Columbia's Grassroots Politics

September 05, 1995

In an effort to breath life into the quest for one-person, one-vote, some residents of Wilde Lake village in Columbia are returning to some old political traditions to build grassroots support for a change in the city's election laws. A flurry of activity aimed at getting 90 percent of the village's residents to support the change began Saturday with vintage political events, including a rally and mock protest.

Residents marched from the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center to the village's nearby lake, where they tossed tea into the water, a la Boston Tea Party. That patently symbolic event, however, will be followed by something truly significant: A mass mailing of thousands of ballots and a block-by-block campaign to win over village residents.

By imposing the 90-percent-approval requirement, Columbia's founders intentionally made it difficult to alter village covenants. That rule has been the major stumbling block in attempts to revise the current unrepresentative system, which in most cases allows only one voter per household. Getting the level of support necessary to force a change in this system is nearly impossible.

But in taking on the task, community activists are turning to the tried and true methods of political organizing, dividing the community into five parts and assigning block captains to get out the vote. Their ultimate success won't be known until after the Dec. 6 deadline for returning the ballots, but in a sense they have already won a victory. Fair representation is a fundamental right that should never have been conceded when Columbia was established more than a quarter-century ago.

Still, with rights come responsibility, and Columbians have been averse to accepting theirs when it comes to governing themselves. The lackadaisical attitude of residents is evident in the low voter turnout in annual village elections. And the lack of understanding about what the Columbia Association is and the way it operates is not just a function of officials' unwillingness to educate. It springs from residents' unwillingness to educate themselves.

History is replete with examples of what happens when people take for granted those things that ensure a good community. Luckily, some residents of Columbia realize that and now are doing something about it.

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