You talkin' to me?


June 04, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

HEREWITH the main body of reaction to a recent column suggesting that Columbia needs an orthodox form of democratic government:

Not exactly your basic groundswell. Phone not ringing off the hook. One reform advocate did call to say "thanks." Another said more meetings are planned.

But no sit-in of government-starved citizens sprang up around Lake Kittamaqundi. Not even close.

Two of Columbia's most conscientious and committed public servants gave voice to the above-mentioned silence.

"The Columbia Association is a homeowner's association, not a government," said one. "Columbia doesn't need a government. Everything a government needs to do is being handled by the county."

"Right," said the other. End of discussion.

Columbia resident Don Norris, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agreed.

Never gonna happen, he says.

No standout issue

There's simply no issue resonant enough to trigger a full-throated cry for government, he said. A few people were upset over difficulties encountered by the previous Columbia Council and the now-departed Columbia Association president, Deborah O. McCarty. True enough, he said. But so what? Ms. McCarty is gone. A new council has been elected.

All's right with the world. Or right enough for Columbians?

Sure there are problems, but they're minor, according to the ain't-broke-don't-fix-it view.

Perhaps something can be done to rationalize the voting requirements which now vary from village to village.

Perhaps some way can be found to achieve one-person, one-vote equality. Right now, in some villages, you get one vote per household. In others, every qualified voter can vote. The villages vary in size: each gets one representative on the council.

Maybe the council terms can be changed -- even extended to four years so that members will have the expertise they need for decision-making which could become more complicated.

Perhaps, it is also possible to provide for one or two at-large members so that someone on this decision-making body represents the entire city. Every member, to be sure, takes a citywide view -- but having a designated citywide voice might be a good thing.

The council's new president, Lanny Morrison, comes to the post with the advantage of experience. He held the post 10 years ago. At a recent hearing on the proposal to annex the Rouse Company's Key property, he led an intelligent round of questioning which seemed businesslike and reasonably professional.

His view: Columbia's recent problems have been personal, not structural. The structure seems relatively pleasing to most residents. Their decision in the last village election to replace several members of the council -- and by extension to invite Ms. McCarty's departure -- may be about all they think is necessary.

Perhaps so.

But maybe not. Many of the changes listed above may appear to be mere tweaking. But with enough tweaks lined up, one may need an orderly approach and a list of needed fixes that result in something quite different.

It is said (to the point of tedium) that Columbians care only about their pools, their schools and the height of their grass. They are fortunate in being safe in that crabbed view of their responsibility: the Rouse Company has been a solicitous and efficient father figure.

Here's a thought, though.

It seems altogether likely - and eminently smart - to imagine that the council will agree to annex the company's latest and probably last big development parcel, the Key tract in North Laurel. A total of 1,219 units of single family, townhouse and apartment dwellings are proposed. Some 260 acres of open space are provided - 18.5 acres of which are for parks, tennis and a pool. Many linear feet of Columbia's signature paths are planned as well. A lovely quarry , which may or may not be in the annexed property, is part of the mix.

Some 60 "moderate-income" dwelling units will be scattered throughout the development. What moderate means in terms of dollars, the council's briefers did not know (unaccountably) last Wednesday evening. They were asked to find out.

Many other details were to be ferreted out and presented. All in due time, no doubt.

Qualified voters?

The overall question, though, was this: Is the council qualified to vote on something this complicated?

One member said: "No. But we do it all the time." It is possible that difficult questions will come at the council with more frequency as the city and Rouse near the end of their development tracks. The council should assume that life will get more complicated -- and try to be prepared for it by making government more professional and democratically sound.

At least one council member wants to join a still-forming citizens group populated by Columbians who desire real change. Some proposal is likely soon to provide money for a study of how other similar communities in the U.S. have moved from homeowner association to incorporation. Reston, Va., may offer a model.

Another meeting of the reform minded is scheduled for later in June -- with two speakers.

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

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