Columbia's search for a new day


March 04, 2001|By C. FRASER SMITH

THERE is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new."

Machiavelli in The Prince

"You would think that a community like Columbia with so much talent could coalesce around a movement for change."

Alex Hekimian, 2001

"We thought that we were going into this year with a council that better represented the interests of the community, and it turned out ... there just wasn't a majority of people who worked well together."

Jean Moon, business woman and community activist

The Columbia Council continues to search for a balance point between real government and an association of homeowners.

And would-be change agents in the community look for the right personal chemistry as a solution to recurrent difficulties.

Some would like to see more fundamental change, feel it's necessary and worry that costly calamity will be the price of continuing with the old system.

But complicated and inter-related problems stand in front of an overhaul:

A popular uprising would be necessary to provide momentum for a solution or to achieve consensus about a solution. Covenants and deeds held by the homeowners represent a Gordian knot: changing the voting system in some of the town centers requires not just approval but a vote of 90 percent of the voters. Untying this knot -- if possible at all -- will take patience and commitment and expertise. It will take a sense of community and compromise, a good faith atmosphere, which has not always been evident in recent times.

But there are groups at work to fashion a system more to their liking -- by changing the council's makeup or by convincing Columbia residents that a new way can be found if enough people want one.

Alex Hekemian, head of Alliance for a Better Columbia, wants a more professional, efficient and smart government in Columbia. He thinks old line, Rouse Company connected Establishment Columbians simply want their team in place so that the dysfunction of the system can be directed in ways they approve.

They're not interested in change, he says. They're interested in power. They'd rather run a ramshackle camp council than work to replace the current structure with something modern and functional.

Those who think the Columbia Association, the homeowners group, is government enough for this allegedly sophisticated bedroom community are in for a rude awakening, he predicts.

Taxes could rise significantly, for example. No one seems overly concerned possibly because they have despaired of the council's action.

Recreational amenities, many of which demand better management, are an embarrassment already, he says. The Columbia Association presides over an array of losing enterprises: golf courses, a horse center, sports operations and other endeavors. Few complain.

The city of Baltimore, no managerial paragon, has privatized its golf program, kept green fees remarkably low, maintained its courses well and turned a profit.

Hundreds of thousands of Columbia Association dollars have been spent in recent months to send former employes on their way, $200,000 to a former association president and about half that amount to several vice presidents. No one complained.

Recently, the council spent at least $35,000 to conduct a national search for a new CA president. Then, it threw out the results. Almost nobody complained.

"The system we have is too loosey goosey," says Mr. Hekimian. "Bad things can happen. Bad things have happened. And they will continue to happen as long as we have the form of government we have. This system has been abused by just about everyone."

ABC will try to get the candidates in this year's election on the record, asking them to state their positions on local issues in writing, said Alex Hekimian, president ofthe group.

Seven of the council's 10 seats will be open in the April election, and at least three members will not run again.

Another group is headed by Jean Moon, former general manager of Patuxent Publishing Co. She wants change as much as Mr. Hekimian, though they may disagree on what kind of change.

Ms. Moon heads Vote 01, the extension of a group formed last year to clean house at CA and the Columbia Council. Now she and her team have their brooms out again.

The African American Coalition of Howard County and the Alliance for a Better Columbia also hope to shape the next council.

All this organizing deserves applause. But it may be doomed to fail without the needed structural changes.

Are these activists just rearranging human furniture on the CA's Titanic deck?

"Columbia has outgrown its aura of happy days," says Sun letter writer, R.D. Bush. "Now we have too many people looking out for themselves.

"Everything is coming to a head," he says.

Maybe that's what it will take.

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

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