Columbia's creative stir over governance


April 02, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

WHAT IF they held an election and nobody came? It's happened, more or less, in Columbia of all places. In some years, to guarantee a valid election, concerned souls have scurried about before the polls closed to find a few more votes. Short of the threshhold, the election would be invalid.

But suddenly, a cure may have been found: Curious happenings at the Columbia Association; a clueless Columbia Council; an executive who, 18 months into her tenure, remains an unknown quantity.

So, at The Other Barn, a meeting place in Oakland Mills, 125 or so Columbia citizens met Wednesday to say two things about their city government:

Our government is embarrassing us. We don't want to be represented by people who all-but fire six vice presidents without an explanation while protecting the association president, Deborah O. McCarty -- whose commitment to Columbia has come under intense scrutiny.

We're getting the government we deserve. Since many of us have chosen to avoid any involvement -- even voting -- we end up with a council that sometimes looks like a class of high schoolers working their way through Robert's Rules of parliamentary procedure. It's a not-too-funny joke.

The Columbia Council and the association's president, as everyone in the old-new town knows, are government as Columbia has known it from the beginning. It needs re-tooling, rehabilitating and re-inventing. Its structure hampers its operation, leading to appearances of ineptness. Power unused has flowed toward increasingly unhappy village governors. Gridlock impends.

But those questions come later. For the moment, Columbia residents apparently wish to weigh in on the upcoming elections to say we're watching and whatever it is you're doing unsettles us. We're going to show our displeasure at the polls.

Time will tell.

But the political organizing talent and the motivation are in place.

You could see it last week in a meeting of representatives from Harper's Choice, who gathered in the northeast corner of the barn eaves to cheer each other on as if they were Chicago or Baltimore precinct captains ready to round up the faithful.

"We need to make sure people who are qualified get elected," said one man.

"Last year, we had a turnout of 10 percent -- barely enough for a legal election. There was a panic," said another.

"Every year," lamented a third member of the ad hoc GOTV (get out the vote) team.

Absentee ballots are available for people who don't want to show up at the village center polling places. Registration is possible until the day before the election, April 14.

The turnout, achieved by e-mail in a single day, reflects citywide embarrassment and anger, says Mike Riemer, a 30-year resident of Harper's Choice. "Over the years, people didn't show up unless their ox was being gored. Everybody's ox is being gored now."

Riemer said people are unhappy with the perception of preemptory firing in the ranks of the vice presidents. They're upset -- and one man is suing -- over the propensity to close council meetings.

And then, he said, comes talk of selling the village centers. Maybe it's just a thought. Maybe it's not serious. Maybe it makes sense. But let's talk about it.

"You have to talk to the shareholders," he said. "We're partners in this."

"We used to have meetings in Columbia about tot lots. We have a process," said Jean Moon, one of the rally organizers. The forced-resignation caper inflamed her, though: She called it "scandalous."

"It was just shockingly poor treatment by a council that's supposed to be representing us," she said. "I feel like the Martians landed."

Some have wondered -- somewhat cynically -- why anyone gets upset about the Columbia Association's conduct of civic affairs. Its budget is relatively small (about $50 million). Its credit rating seems good.

But here's the rub: The city runs well enough to persuade most residents not to get involved.

Until now. Now, says Ms. Moon, people see what she has always seen, always cherished and revered in Columbia. The council and the association have given the city a certain "distinction." It has not been fraught with corruption and waste (by and large) and its affairs have been handled with class and dignity.

All that has come into question, Ms. Moon said last Wednesday night.

Some preliminary answers, she told the organizers, could be found April 14 and 15 at the polls.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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