Rockville's still No. 2 Lack of blueprint, indifference doomed Columbia incorporation plan.

November 26, 1996

ONLY A MINORITY of Columbia residents ever bought the idea that incorporation would be better than the current mode of operating Howard County's well-known planned community. Too many questions lingered about how a city of Columbia would function. Too many concerns about potential pitfalls went unanswered. Residents were asked to base their decision on too little information and too much faith.

Even initial findings of a study on incorporation by the University of Maryland's Institute for Governmental Service were kept under wraps. Now it does not matter that the report will not be completed. The effort has fizzled. Last week, Columbia Municipal League Treasurer Neil Noble pronounced the plan dead, saying, "Indifference killed us." Minus incorporation, Columbia will not unseat Rockville as the state's second-largest city behind Baltimore.

The league had admirable intentions; it sought a government that would be more open and responsive than have been the governing Columbia Council and the administrative Columbia Association (CA). It recruited respected leaders, including Rabbi Martin Siegel, head of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, who hotly -- perhaps too hotly -- debated the idea with James Rouse before the founder of Columbia died last spring.

At the outset of the petition drive in 1994, Rabbi Siegel opined that the public was dissatisfied with its quasi-government. "I'm not anti-CA," he said, "but I want to make government more responsive to the people than to itself."

But proponents of incorporation never clearly articulated their vision of a city of Columbia. That may have fed some of the indifference being blamed for the idea's demise. The league failed to excite the community, collecting fewer than half of the 8,000 signatures needed to ask the County Council for a referendum.

Still, the Columbia Council and Columbia Association would be remiss to view the league's failed incorporation drive as a vote of confidence in their handling of community affairs. Although residents are not eager to eliminate the current system, the league's effort tapped some level of discontent. If public concerns about openness and responsiveness are not addressed, a future challenge to Columbia's management system is certain.

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