Interest in modest reform of association growing

June 18, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Proponents of incorporating Columbia have failed to mobilize broad support among residents, but they have succeeded in inspiring an emerging political consensus that more modest reforms are needed in the planned community's governing body.

This is not a new achievement. Demands for changing the functioning of the Columbia Association (CA) go back almost to the new town's inception 28 years ago.

And even though the same issues keep cropping up -- the need for CA to be more financially accountable, more open and to involve more citizens and reform its election process -- very few substantial changes have resulted over the decades.

A key reason for this, say some who have been involved in the recurring debate, is that the CA resists changes and limits public debate on controversial issues, particularly financial issues.

"This thing is worse than the O. J. trial," local lawyer Alan Schwartz said of citizens' long-running but failed efforts to change the operations of the private, nonprofit association.

Mr. Schwartz led a three-year study of Columbia's governance that concluded in 1992 with few results.

Helen Ruther, a community activist and former Columbia Council member, blames CA leaders for the inertia, saying they are "very resistant to change. They like the status quo."

CA officials deny that. CA President Padraic Kennedy said he welcomes ideas for changing the organization but added, "It doesn't mean all thoughts are good."

This time around, there may be a bit more reason to believe that changes at CA could follow, as a wide variety of political players have joined the push for reforms -- including Howard County Council members, incorporation activists and an anti-incorporation group.

For example, the groups agree that the CA needs to attack its debt more aggressively and possibly add at-large elections to its neighborhood-based voting.

But more aggressive incorporation advocates say these relatively minor internal changes, though helpful, would not solve the structural problems inherent to trying to run many aspects of a community of 80,000 with an overgrown homeowners association. So they are still seeking to turn Columbia into what would be Maryland's second-largest city.

Potential for consensus

"I think there is potential for an evolving consensus, but that doesn't preclude" incorporating Columbia as a city with a government, said Rabbi Martin Siegel, spokesman for the pro-incorporation group, the Columbia Municipal League.

"The issue is the degree of change, not whether any changes are needed."

The rabbi said his group wants an elected mayor, an independent staff for the Columbia Council and the use of referendums so that residents can control spending. Those changes could be adopted now without incorporation, he said, but CA lacks the will.

Although he opposes incorporation, County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader said he supports several Municipal League reform ideas. "I'd like to see CA embrace a reform agenda," said the east Columbia Republican.

"There seems to be an undercurrent of that kind of thinking in the community."

Roy L. Appletree, a former Columbia Council member who led a community governance study in the late 1970s, said reform efforts are largely misguided. Residents expect too much from the CA, he said, and the organization fulfills its mission well.

Sense of community

Columbia residents are longing for a greater sense of community, he said, and "lay blame on CA when it's lots of other forces. They're trying to capture that small-town community and think CA should be that magical something."

The association imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, community programs and parkland maintenance.

The elected, 10-member Columbia Council represents residents and is the nonprofit corporation's board of directors -- a dual role that many say leads to inherent conflicts.

The Municipal League has been circulating a petition since September aimed at placing the incorporation question before Columbia voters as a referendum. It has gathered about 3,000 signatures.

Under state law, the league needs nearly 9,000 signatures and must draft a city charter outlining a new government. Then it would have to gain approval for a referendum from the County Council, whose members generally oppose incorporation.

Several County Council members and Columbia activists question the Columbia Council's willingness to consider broad reforms, noting the council's recent rejection of a proposal to appoint a citizens commission to study Columbia's governance and recommend changes.

'Wrong message' sent

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said the rejection "sends the wrong message" and helps confirm a perception that the Columbia Council is a "closed body."

A task force would lend "inclusiveness," Mr. Gray said.

Ms. Ruther, the Columbia activist, said she, too, was surprised by that decision. "Why they have to hold on to this thing so jealously, I don't know," she said.

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