Power to the people in Columbia?

Howard's hub: A dream-driven maturing and vibrant city needs to assert itselF

January 31, 2000

COLUMBIA must decide -- as forcefully as its citizens can manage -- how to mature wisely, how to build on the dream of its founder and how to leverage respect for its role as economic hub of Howard County.

Increasingly urban, Columbia would be Maryland's second largest city -- if it were incorporated. It is a city, of course, and increasingly it is troubled by city problems: drug abuse, street crime, some low-performing students, some aging physical structures and so-far muted hostility of its more rural and suburban neighbors.

But Columbia has awesome strengths as well -- high average income, a highly educated populace, still-idyllic surroundings, and racial diversity. Indeed, it boasts attributes seldom associated today with urban centers.

Occasional citizen movements for incorporation have been shattered against the success of having no government in the classic sense -- or against the failure of citizens to decide if they want or need a new system. Some might say the absence of rebellion -- complacency -- means things are fine as they are. But that conclusion could be misleading.

If Columbia remains the offspring of Rouse Co.'s first planners -- a company town inspite of efforts to separate from Rouse influence -- it has been benevolent, enlightened and as efficient as most city halls. Its expertise is widely challenged, however, and questions may continue about its performance and openness to public scrutiny.

But the form may be facing its most severe challenge as crime intrudes and as some parents vote against the school system by moving their children to newer, better-staffed alternatives outside the city.

County legislators in Annapolis recently discussed introducing a bill that would have addressed school inequities politically by making election to the school board a district-by-district matter. Instead of electing members to represent the entire county, the new structure would have made members more accountable to individual districts -- some of them in Columbia. The idea was rejected, finally, because a majority of the county delegation feared the imposition of a political dimension to school decision-making -- as if that were worse than political involvement.

If there is a widespread belief that equity does not flow from the current setup, its representatives and its citizens must find ways to redress the imbalance.

Would a mayor and city council have been in a position to demand a change in school board elections? As matters stand, the district-by-district election idea was discarded but nothing replaced it as if nothing were needed.

The quality of Columbia's schools must be seen as an element in its ability to maintain James Rouse's objective: harmony between races and economic groups. If parents perceive a lack of equity in equipment and teacher quality, they will feel ill-served, let down -- and move. Dream and municipal performance are linked.

County and city fathers, therefore, must find ways to preserve a balance of resources and they must ask themselves again if new political alignments would help. If not that sort of change, what?

In a sense, Columbia remains a bit of an abstraction. Founded almost by stealth (Columbia's founder accumulated large tracts of land before anyone saw his purpose), its governance remains with the Columbia Association, an instrument created by the Rouse Co. The association has 220 full-time staff members, 800 year-round part-timers and several hundred seasonal workers. The community board of directors -- the equivalent of a city council -- has one representative from each of Columbia's 10 villages. The operation is undoubtedly a lean one by city standards. It relies on volunteers, a fact which many regard as proof that Columbia retains the sort of committed human capital the founder hoped for. It could also raise questions about professional competence.

The controversial equestrian center, which may be draining resources best used elsewhere, could be emblematic of change to come. The center may be succumbing to its critics.

In its 33rd year, Columbia may be on the verge of an incremental makeover, one in which its continuing devotion to diversity and equity broadens to include more accountability. Rouse wanted neighborhoods where visitors would find the equivalent of a Norman Rockwell tableaux in every bagel bin and barber shop. Those notions became far more than glimmers in the founder's eye. He wanted human scale and, to a remarkable extent, he got it. Even more remarkable, manageability has endured.

The primacy of the automobile notwithstanding, Columbia's evolution has proceeded without demolishing the founder's spiritual and physical infrastructure. People have endured an array of covenants which restrict what they can and can't do with their houses -- down to the color of their front doors -- without resistance. They have decided, one imagines, that the common good needs discipline and structure.

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