Columbia's woes look pretty good from here

April 20, 2000|By Michael Olesker

YOU GOTTA love the folks in Columbia. Their average family income's about as high as anybody's, their streets are the cleanest, their lawns the greenest, their public schools pretty swell, their crime generally about as dangerous as a baby's burp. When Columbians open their windows, the sound they hear is a symphony of happy little birdies chirping to their hearts' content. They have to. It's written in all the community bylaws.

But the folks who live in Columbia are not happy these days. Not happy and, if we know our Columbians, not happy about not being happy. Quick, somebody from the Columbia Association, write a petition outlawing unhappiness. Form a committee for a feel-good sing-along down at the lake. Join hands and let's have everybody sway!

A new Mason-Dixon poll, conducted for the Columbia Flier and trumpeted across its front page the other day, says only 30 percent of Columbia residents think the town is "on the right track," while 46 percent say the Howard County community is "headed in the wrong direction."

And what direction would that be?

East toward Baltimore?

Not likely, not even in the contentious time of Deborah McCarty, the second president in the history of the Columbia Association and the first person in the city's history to catch so much flak from so many people.

"The last president, Pat Kennedy, had the job almost 30 years," Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker was saying yesterday. "It's like trying to replace Brooks Robinson. Kennedy was always visible and accessible. In two years, McCarty's never made herself a presence in the community. She's never laid out what she's trying to do."

Columbia, with about 90,000 people, is now more than 30 years old. In its youth, it was accused of being too pretty, too plastic, too planned. Now that it's getting a few bumps and bruises, red flags are flying.

In the Mason-Dixon survey, more than half of the respondents rated the Columbia Council's performance as fair or poor. More than half said McCarty should be fired as head of the Columbia Association, and only 15 percent said she should stay on. Sixty percent said she has not offered a clear vision of where she wants to take Columbia, and 68 percent rate her job performance as fair or poor.

"See, there are different types of Columbians," says Coker, whose Mason-Dixon office is in the Howard County town. "There are the longtimers who bought into the whole Jim Rouse concept, that whole dream. They're the ones who are most upset.

"Crime is still small, but it's increasing. Some of the schools, the test scores aren't as high as they'd like. People who want to sell their homes, the schools are becoming an issue."

Then there's the McCarty issue. She doesn't even own a home there. Some say this means she isn't committed to the community and isn't paying close enough attention to it. Others point out that McCarty, a former Atlanta City Council member, hasn't registered to vote in Maryland, hasn't registered her car, and has a husband who maintains a law practice in Atlanta -- none of which gives Columbians confidence that McCarty is, as they say, fully involved in her work.

The Columbia Council showed her a thing or two this month. It voted 9-1 not to give her a raise in salary and 6-4 not to give her a bonus.

Beautiful. In Baltimore, we've seen junkies taking over entire neighborhoods and thousands of vacant, decaying homes, and we kept electing the same mayor. Over the last decade, maybe 10,000 people were shot, but we kept the same police commissioner until the new mayor ran him out of town.

Do we mock Columbians for feeling a little blue about their community? No, we only ask for a little perspective.

The godfather of Columbia, the late James Rouse, had a dream of a new America where people of all backgrounds could raise their families in harmony. Those who followed him there shared that dream.

The insane thing is: Columbia has, in many ways, lived up to its promise. It's not Pleasantville, it's a piece of America, with a few age lines here and there, a few wrinkles, a few of its kids with growing pains, a little contention among its citizens -- and among its leaders.

Did anybody imagine this wasn't going to happen? It's supposed to happen -- all of it, even the anger toward a civic official.

But Columbia's still a remarkable place -- neighborhoods where people lead healthy, productive lives; public schools where kids can learn in safe surroundings; a sense that somebody who's caught jaywalking constitutes a crime wave.

From here, that kind of living sounds like a blessing.

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