Apathy? That was then


May 21, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

LIKE A GENERAL fighting the last war, Neil Noble convened a meeting of anxious civic warriors last week -- without a battle plan.

You could sympathize with him. A voice in the wilderness of comfort and contentedness, Mr. Noble poured his activist blood into the cutely named streets of Columbia five years ago, urging residents to stand up for their democratic rights, and few noticed.

What he wants is for Columbia to become an incorporated municipality -- but he's reluctant to push that agenda again.

And yet last Wednesday evening, in a room he paid $50 to rent for an hour, more than 30 impatient Columbians spilled out frustrations about the structure of government in their city. A series of embarrassing episodes over the last five months -- and a feeling that Columbia needs to take a definitive, maturing step -- brought them to the Noble meeting.

Emerging consensus resided in these particulars:

If Columbia moves to reform, refine or re-structure its government, a study is needed to outline alternative approaches. What have other planned new cities and towns done when they reached middle age? What think groups, consultants, university professors might be available to guide such a study?

If Columbia is to embark on such a project, the citizens' group may have to partner with the Columbia Council and the Columbia Association to do the study. It's going to cost some money. CA ought to provide it.

If Columbia stands ready to move on this front, its citizenry needs to demonstrate some active interest. Last Wednesday evening's meeting revealed enough passion and energy to suggest that citizens at large are interested in giving themselves a real government.

Dick Rodes, a 30-year resident of the 33-year-old city, crystallized the new atmosphere for himself.

When they set up a quasi-governmental structure in the beginning, the Rouse Company assumed a patriarchal posture -- dictatorial others said. Mr. Rhodes thought firm control was critical in the beginning.

"They ran the show. I didn't object. It was good. But it's not good anymore." The village centers, the council and the association, he said, operate under "a mixed-up bag of rules." Each of the 10 village centers, for example, has different election rules.

"Most residents are too comfortable to care," he said, "so it's up to us to get them to care."

Calvin Blinder described himself as a former member of the didn't care group.

"Now I'm willing to consider incorporation," he said. It won't be enough, he said, to point in the general direction of incorporation -- or anything else. Someone has to lay out the details and lead.

One of the other anxious soldiers said she was "appalled" that such a framework was not on the table last Wednesday night. "I'm disappointed," she said. "We need specifics. We need leadership, a vision."

One member of the Columbia Council, Cecelia Januszkiewicz, has been saying that a new structure will be needed to make the council accountable, efficient and less than a periodic joke. Because new council members are elected every year, all sorts of mischief is possible. Council members could decide to work against colleagues they don't like, anticipating -- even promoting -- defeat of their opponents in the next election

Every budget and every issue has to be studied and re-studied to bring new members up to speed. Problems tend to hang around, unsolved.

Circumstances such as that lead some cynics to conclude that the system was designed to produce gridlock -- and to leave the real power with the Rouse Company. Even though Rouse withdrew officially years ago, many believe Rouse still calls the shots.

So, cynicism may add an edge to apathy.

Right now, said Rabbi Martin Siegel, co-chairman with Neil Noble of the last incorporation effort, Columbia is virtually an un-American city, conferring the vote based on property rights not citizenship.

"I can vote in Baltimore," he said, "because I'm a citizen. In Columbia I can vote because I own property." That anomaly leads him to think about moving, he said.

"I can't live in a community that goes against the national ethos. It says in the White House `The people govern here.' They do not govern in Columbia."

In a sense, he suggested, Columbia's apathy makes it unworthy of citizenship."We have to organize ourselves," he said. "We have to be worthy."

It won't be an easy sell., "I don't care if it's Adolf Hitler or Marion Barry (running things) as long as the trains run on time," said a man at the meeting. Someone quickly ruled out Mr. Barry or a reincarnation of the Fuhrer.

But who will lead? Who will put up the money? Who will devote hours to the study?

And, if the group depends on the Columbia Council for money to pay for studies, would it be sufficiently independent? If the council's new leadership does not believe restructuring is needed, will the search be straight-jacketed from the start?

A poll cited during the meeting showed that 49 percent of Columbians favor incorporation. Wonder how many of those would be willing to work for it -- or some other form of restructuring?

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

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