Columbia no gem of democracy

May 28, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

COLUMBIA, MARYLAND — COLUMBIA, Maryland, may stand in the wider world for good government as well as for good ,housing, racial diversity, good schools and good malls.

But, in truth, it barely has a government at all.

One person, one vote is a promise kept elsewhere. In some of the city's 10 villages, it's one household, one vote.

A mayor? A city manager? A city council set up with rational election cycles?

Forget about it.

The 10 villages vary significantly in population, but each has but one representative on the city council. No member is elected to represent the entire city.

Some. serve one-year, some two-year terms. And they leave or are replaced often enough that the council has no institutional memory, no deep bank of expertise, no enduring coalitions. As a result, it constantly stops and starts as its new members get up to speed on budgets, annexation or the eco-nomic viability of, say, a riding sta-ble or a golf course.

None of this mattered much until recently. Columbians worried about their commute. They worried about their day care, their tee times, their mutual funds. But they didn't worry about the absence of government. If they thought about it all, they thought not having one was a blessing.

No more.

The Columbia Association's president inaccurately referred to as a quasi-mayor became embroiled in a series of controversies (some not of her making) which culminated in the overnight sacking of six vice presidents. She was on family leave at the time, had not registered to vote and did not own a home in the city.

So embarrassed were they by this chaos that many Columbians actually voted in village electibns. The turnout was not a tidal wave of indignation, but in the past concerned citizens occasionally had to round up voters so the election would be valid under the bylaws.

Several council members were unseated this time and the beleaguered president, seeing the election as a referendum on her performance, quickly sailed out of town on a $200,000 severance cushion. More embarrassment.

And, then the unhappiness seemed to grow and deepen. At a succession of meetings, people said they want change not a revolution maybe, but some serious tweaking, enough at least to make the current setup work. A mayor? Maybe. Incorporate? Maybe.

The first question, though, is this: How can a community of 90,000 or so relatively affluent souls find a way to agree on a form of government 33 years into the formation of that community?

And, more to the immediate point, how can the crackling energy observed in community forums be captured and focused on an arduous, possibly long-term mission?

Who will lead? Who can catch democratic lightning in a bottle? The challenge is striking, but seems to offer much reward. And the project would begin with some decided advantages.

People seem insistent and patient at the same time. A consensus exists that the current council must provide leadership and financial resources and some are saying citizens will take over if the council does not lead.

To be sure, some will be content with supine, aggressively indolent non-participation. One man, speaking during a meeting in Oakland Mills, said he needed to know what government could do for him. He had enough money to buy anything he wanted and enough connections to get a stop-light if he needed one, so what's the problem? Adolf Hitler would be OK as a leader, he said, so long as the trains ran on time.

Others want fundamental change in the structure, but they warn of complexity and the need for endurance a long haul. A host of problems will arise.

"It can't be done in sound bites," says Vince Marando, a member of the council and an academic who has studied the problem of government in cities, particularly planned cities like Columbia.

Columbia has the civic and intellectual horsepower to find the right structure. It could take a year or more. Decisions will have to be made before a final recommendation can be put before the voters: Should, for example, a new association president be hired now? The city has been down this road before: Incorporation drives have shattered on the shoals of indifference.

Now, though, the energy seems palpable.

"The conversation needs to be harnessed and disciplined," Mr. Marando suggests, otherwise "it burns itself out." This, he knows, from the earlier efforts.

But he knows something else.

"We have a lot of talented people. We all have something to contribute," he said.

It is said that Columbia has a government at all only because its founding fathers needed a mechanism for raising money to pay for lakes and other amenities and, therefore, needed a tax of some sort.

Even more cynically, it is said that no company with an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars wanted to include a truly representative government in its plans. Too much opportunity for disruption. So, some say, Rouse conceived a structure that had built-in dysfunction.

Now, though, disruption seems more likely if there isn't a sound and responsive government in which people are free to vote for a mayor (or city manager, etc.) if they want one.

Isn't it inconceivable that a place called Columbia the name redolent of the nation's founding could continue to deny its residents the full flowering of democracy?

C. Fraser Smith is a member of The Sun's editorial staff.

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