Promises to keep in Columbia

June 11, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

THERE WAS laughter when one of the good citizens of Columbia spoke Thursday night of a certain political awkwardness in his city.

Because some villages operate under the one-household one-vote rule for Columbia council elections, this gentleman observed, certain unhappy truths must be faced.

"If a husband and wife disagree," he said during the council's speakout last Thursday, "one of them is disenfranchised." Similarly, since the franchise is granted in some villages only to property owners, renters are outside the process as well. Ditto for sons and daughters of voting age living in a home under one-vote rule.

"May I suggest," this man said, "that we explore the possibility of updating our democracy."

He said it politely in a near whisper. But the plea was pointed. A few people in the audience laughed a bit as if to say, "Oh, we should take a look at that."

A few others in the room were taking a more assertive posture.

Vince Marando, a member of the council and professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park, offered a resolution calling for a 15-member committee to study governance in Columbia. His proposal was presented during the Thursday meeting and debated briefly.

During the speakout, Rick Kutz, a resident of Columbia since 1970, said the proposed study would answer a "pressing need" -- and urged that it go forward with independence from the Columbia Association, which now provides, in the form of a homeowners association, all the government Columbia has. Mr. Kutz wants what he called a professional facilitator to manage the study.

"It's not going to be a quick fix," he said, predicting a period of six to nine months. Mr. Marando suggests a year.

Neil Noble, another leader in the movement toward government, said the voters of Columbia need a steady flow of information from knowledgeable authorities who can help direct the study. Mr. Noble said he thinks paid professionals are needed to run the town. Right now, he said, a part-time council struggles too often with the full-time, paid association staff.

"Don't let apathy win out over common sense," he pleaded. "Let's keep talking. Keep this issue in the forefront and some sort of change will come."

The ensuing council meeting illustrated other reasons why Columbia needs to examine its form of government. Several minutes, for example, were devoted to the question of whether the council should debate the general plan that night -- even though virtually none of the members had read it. Others spoke of issues that seemed to reflect the need for change.

Barry Blyveis, a resident of Owen Brown since 1973, said he was surprised to find a financial report on the controversial horse center with no figures in it -- nothing that would allow someone to know if the center should or can make money.

"People at the center do things, get paid, put the money in their pockets and go home," he said. "Why doesn't the money go to CA [the Columbia Association]? ... Whose head should roll?"

Later in the evening, a University of Maryland expert said better management would make the center profitable.

But Mr. Blivas had an idea that, once again, raised questions of governance, professionalism in governance:

"I suggest taking the projections by CA over the years and compare them to what actually happened and then decide how much credence should be paid to what CA says about the Key property." The Rouse Co., developer of Columbia and the Key property, wants its latest and possibly last neighborhood annexed by the council and the association.

Tom Scott, who lives near the Fairway Hills golf course, said he had done a similar comparison of projections and actual performance of the golf operation. He said the performance was far below the projections.

These observations are no doubt important. The horse center and the golf facility may be poorly managed. Perhaps opportunities to make money are being missed. Or perhaps making money was not the point: Golf and horses are entertainment, diversions, leisure activities the Columbia family can provide for itself.

Others are raising more urgent questions about the Key issue and whether it should be annexed. What are the potential costs for Columbia's lien payers now? Would the lien payers be subsidizing the Rouse Co.? Would the new residents of the Key development be better off with a homeowners association of their own?

And, finally, does the Columbia Council have the acumen, expertise and professional capability to decide? The questions are among those that could be answered if Mr. Marando's request for a governance study is approved.

"We must not tire of this effort," said Mr. Kutz.

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

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