To its detractors, the Alliance for Better Columbia (ABC) is a small group of loudmouths so bent on criticizing Columbia it has lost all credibility.
To its supporters, the group is Columbia's antidote to apathy -- reasoned residents willing to challenge the paternalistic management of the nation's largest planned community.
Somewhere in between sits ABC -- a dozen active members pushing for serious public debate in a well-off community where high-level discourse often focuses on such seemingly trivial matters as whether to use a dog to police local geese; and where so few residents vote in community elections that they must be lured with free hot dogs and raffle prizes.
ABC members write letters to editors, offer opinions in news articles and run for office. During the past nine years, the group has placed four members on the Columbia Council, the planned community's 10-member governing body.
But for all their efforts, even ABC members say their influence has been limited, which they attribute in large part to the quashing of public debate by the Columbia power structure -- mainly the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, and the Columbia Association (CA), which manages its parks and recreation facilities.
Those in Columbia's seats of power have a different opinion. "This is the easiest community in the world to make a difference," said Pamela J. Mack, a CA vice president and spokeswoman, adding that no entity in Columbia deters debate.
Nowhere were those contrasting points of view more evident than at this month's ABC meeting. As usual, the group gathered in a conference room at the East Columbia library. But this meeting had a twist: It was "critics night," a chance for those usually skewered by ABC to fire back.
The gloves were off within about five minutes.
"There is no credibility in this organization," said Gary B. Glisan, a former Columbia Council member who half-jokingly calls himself the watchdog of the watchdog.
Glisan offered ABC some advice: "I think you can be successful in effecting change if you kind of slide into the changes, rather than coming in with meat cleavers and hacking everything in the way."
Glisan acknowledged that public discourse in Columbia is limited. But he and other ABC critics take exception to the notion that there is a conspiracy of the powerful to squash dissent in the 29-year-old community -- as ABC members often assert.
Silence of contentment?
Columbia's apathy, Glisan said, is in part the silence of contentment. Residents are happy with what the town gives them. They don't have to ponder serious public policy issues that are worse elsewhere -- high crime, poor schools and crumbling roads.
Besides, Glisan and other ABC critics said, to the extent that such problems do beset the Columbia area, they fall under the purview of Howard County government.
That's not to say there are no serious questions facing Columbia, according to others who spoke at ABC's "critics night" and share the group's mistrust of the town's power structure.
Questions on CA's spending
Lewis Lorton, a former member of the Kings Contrivance Village Board who has challenged the CA's spending habits, advised ABC to ask its members "to shut up in public while increasing group presence" because important issues are at stake.
A key issue, Lorton and ABC say, is the management of CA, one of the largest homeowners associations in the nation. ABC must raise specific questions about the CA's spending, which will total almost $39 million this year, Lorton said.
If ABC starts asking questions about the CA's spending, the key participants probably will be Chuck Rees and Alex Hekimian.
Rees, who is ABC's president and has lived in Columbia since 1973, is a Harvard Law School graduate and teaches civil procedure and constitutional law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. He served on the Columbia Council, the CA's elected governing body, from 1993 to 1995.
"CA and the party line doesn't see apathy as a problem," Rees said. While he was on the council, he said, other members and CA staff members made him feel isolated. "It's lonely out there," he said.
Rees took over the ABC presidency this year from Hekimian, an ABC co-founder who was elected to the Columbia Council this year.
Hekimian said of his experience during his first few months on the council: "There's a lot of pressure to conform. Everybody likes to be liked."
Hekimian acknowledged that he has yet to ask particularly difficult questions of the CA. But he vows to do that in the group's approaching budget debate.
"Alex is taking it slower than I did," Rees said. "So I think he's going to be much more effective."
Rees and some other ABC members have supported a 2-year-old, now-foundering drive to incorporate Columbia. Under the ambitious plan, the CA would be replaced -- in part or in full -- by a municipal government.