Can Columbia Afford Apathy?

April 21, 1995

Is there a reason to vote in a community as idyllic as Columbia? That depends on how badly residents want to hold on to their perceived near-nirvana. It is hardly a test of one's civic responsibility to cast a ballot only when there is something burning to support or oppose. Columbia residents owe it to their community to vote because it's what keeps a community vibrant.

This year's election for seats on the Columbia Council and village boards kicks off this weekend with the same gloomy predictions years past. Few voters are expected today and tomorrow, despite such elaborate enticements as flea markets, prizes and parties. Still, some villages anticipate having trouble drawing a quorum, which is usually as low as 10 percent. Apathy in general is an American phenomenon of appalling proportion. In high-income, highly educated Columbia, it is near epidemic.

Much of the blame has to be rooted in a deep sense of complacency born of pampering. Columbia residents have it exceedingly good what with all the amenities provided by the Columbia Association, which serves as a de facto governing body for the unincorporated, planned city of 85,000 residents. When it comes to recreational facilities, community centers, swimming pools, paths and open space, Columbia has them in spades. For a modest activities fee -- about $550 a year for a house valued at $150,000 -- Columbia residents appear content to set their city on cruise control.

The absence of a crisis or compelling reason to vote has in some ways made the city a victim of its own success. There are issues that need to be addressed, although this election has produced few candidates who offer alternatives.

Incorporation as a full-fledged municipality may be the most sensational of the questions looming over Columbia. Unfortunately, only the contest for Columbia Council in Oakland Mills has produced any sort of early referendum on the issue. Residents of that village will be allowed to vote for Barry Mehta, who favors incorporation, or incumbent Gary Glisan, who does not.

As important as the long-term incorporation debate is the fact that the Columbia Association needs knowledgeable, dedicated individuals to oversee it now, providing more than rubber-stamp leadership. Only voters can see to that.

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