Style may decide council elections Controversial issues have mostly faded in village contests

April 13, 1997|By Erin Texeira and Dan Morse | Erin Texeira and Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Personality and style -- rather than issues -- will likely be foremost on voters' minds in next weekend's Columbia Council elections.

That's because the council approved in February two controversial sports facilities and because other hot-button issues have slowly fizzled in recent months.

But with five contested elections this year -- in Town Center and Dorsey's Search, Hickory Ridge, Long Reach and Oakland Mills villages -- voters have a generous sampling of personalities from which to choose in the voting Saturday at various village shopping centers.

There are more contested elections this year than in the past five years or so, said Pam Mack, spokeswoman for the Columbia Association, which the council governs.

The most heated race is in Oakland Mills village, where two candidates who jousted for the council seat last year have maintained an open rivalry. Recent troubles at the village center there may draw record numbers of voters.

In Town Center and Long Reach village, two pairs of Columbia activists will face one another.

The Columbia Council is made up of one representative from each of Columbia's 10 villages. The council serves as the board of directors for the Columbia Association, the homeowners group that runs recreation and service facilities in the planned community.

Members serve one or two years, depending on the rules set by each village board.

In most villages, the biggest challenge will be a perennial one: coaxing voters to cast ballots. In past years, less than 10 percent of eligible voters participated in some areas. The number of eligible voters is difficult to track but at least 30,000 Columbia residents could vote, Mack said.

In most villages, one person from each household, including homeowners and renters, is eligible to vote. In Kings Contrivance and River Hill villages, however, all residents age 18 and older can cast ballots, village officials said.

To draw voters, some villages have arranged other events, such as a small gardening show in River Hill, to take place in village centers while residents wait for voting booths to open.

Oakland Mills

Perhaps the most interesting council race will be in the village of Oakland Mills, where incumbent Alex Hekimian, a longtime Columbia Association critic, is being challenged by former council member and current village board member Gary B. Glisan.

Even their respective detractors say both men put in countless hours volunteering and are committed to fighting for their widely disparate ideas of how the Columbia Association should be run.

Before his election last year, Hekimian, a government transportation planner, served as president of a small band of Columbia Association watchdogs called the Alliance for a Better Columbia.

Hekimian beat Glisan, a private computer consultant, by 16 votes with 386 votes cast -- in part because he criticized the performance of Columbia Association during his campaign last year and promised to ask hard questions of association staff. To some degree he has fulfilled that promise.

Thursday night, for example, he was the only council member to question association President Padraic M. Kennedy's announcement that the association was looking at sites just outside Columbia to build a skateboard-in-line-skate park with the Howard County government.

Kennedy said sites such as Centennial Park -- on Columbia's northern border in Ellicott City -- look good economically and are close to many Columbians.

But Hekimian wasn't impressed, telling him: "If you build it outside of Columbia, all hell will break loose."

Since he was defeated by Hekimian, Glisan has attended virtually every council meeting and has kept close tabs on the council. He even went to the council's weekend planning retreat in October.

Glisan says Hekimian scarcely understands Columbia Association's finances but is the master of sound bites.

At one meeting in February, Hekimian delivered a proposal to fight an increase in the rates Columbia residents must pay to use Columbia Association recreation facilities.

"As we prepare to celebrate Columbia's 30th birthday," Hekimian said, "an appropriate way to say 'thank you' to Columbia's residents would be to hold the line on their recreational membership rates and community service fees for fiscal 1998."

The proposal failed, but not until after nearly 30 minutes of debate in which Hekimian repeatedly urged the council to "hold the line."

The amount Hekimian's proposal would have saved a Columbia family each year on pool membership: $3.

"I don't think he understands financial matters that well," Glisan said. "If he does, he keeps that relatively well hidden."

Hekimian insists Glisan is too close to association staff to supervise them. Columbia Association recently hired Glisan to provide computer consulting service in exchange for 11 months worth of membership in association recreation facilities.

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