Activist spirit stirs voters

Usually complacent, community heats up as election nears

Focus is on McCarty issue

March 29, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Four words are forming on the mouths of Columbians this spring: "Get out the vote."

It's an unlikely mantra in a community where elections typically generate little interest -- sometimes so little that there isn't a full slate of candidates, and officials worry whether enough votes will be cast to have a valid election.

But what's at stake in this year's elections, in which six villages will choose representatives to the Columbia Council, could be the long-term future of the Columbia Association. Some residents want to make the race a referendum on association President Deborah O. McCarty, the city's equivalent of a mayor.

FOR THE RECORD - Also in yesterday's Howard edition, an article incorrectly stated that more than 130 Dorsey's Search residents signed a petition supporting the dismissal or resignation of Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty. A small number of those who signed the petition live in other villages. The Sun regrets the error.

McCarty, who succeeded Padraic M. Kennedy in August 1998, has faced questions in recent weeks about her leadership and commitment; three council representatives have called for her to resign.

With less than three weeks before the April 14 and 15 elections, a new political climate has emerged, where apathy is being replaced by activism. Among recent developments:

A grass-roots group of residents calling itself "Citizens for Columbia" has banded together in an effort to influence voters.

One village, Long Reach, has put on the ballot a referendum that, if approved, would create a way for its council representative to be recalled.

Two council challengers have called for McCarty to step down, and more than 130 Dorsey's Search residents have signed a petition calling for the president's resignation or dismissal.

A council incumbent who is unopposed in this election has made the issue of "leadership" -- that of the president and the Columbia Council -- a central theme of his campaign.

"Almost everywhere I go I run into groups of people discussing the current issues that are playing out before the council and the public," said Lee Hanna, a longtime Columbia resident. "There is very little the citizens can do about this issue, except vote."

The Columbia Association, a homeowners group governed by the 10-member council, operates much like a municipal government, providing services and facilities for the city's 87,000 residents. Council members serve one- or two-year terms.

Four of the six villages holding elections -- Harper's Choice, Hickory Ridge, Oakland Mills and Town Center -- have contested races. In Owen Brown and Wilde Lake, incumbents Pearl Atkinson-Stewart and Vince Marando are running unopposed.

Atkinson-Stewart, the council vice chairwoman, has welcomed residents' participation at recent council meetings that are typically sparsely attended, saying that Columbians are now "wide awake."

"This is how I remember it was in the '70s," she said. "You were out there. You didn't let people get away with stuff without questioning them."

Long Reach resident Pat Rausch, a self-described Columbia "pioneer," said she has shed her longtime "apathy." Now, in public testimony before the council, she is urging every resident to call 10 people in their village, and ask them to call another 10 people, as a way of boosting election turnout next month.

Citizens for Columbia has called a strategy session for 7 o'clock tonight at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills.

"In Columbia's relatively short life, there have been few occasions that demand public attention as much as what is happening right now in our hometown," reads a recent memo from Jean Moon, a founding member of Citizens for Columbia.

"We must change the makeup of the Columbia Council so that our representatives better reflect the values of the community, are committed to returning it to a state of equilibrium and recognize their responsibility to account openly for their actions."

Said Andy Stack, chairman of the Owen Brown Village Board: "I think the elections are going to be about the only way to resolve this."

Council candidates

Elections will be held April 14 and April 15. Voting regulations vary by village.

Harper's Choice:

Incumbent: Tom Forno

Challenger: Lanny Morrison

Information: 410-730-3888

Hickory Ridge:

Incumbent: Jean S. Friedberg Jr.

Challenger: Miles Coffman

Information: 410-730-7327

Oakland Mills:

Incumbent: Earl Jones

Challenger: Barbara Russell

Information: 410-730-4610

Owen Brown:

Incumbent: Pearl Atkinson-Stewart

Challenger: None

Information: 410-730-4744

Town Center (open seat):

Dennis Lane

Donna Rice

Suzanne Waller

Information: 410-730-4744

Wilde Lake:

Incumbent: Vince Marando

Challenger: none

Information: 410-730-3987

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