Residents revive push for reform in Columbia

Some believe community has outgrown system, should be incorporated

May 18, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

A group of Columbians seeking to improve the way the planned community is governed met last night to share ideas and lay the groundwork for what they hope will become the most serious push for change in five years.

More than two dozen residents attended the meeting, some because they favor incorporating Columbia as a city, others because they wanted to learn more about incorporation.

Several proposed joining with the Columbia Council for a formal study of a range of governmental structures."The greatest journey begins with one small step," said Neil Noble, a leading proponent of incorporation who organized the meeting at the Other Barn in Oakland Mills. "As far as I'm concerned, this is that step."

Bob McMurrer, a resident of Wilde Lake, called the previous council a "dysfunctional group" and said its members had no "sense of direction.""There is no sense of a legitimate government at this time," he said.

Dick Rodes, who has lived in Columbia for 30 years, said the form of government designed by the Rouse Co. more than three decades ago doesn't work anymore. But many residents, he explained, have become too comfortable to pursue something different."It's the job of some of us to change that and to get them to care," he said.

The structure of the Columbia Association - the homeowners group that provides services and operates recreational facilities for the community's 87,000 residents - has emerged as a central issue in the council term that began May 1. Former Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty said that much of the controversy that led to her resignation this month stemmed from the "growing pains" of a small community association that has become bigger.

Those at last night's hour-long session included Alex Hekimian, a former council member and one-time activist with the Alliance for a Better Columbia; and Martin Siegel, a longtime resident and founder of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, who co-chaired the failed incorporation effort several years ago.

Siegel, who owns houses in Columbia and Baltimore, said he is allowed to vote in the city because he is a citizen. But he can also vote in Columbia because he owns property there.

The majority of Columbia's 10 villages allow one vote per household."It's human rights vs. property rights," he said.

Siegel said he has become increasingly uncomfortable with Columbia because its governance system "goes against the progress of the American ethos, which says, `The people count.' The people do not govern here, and that is what drives me."

But, he warned: "If we're going to have the people govern, the people have to govern well."

Cecilia Januszkiewicz, who represents Long Reach on the 10-member council, urged all of Columbia to join the discussion. A proponent of change, she has proposed creating a citizens panel to study the forms of governance."It is something that we should embark on at the council level before we hire some poor unsuspecting person as our next president," she said.

Several years ago, a petition drive supporting Columbia's incorporation drew about 3,700 signatures - less than half the number needed to force a referendum. But some residents who attended last night's meeting said that while they had opposed incorporation then, they were reconsidering.

Added Noble: "Those petitions do not ever expire."

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