Citizens group urges stronger council Ideas of paid members, wider elections offered

June 05, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council should be stronger, says a local citizens group that is proposing Columbia-wide elections for the council's leaders. The group, Columbians for Howard County, also is floating the idea that council members should be paid.

Group members believe that this could attract more candidates, more voters and more debate on larger issues during elections to the council -- the board of the Columbia Association (CA), which manages the planned community's parklands and recreational facilities.

"We think that the Columbia Council ought to be a stronger advocate for the city of Columbia," said May Ruth Seidel, a member of the group that met with the council Monday night.

Columbians for Howard County -- a group of about 18 community leaders -- was formed last year to oppose the idea of incorporating the planned community. The group is trying to improve CA's governing structure.

Monday night, the group stressed that its proposals are ideas at this point and encouraged the council to discuss them as they developed long-range plans.

Some council members were skeptical of the proposals, particularly of council members being paid.

Pro-incorporation activists said yesterday that the ideas did not go far enough.

Columbia, the nation's second-largest planned community, has an unusual government structure that many residents do not appear to understand.

Residents pay property liens and, if they chose, recreational fees to CA, essentially a homeowners association. The residents elect the 10 members of the Columbia Council, one from each of the community's villages.

But under the proposal of Columbians for Howard County, one or two at-large members would be added to serve as chairman and vice chairman of the council.

"The council chair does have more clout," said Ruth Cargo, a member of Columbians for Howard County and a former member of the Oakland Mills Village Board.

She likes the idea of one or two representatives not being tied to the interests of one village. "It's a way to sort of unify us," Cargo said.

Proponents point out that communitywide elections might attract more voters in Columbia, where only about 10 percent of eligible voters typically cast ballots in village-based elections.

Some council members fear such elections would become too "political," to which Columbians for Howard County member Mike Riemer said, "So what?"

George Pangburn, a council member from Kings Contrivance, said the proposals should not be strongly considered until it is firmly established that there are problems. "I keep coming back to, 'What's broke?' " he said.

Pangburn does not think at-large elections would necessarily draw more voters. To the contrary, he said, Columbians usually do not get involved until something affects their village.

Echoing the views of several council members, Pangburn said that paying council members violates the spirit of the grass-roots leadership upon which Columbia was founded.

As for those wanting to overhaul Columbia's governance, the reforms proposed Monday night do not go far enough.

Members of the Columbia Municipal League believe that Columbia needs a municipal government in order to be governed in a more democratic fashion.

"While they are good reforms, we probably need more than reform at this point," said Chuck Rees of the Municipal League, a pro-incorporation group.

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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