorsey Hall, for example, is one inclusive community not zoned New Town.

The law office review, which was requested by Howard County Councilman Dennis Schrader on behalf of the fledgling Municipal League, is not complete. But it could become the basis for the council's rejecting a request to put the incorporation issue before voters. The council has final say in putting a referendum on the ballot.

Making matters worse for those seeking incorporation, the attorney general's office has issued a ruling that calls the petition inadequate because it describes those who have signed it as registered voters and property owners in the city, but fails to list the location and value of the properties.

That oversight could present a problem when election officials attempt to validate signatures. The legal opinion was requested by state Sen. Martin G. Madden.

How the Municipal League will respond is not clear, but the questions have arisen at a critical early phase and could pull the plug on the effort. Rabbi Martin Siegel, a leader in the incorporation movement, insists that the legal issues raised will not stifle his group's efforts or the dialogue it has created over Columbia's governance.

We wish we were as sure, since the discussion has largely been healthy. We also find it hard to believe the organizers wouldn't have checked out problems before launching their effort.

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