Raising the Debate on Incorporation

April 26, 1995

With so many questions left unanswered about the drive to incorporate Columbia, it should come as little surprise that various groups would step in to fill the void. The Howard County Chamber of Commerce's decision to establish a task force to look into incorporation is welcome news, as is the possibility that the county League of Women Voters will do the same.

The incorporation effort, which has suffered several hits in recent weeks, has never been well-defined. The Columbia Municipal League, which has spearheaded the movement, tends to shy from specifics. Its goals have been expressed mostly in general terms: bringing greater democracy to Columbia, improving fiscal responsibility, increasing oversight, energizing residents.

But how the incorporated city would function, what services it would provide and what relationship it would have with Howard County has remained a mystery. Those bothersome unknowns have left the effort vulnerable to attack by incorporation foes who, rightly or wrongly, have used it to play on residents' fears.

That is not the way the issue should be approached. Whether Columbia becomes a true municipality or pursues some other course is a matter of great significance to all of Howard County and needs to be considered methodically. Past efforts to change Columbia's governance suffered for lack of will and direction. The most successful of those was in 1979, when a Columbia charter was drafted and submitted to the County Council. It was never pursued.

A similar fate could befall the latest effort unless there is clearer evidence of support for incorporation than we have seen.

The Municipal League's effort has suffered several jolts of late, .. including its failure to field more than one candidate to run for the Columbia Council (who lost) and legal questions the county law office raised about the group's petition to put incorporation on the ballot.

Interest on the part of the Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters comes as favorable news in light of these setbacks. It indicates that there are still those who feel the issue deserves serious consideration.

Both groups lend credibility to the debate over incorporation, which up to now has been long on rhetoric and short on detail.

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