3 seats contested in town elections Four challengers aiming for spots on 10-member council

March 28, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Promising to give Columbia residents more control over the huge homeowners' association that manages their planned community, four challengers have lined up for those most weakly contested of affairs -- elections to the 10-member Columbia Council.

The challengers are angry over two recent council initiatives: a proposal to control information flow among council members and plans to build a $6 million athletic club in Columbia's newest area, the Village of River Hill.

They'll face council incumbents in elections in three Columbia areas: Town Center and the villages of Oakland Mills and Owen Brown.

"I think it's time the residents get more say on the council," said Susan Mead of Owen Brown village. She's one of two challengers who are members of the Alliance for a Better Columbia (ABC), a small Columbia group that often has criticized the council.

Meanwhile, incumbent council members who supported the information proposal have killed it and are distancing themselves from the entire matter. But they say the new athletic club is a sound, money-making investment that residents will support once they understand it.

The issues are sure to be discussed further before the elections, to be held April 19 and 20.

At issue is the personality of the council, which serves as the governing body for the Columbia Association (CA). The council -- with one representative from each of Columbia's 10 villages -- usually goes along with association staff decisions.

Only one council member consistently questions the association Norma Rose of Wilde Lake. "I think Norma needs additional voices," said challenger Alex Hekimian of Oakland Mills, a founder of the ABC watchdog group and a longtime association critic.

In past years, the elections have drawn only about 10 percent of registered voters. Winners sometimes receive less than 200 votes, which are collected on Saturdays outside grocery stores and other public areas.

In Oakland Mills, Mr. Hekimian is challenging incumbent Gary Glisan. A village candidates' forum is scheduled at 8 p.m. April 16 at the Other Barn in the Oakland Mills Village Center.

In Owen Brown, Ms. Mead and Wanda Hurt are challenging incumbent Karen Kuecker, the council chairwoman. Ms. Hurt is a BTC longtime community activist who last year switched from the Democratic to the Republican party. A village candidates' forum is scheduled at 7: 30 p.m. April 16 at the Owen Brown Community Center, 6800 Cradlerock Way.

In Town Center, Joseph Merke -- who served on the council from 1988 to 1992 -- is challenging incumbent Suzanne Waller. This is believed to be the first contested race in Town Center in more than 20 years. A Town Center candidates' forum is scheduled at 7: 30 p.m. April 10 at the Vantage House on Vantage Point Road.

Of the seven other incumbent council members, four are in the middle of terms, and three will not be challenged.

Two of the three incumbents who face challenges played an active role in this month's controversial proposal regarding the flow of information on the council.

Under the plan, council members would have needed approval from their colleagues before seeking information from "external" agencies, such as the county school board or village boards within Columbia. The policy would not have applied when council members gathered information about matters within their own villages.

Mr. Glisan and council member Hope Sachwald, of Harper's Choice village, wrote the proposal Feb. 13.

At a Columbia Council meeting March 14, Ms. Waller made a motion to adopt the proposal.

But after Ms. Rose objected to the policy -- arguing that it smacked of censorship -- the council decided to delay any action. Subsequently, state and national homeowner advocates criticized the proposal as anti-democratic.

Now, Mr. Glisan has rewritten the policy to state simply that when council members speak to Responding to Mr. Glisan's remark, Ms. Rose said yesterday: "Gary Glisan obviously still doesn't get it. His policy would have made CA the laughingstock of the nation."

Ms. Waller said the information policy now is being toned down.

"I don't think we have to use a hammer," she said. "Maybe a feather."

Like the two other incumbents facing challenge, Ms. Waller said this week that the River Hill athletic club is a sound investment because it is "good debt" -- meaning earnings will more than cover yearly interest payments on the $6 million debt.

She points to CA estimates that the club eventually will earn profits of $1.1 million a year.

Mr. Glisan said residents need to better understand CA's debt. If re-elected, he has pledged to better educate Columbia citizens.

Even though the association now has more than $90 million in debt, it still should invest in projects that will earn money, Mr. Glisan said. Such profits would allow CA to lower assessments and fees or fund new programs, Mr. Glisan said.

Mr. Glisan said most residents he talks with believe CA is doing a good job.

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