Columbia's government structure defies comparison, expert tells symposium

March 29, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Evaluating whether Columbia should incorporate as a municipality is particularly difficult because the planned community has a unique system of governance that defies comparisons, a government expert said at a symposium last night.

"There is no other place in the country like Columbia," Althea "Tee" O'Connor told about 125 residents who attended the first of two symposiums on governance sponsored by the Columbia Council. "Usually you're talking about a place with no local government. That's not the case in Columbia."

Ms. O'Connor, a Howard County resident and former executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, was one of three government and public policy experts who spoke at Kahler Hall about the costs, benefits and complexities of creating a new city.

Ms. O'Connor talked specifically about the effects of turning Columbia into a city while the other speakers -- Maryland Municipal League Executive Director Jon Burrell and University of Baltimore Professor Patricia Florestano -- discussed more general aspects.

The issue has gained attention in Columbia since last fall, when a citizens group launched a petition to allow residents to vote in a referendum on whether the unincorporated community should become a city with a government.

That group, the Columbia Municipal League Inc., says it wants a more responsive, accountable and democratic alternative to the private, nonprofit Columbia Association, which imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to oversee the community's recreational facilities, social programs and parkland.

The Columbia Council -- the association's elected board -- scheduled the symposiums to boost the residents' understanding of the complex issues involved in considering alternative forms of governance. Holding the symposiums coincide with the formation of a new group, Columbians for Howard County, that is skeptical about incorporation. Columbians for Howard County has raised concerns that the wording of the pro-incorporation group's petition may be technically flawed. The county is reviewing the petition.

But David W. Berson, council vice chairman and head of the council's 17-month-old governance committee, said the symposiums are not intended to debate whether Columbia should be incorporated or discuss the political stands of the two fledgling advocacy groups. Rather, the goal is to weigh the costs and benefits of the current structure compared with the alternatives, he said.

Ms. Florestano and Mr. Burrell emphasized that the greatest benefit of an incorporated municipality is that residents gain more direct control of the community's affairs -- including services, taxation and land use -- and can increase their political power.

They said turning Columbia into a city would create another level of government, but the added costs would depend on the desires of residents, on state and federal revenue-sharing, on negotiations with the county and on the efficiency of operations.

Ms. Florestano cautioned, however, that governments tend to grow and their costs to increase -- a tendency that runs counter to the prevailing public sentiment to reduce the size of government. She also said that creating a municipality would be difficult without "some sort of groundswell of interest in the community."

Mr. Burrell stressed that city governments are "by nature closest to the people they serve. National surveys every year report that citizens respect municipal governments more than any other level for the way they effectively and efficiently respond to the needs of people who live there."

But Ms. O'Connor said Columbia already has a responsive governance structure -- 10 village associations that foster a "sense of community" and the Columbia Council, a more formal governing body. She questioned whether incorporating would detract from Columbia's uniqueness. Also, she said, incorporating might not increase citizen participation, as the Columbia Municipal League anticipates.

The council's second symposium on financial and legal issues is set for 8 p.m. April 4 at Slayton House in Wilde Lake village.

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