Issue of governance hovers over Columbia elections

Community to fill council, village posts

April 13, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

As Columbia residents go to the polls Saturday to elect members to their council and village boards, a perennial issue remains: whether, after 30 years, the planned community has outgrown its unusual system of government.

Columbia has never had a mayor -- nor any official -- elected by the whole community, although, with 90,000 residents, it would be Maryland's second-largest city were it to incorporate. In place of a municipal government, the community has the Columbia Association, a homeowners group that provides many services but is often asked to do more than it can.

"We're constantly beseeched to fill gaps that the county chooses not to fill, and that's a constant source of frustration and tension amongst council members," said Alex Hekimian, who represents Oakland Mills village on the Columbia Council, which oversees the association.

"There's a tendency to turn to CA."

Some argue that a community of Columbia's size requires a stronger government -- and perhaps an executive such as a mayor -- to solve problems and address needs.

Public transportation, before- and after-school child care and maintenance of median strips are among issues that have come up, Hekimian says. He thinks Columbia's bus lines don't run frequently enough and fail to meet the needs of children or the elderly.

Others say the community -- which was built by the late developer and visionary James W. Rouse in the 1960s -- must develop a better way to deal with concerns such as crime and drugs.

"We are beginning to have some of the problems associated with urban areas, but not the government structure to deal with them," said Norma Rose, council chairwoman, who is not seeking re-election.

Hekimian, who also is retiring at the end of the current session, favors putting the issue to a referendum.

"I think that [the government structure] ought to be looked at again," he said. "The question is: Is there enough of a groundswell for that kind of major, major effort?"

As of now, no groundswell exists at all. Few people vote in village elections. In some cases, it's hard to field a full slate of candidates.

"People live here because they don't want to be bothered," said John Snyder, chairman of the Long Reach elections committee and vice chairman of the village board.

Some critics of the current system of governance view it as a kind of many-tentacled bureaucracy, one without a central bureaucrat in charge.

Columbia essentially has two "branches" of government: the Columbia Council, which consists of one representative elected from each village, and the village associations, which are also made up of elected members, the number varying from village to village.

The council, which also serves as CA's board of directors, generally sets communitywide policy, while the village associations deal with localized issues.

Like CA, which levies a property "tax" on homeowners and is responsible for managing the community's recreational and other services, each village has its bylaws and covenants. Each village is fiercely protective of its status as an independent corporation -- even though the villages rely on annual grants from CA's $45 million budget.

This can cause strain between the two branches, which view each other with suspicion.

Other wide-ranging complaints have been voiced about the status quo:

* One-year council terms make it difficult to have continuity from session to session.

* The 10-member council is too large.

* Most villages don't operate under the democratic principle of one-man/one-vote, but of one-household/one-vote.

* All villages have equal representation on the council, no matter their size.

"Voting based on property is very old-fashioned," said Chuck Rees, the council representative from Kings Contrivance, who favors "home-rule," or incorporation.

"If it taxes, has elections, has covenants that are enforced, has streets and all the other things a town has," said Rees, "it should be treated like a town" when it comes to resident voting rights.

Rees thinks an executive elected communitywide would help unify Columbia, and ensure that decisions about the community are made by Columbians, rather than the Rouse Co., which still has jurisdiction over Town Center, and mostly controls development issues.

The last effort to change Columbia's system of governance, which was created before the planned community was built, went nowhere.

The Columbia Council rejected a proposal introduced by Rose four years ago to create a citizen task force to study, among other things, the community's election system and political infrastructure.

Two grass-roots groups, the Columbia Municipal League and Columbians for Howard County, also got involved. They recommended changes big and small, ranging from televising council meetings to electing council members at large.

The incoming council will decide whether to review Columbia's government structure.

CA President Deborah O. McCarty said she doesn't see a need to fix a system that isn't broken.

"The Columbia Association has a good working relationship with Howard County government, so why would we want to duplicate the services that they provide?" she asked.

"There will always be more services requested by citizens than governments can provide, and Columbia's no different in that," said McCarty.

Interest in reform has tended in Columbia to come in cycles, and incorporation is likely to resurface as a political issue, especially as Columbia nears build-out.

Neil Noble, a Columbia resident and a former director of the defunct Municipal League, asserts that becoming a municipality is the only way Columbia will ever be independent.

"Columbia is a colony, much the same as Washington, D.C., or Puerto Rico, or Guam or any other U.S. possession," he said. "We're just a colony of the Rouse Co."

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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