Incorporation group faces skepticism, other hurdles

April 09, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Seven months after launching a petition drive to force a vote on turning Columbia into a city, a citizens group has generated little public support and may be floundering in the face of increased skepticism.

Stumbling blocks have mounted for the pro-incorporation group

since September, when it launched its ambitious effort to challenge the planned community's power structure. Among the problems:

* The pro-incorporation group -- the Columbia Municipal League Inc. -- was able to recruit only one candidate for eight open Columbia Council seats in the new town's April 22 elections. Chuck Rees of Kings Contrivance village -- the only person on the 10-member council who supports incorporation -- is leaving office, saying he's become worn down as a minority voice.

* A group of longtime Columbia activists was formed recently has been criticizing the pro-incorporation group for not providing specifics on how Columbia could become a city. League leaders say details will be worked out gradually through meetings with county officials and residents, and will be outlined in a city charter, yet to be drafted.

* Howard County's Office of Law is reviewing the league's petition for a referendum on the incorporation question for possible technical or legal flaws. The opposition group, Columbians for Howard County, has questioned whether Columbia's area is adequately defined in the petition and therefore whether the petition itself is legally valid.

* After accumulating signatures from September through November, the league's petition drive slowed to a crawl during what incorporation activists call a winter of organizing and "hibernation." The activists resumed seeking signatures two weeks ago at libraries, village centers and public events.

* Two recent symposiums sponsored by the Columbia Council -- which is the board of the Columbia Association, the manager of many of the town's facilities and services -- raised numerous questions about incorporation that the league has yet to answer.

Services and costs

Chief among those questions are what services a city would provide and their costs; what would happen to the Columbia Association, Columbia's 10 village associations and contractual agreements ; and the impact of incorporation on Howard County's government.

The Columbia Association -- a homeowners' organization with a $33 million budget -- imposes an annual levy on property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, social programs and parkland maintenance. Howard County attends to schools; trash collection; and police, fire and many other essential services.

Last week, at the second of the association's symposiums on incorporation, there was not much evidence of support for radically changing this governance arrangement.

"I think most people are more or less satisfied with the way things are," said Robert Beaver, a Columbia resident for 22 years. "I don't think they've generated support behind their position. I don't think it's taken off at all."

On the campaign trail, George Pangburn, a Kings Contrivance candidate for Columbia Council, said he's received a uniformly "negative response" on incorporation from residents.

"They like Columbia," he said. "They say if they wanted to move to Laurel or Rockville, they would have moved there."

Far from dead

But leaders of the pro-incorporation league say their effort is far from dead.

They say the two recent symposiums indicate renewed interest in examining alternatives to the unincorporated community's unique form of governance, essentially by the homeowners' association.

They note that the shortage of Columbia Council candidates dedicated to their cause isn't unique to their group; only two of the eight open seats will be contested.

But they readily acknowledge that they have become the Don Quixotes of Columbia, battling established institutions and an apathetic Columbia electorate.

League President James V. Clark recently termed affiliation with his group a "kiss of political death" for candidates for the council.

All this means, incorporation activists say, that battles lie ahead.

"People are still signing petitions. The activists are still there," said Rabbi Martin Siegel, league spokesman. "That's all we expected and ever really needed. We never anticipated there would be a grass-roots movement to come out of the woodwork and say we want incorporation."

"As long as we can keep people on the streets getting signatures, it will have the momentum necessary to get on the ballot," the rabbi said.

No 'forsaking' yet

Added Mr. Rees, incorporation's lone advocate on the council: "Of course, we all have moments of disappointment, if not despair, but I haven't seen any forsaking of the movement."

League leaders say they have collected more than 3,000 of the roughly 10,000 signatures needed from registered Columbia voters to place the incorporation issue on the ballot as a referendum, along with a proposed city charter.

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