Columbia's search in jeopardy of failing


January 21, 2001|By C. FRASER SMITH

SHOULD ANYONE be looking for an ideal place to enrich and perfect the ideals of good government, Columbia might be on the short list.

The city offers much promise with its tradition of community responsibility, its commitment to diversity, its smart electorate, good schools and devotion to kids.

Those who choose public administration as a career might yearn to work in a place like Columbia. Some even choose cities like Baltimore, where the advantages compete with enormous problems largely absent in Columbia.

Both need good public servants and both have had them. James Rouse, Columbia's founder, was an entrepreneur with an extraordinary commitment to the public welfare. In a sense, Rouse and his company performed so well the people may think they don't need good leadership.

That would be a tragic misjudgment. The work of running a $50 million operation like the Columbia Association demands a talented person.

Baltimore, of all places, had an example of how important the search can be. Columbians take note.

The city profited every day for half a century from the work of Janet L. Hoffman, fiscal adviser to mayors and city councils and lobbyist for the city in Annapolis, who died earlier this month.

At a memorial service, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes offered this tribute.

Ms. Hoffman, he said, was a modern version of Plato's Guardian, those "men and women of great ability who would help to guide their city in accordance with complete integrity, great wisdom and true devotion to their polity."

He recalled Ms. Hoffman's "mastery of the legislative process," her "uncanny ability to create consensus from many divergent points of view."

Her contribution went deeper. "She was a brilliant public economist and a genius at public finance. But to limit her accomplishments to these surely impressive achievements is to underestimate the enormous contributions she made as an individual and as a public servant to our state and its citizens."

She believed, Mr. Sarbanes said, "that governance in a democracy is a serious and noble enterprise. While she was a wizard at numbers, ultimately her advice and decisions were based on principles which held that government ought to seek a reasonable equality of opportunity and fairness for all its citizens.

"It is no exaggeration to assert that the continuing and renewed success of our democracy rests on the dedication and good judgment of persons like Janet Hoffman. The intellectual competence, wisdom, judgment and most of all the values she brought to the public process were steeped in the notion that government should serve all the people -- not just the privileged and the advantaged.

"Her impressive record of service in Annapolis tended to overshadow another frequently overlooked accomplishment. In current parlance, Janet's style and substance might not be seen as that of an ardent feminist. Yet in her own independent and determined way, she single-handedly broke down barriers and attitudes that benefited so many who followed behind her. One must realize that the professional world she entered and operated in for so many years was overwhelmingly a male domain.

"She was never intimidated by this environment -- neither blandly acquiescing to others when they were plain wrong on policy, nor condescending to be `one of the boys' when that was the easier path.

"Through her persistent but polite pursuit of quality and her high standards of personal and professional integrity, Janet Hoffman was the epitome of the public servant. Other jurisdictions wanted a Janet Hoffman. She was the standard.

"The principles and values for which she stood will long resonate in those who were associated with her and in the policies and programs she promoted for the people of Baltimore and the citizens of Maryland."

Here's the point:

The current state of dysfunction on the Columbia Council could deny the city the possibility of hiring anyone at all to run its corporation -- much less a Janet Hoffman.

Because it deadlocked in a 5-5 vote (and because some said "racial politics" was polluting the process) the council must now restart its search at some additional cost -- not just in dollars but in lost time and opportunity.

If the association needs a $130,000-a-year president, it needs one as soon as possible. If it wants an opportunity to find a guardian like Janet Hoffman, it must, in the short run, find a candidate who commands a majority of the 10-member council.

In the longer term, it must find a way to restructure itself, to add or subtract a member. Perhaps an 11th member could be elected citywide. Or, perhaps, each of the 10 village centers could have a third council representative on a rotating basis: Long Reach one term, Oakland Mills the next and so on.

Columbia already has public servants who strive to meet the ideal of the Guardian. They serve without pay. They accept harsh criticism. They work hard.

If they don't rationalize their structure, though, they may have no hope of hiring a president with similar commitment.

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

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