`Leggy' Columbia has to get its footing


January 28, 2001|By C. FRASER SMITH

You know you live in Columbia when someone complains of "leggy" flowers.

You'd have heard it at last Wednesday evening's Columbia Council hearings on a proposed budget of $51.7 million for the fiscal year beginning in May.

The citizen's concern leads to a bit of conjuring on the relationship between politics and plants.

Persons with disproportionately long legs are or may be called leggy.

Horticulturally, the word refers to a condition occurring when too little light reaches the right plant surfaces. It then begins to incline somewhat desperately upward, quickly moving it beyond leggy to awkward and unsightly-- not a healthy condition, not what the plant would look like if it were nourished by loving care, sun and rain.

Thereby hangs the tale.

Columbia, itself, has grown a bit long of limb and not in a good way. Without seeming to recognize its plight, the city of commuting convenience, jogging trails and dysfunctional quasi-government structure can now be seen struggling through another public crisis.

Its council hasn't been able to hire a new president for the Columbia Association, that entity which manages the proposed $51.7 million budget, monitors hundreds of employees, manages the motor pool, decides whether to annex new development -- and, of course, nurtures the marigolds so they don't aspire to the stature of sunflowers.

Not currently to be found in political dictionaries, "leggy" might have a spot there.

Definition: A condition of legislative or quasi-legislative bodies that occurs when insufficient care is given to growth and maturation. The struggle for sufficient sunlight leads to loss of stature, pratfalls and in extreme cases, collapse.

Who doesn't worry that the Columbia Council has grown a bit leggy over the last 34 years? Some say its condition was built-in, arranged to make it a bit tepid and timid in temperament -- the better to allow the late James Rouse and his company the freedom they needed to make Columbia great.

The noble goals and extraordinary successes of the founder do not include a governing structure capable of escaping the laughing-stock label.

Right now, the council and the association search for a way out of circumstances that leave it looking helpless and hopeless. It conducted a long search, spent Columbians' money on expert searchers and then failed to settle on one of the finalists, leading two of them to bail out before the selection was made.

Some in the city are so disgusted they want the council to do nothing until the spring when new elections will be held. Let the new group pick the new president, this group says.

Understandable, perhaps, but didn't we just do something like that? An earlier council hired a new president who didn't work out then gave way to the current assembly. New doesn't guarantee better.

So what's going on? How did things get so leggy?

A few thoughts:

Columbians tend to think they don't need a government and so, voila!, they don't have one. There's said to be a tradition of racial diversity which, despite recent concerns, does exist. People do seem to want it and some work for it.

But they don't seem to care whether their home owners' association (a.k.a. government) can park a bicycle straight. In a way, the thing needs to be blown up and reassembled from scratch. Columbia is one of the few places where that might work. There's talent and concern for solid thinking and community.

The council and the association also need more professionalism. That's a little like saying an orphan needs parents. But it's not hopeless.

The current council tried to find a new president without the help of an outgoing president; a corporate lawyer (position vacant); or a commmunity and public relations specialist (position vacant).

The association staff was meant to serve as the nervous system of a structure with rotating council members. If the council is to be truly independent of the Rouse Company it needs help. It needs expertise. It needs leadership. It doesn't need vacuums.

It needs sun!

Another thing to keep in mind: Image is not everything, but yes, someone must attend to public relations. And to communications. These functions are very important in the current structure because, almost inevitably, the parts of the body politic are not attached to any political or administrative brain, elected or employed. Thus do some suggest a "people person" as the best model for a new leader.

Wrong. Unnecessarily limited.

The leadership and managerial acumen -- experience, too -- are not mutually exclusive. And neither should be excluded. A $51.7 million operation needs a strong manager.

If she or he can't explain what's being done, he or she's not doing the job.

Finally, the council can't dump its responsibilities on the next group of willing victims. It must resume the search promptly. Having gone over the ground recently, this one might be shorter and better.

A new season might produce a new group of applicants better than the first. Even if it fails to conclude its work before the next elections, the council will be doing the job it was elected to do.

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

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