Village elections offer chance for reform

Columbia: Council must begin the process of redefining itself and its mission.

April 15, 2000

VOTERS IN six village centers speak today about government in Columbia: specifically about who runs it -- but also about its shape, tone and intelligence. Some 33 years after the late James W. Rouse's great experiment -- his new town of diversity and democracy -- an overhaul is overdue.

Columbia may not need to become an incorporated city -- though an argument could be made for that change. But it certainly should become a professionally run governmental enterprise, open and responsive to the city's 87,000 citizens. That description does not fit today.

Candidates have spoken about the need for a "mature" council. And many voters have said they are embarrassed by recent controversies involving the council and the Columbia Association president, Deborah O. McCarty.

Whether the voting energy is impressive or, as in past village elections, disheartening, the newly constituted Columbia Council will have an obvious opportunity for stock-taking. Many questions need answers: Here are three:

Does the board of directors, the Columbia Association's nominal authority, have sufficient real authority to oversee the management of the association? Is the current structure an effective mechanism for meeting its goals, as well as ensuring that other parties, including county government and the Rouse Co., meet their responsibilities to the community? Would a regular political system be less accountable or more seemingly inept?

Just last week, The Sun's Erika Niedowski reported that the association has failed to file employment forms for the immigrant workers it hires. Fines can be as high as $2,000 for each offense. The law requiring these forms has been in effect for more than a decade.

In a too familiar pattern, the council and Ms. McCarty compounded the difficulties by refusing to give a complete accounting of what happened.

The new council needs to find a new voice and perhaps a new structure.

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