Council incumbents are ousted Three challengers in contested races win village seats

Votes close -- turnout low

Victors say election mandates scrutiny of homeowners group

April 22, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Challengers won all three contested elections for the Columbia Council over the weekend, dramatically altering the makeup of the planned community's governing body.

Voting was extremely close. One race was decided by 16 votes.

Although more voters came out than in recent years -- attributed in part to the long-awaited arrival of spring weather -- only 15 percent of eligible residents cast ballots, election officials said.

For the victors -- Alex Hekimian in Oakland Mills village, Joseph Merke in Town Center village and Wanda Hurt in Owen Brown village -- the vote signals a mandate from voters who want the Columbia Council to more closely monitor the Columbia Association, the huge homeowners association that collects their liens and manages their parkland and recreation facilities.

"I think it sends a signal that people were not happy with what was happening," Ms. Hurt said.

But two of the defeated incumbents said the vote was too close to make such a statement. And they are worried about the direction of the new council, in part because the newcomers all are skeptical about projects such as a proposed health club in River Hill village.

"This vote in some ways was a regressive vote," said Suzanne Waller, the incumbent from Town Center who thinks new facilities should be built to keep pace with Columbia's growth. "I hope the new council will keep the positive energy and keep moving forward into the future."

Columbia election officials provided these vote totals:

In Oakland Mills, Mr. Hekimian beat incumbent Gary Glisan 201-185.

4 In Town Center, Mr. Merke beat Ms. Waller 97-67.

In Owen Brown, the only three-way race, Ms. Hurt received 178 votes, incumbent Karen Kuecker received 149 votes and Susan Mead received 117 votes. Ms. Kuecker is the chairwoman of the council.

Of the seven other members on the council, four are in the middle of terms and three were unopposed in the elections, which were Friday and Saturday.

The three new members are expected to be officially appointed Thursday night. The council serves as the association's board of directors and oversees its annual budget, which has grown to $39 million.

How closely the board monitors the association's finances -- and its $90 million debt -- was a point of contention during the council campaigns.

The challengers all promised to ask more questions of the association, a homeowners group they cast as controlling the Columbia Council, the body that is supposed to control the association.

Mr. Hekimian, a longtime critic of the association, said yesterday the new council would not approve projects and policies as easily as its predecessor.

"You don't have a monolithic force there anymore," he said of the council. "There's going to be a lot more discussions on the issues. Everything is not going to get railroaded through."

The three new council members likely will join council member Norma Rose of Wilde Lake as the ones to question the association most.

As for large projects, the future of the $6 million River Hill health jTC club now becomes uncertain. Ms. Rose opposed a recent expenditure of planning funds for the project, as did council member Roy Lyons of Long Reach. And the three new council members are -- at the very least -- skeptical about the project.

Mr. Merke, who served on the council from 1988 to 1992, said many of the voters he spoke with did not want a new facility built so far from the center of Columbia. River Hill, the planned town's newest village, is near Clarksville. According to Mr. Merke, the voters said: "I don't think we should be building something in a corner like that."

He wants to look into ways to alleviate crowding at Columbia's two health clubs, perhaps through expansion.

Asked about the future of the River Hill facility, Mr. Merke said, "It still has to come through [the council] to get construction funds."

Mr. Glisan said that not enough voters understood that new projects such as the River Hill health club are good investments because they will make money for the association. And he is worried that the new council members do not understand the association's finances well enough.

Both he and Ms. Waller said they might run for the council next year if they are unhappy with the performance of the new council. Ms. Kuecker could not be reached for comment after the election.

In Oakland Mills, only 11.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, said Jerry Gettleman, chairman of the village voting committee. In Town Center and Owen Brown, the numbers were 20 percent and 15 percent, respectively, according to election officials. In the Oakland Mills and Owen Brown village centers, the candidates stopped residents who had come to shop, handed them literature, chatted politely and directed them to voting tables. In Town Center, the candidates walked through neighborhoods reminding people to vote.

Mr. Glisan was particularly upset that so few people came out to vote.

"I just find it unconscionable," Mr. Glisan said.

As for those not voting, some of the apathy may be because of contentment.

Take the case of Owen Brown resident Robert McDonough, who sat in sunshine on Saturday about 50 feet from a voting table that was decked out in plastic red-white-and-blue bunting. Mr. McDonough was waiting for his wife, Fran, to come out of the Giant food store.

He always votes in county, state and national elections, he said. But never in Columbia's.

Mr. McDonough said he is pleased with Columbia and the association. He enjoys the athletic clubs, pools, horse center and path system. That, he said, is part of the reason he does not follow Columbia government as closely.

"It's a great place," he said. "If it's not broke, why fix it?"

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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