Columbia's latest best chance to excel


April 08, 2001|By C. FRASER SMITH

WHAT IF they gave an election and nobody came?

Some of us remember a similar question from an epoch ago. Smart student radicals used it during the war in Vietnam, hoping to encourage potential soldiers to resist. They stuck flowers in rifle barrels and stated: If nobody came, there wouldn't be a war.

The results would be different, of course, if the subject were elections. If nobody comes, you don't have an election, to be sure.

But you wouldn't have a government. You wouldn't have a democracy. Or a voice. Or a future that unfolds along lines you can draw via the people you elect.

You could say elections don't guarantee any of the above. You have to find the right people to elect. They have to listen. They have to be thoughtful, and they have to accept the community consensus on programs and policy. Sometimes they don't, of course, but they can be replaced -- at the next election.

Elections can seem less important in Columbia because it doesn't really have a government. It has a home-owners association. But that's too fine a point. A homeowners association is a government for better or worse.

The Columbia Council, whose members also sit as the Columbia Association's board of directors, do provide government. They make critically important decisions involving taxes, recreational facilities, and other things that raise or lower the quality of life.

If you think various grassy areas are unkempt and embarrassing, you blame the council/association.

If you're embarrassed by deliberations that occasionally fall into acrimony and frustration, you blame the council.

If you don't want a relationship of any kind with the Rouse Co., you applaud the council's decision not to annex the Key property in North Laurel. If you think the council missed a good bet -- turning down more taxpayers who will live or do business on the Key land -- you feel the council failed you.

If you think every council member should have immediate access to the association's business records, you may wish to see forceful advocates for your point of view on the council.

You may regret the fact that some of the council's most outspoken advocates of open government will not be running this year.

You may think participating in a Columbia election gives too much legitimacy to a process that labors under suffocating rules that restrict voting in a way not be permitted under the Constitution. In some villages, it's one household -- not one person -- one vote. Only one voting member per household. No wonder there's a problem getting enough voters to make an election valid.

If you find any of this curious or offensive, you can register your disapproval by voting in the elections coming on April 20 and 21. You'll have two days. It's a weekend. You can still drop off your laundry on Saturday if you vote on Friday.

Here's some of what you need to know.

Seven of the 10 council seats are open. This fact actually advertises one of the disabilities of the Columbia system: too rapid turnover is the enemy of considered judgment based on experience, knowledge, historical perspective and any number of other considerations that would allow the association to function as more than a camp council. Under the current set-up, the permanent staff has enough power to counter the council's decision-making.

In fact, given its inherent instability, any group in Columbia can wield more power than the council. Any group of disaffected people can un-elect anyone on the council because so few people are involved in council affairs and, ultimately, so few vote.

A new body should address the question of terms: How can they be lengthened? It should address the issue of voting rights. It should address the issue of a decision-making body with built-in potential for paralysis: several times in recent months the council has deadlocked 5-5 on important issues. Ties equal a collective "no." Important decisions -- the Key property annexation vote and the vote on a new CA president, for example -- were decided on ties.

Vote 01, a group working to turn out concerned Columbians, has the right idea. It's not the only group urging people to participate. Some don't like its agenda, finding Vote 01 too closely aligned with what they think of as the old Columbia Establishment.

There's a solution, friends: Organize your own group. Find your own candidates and issues. You could ask your neighbors about the issues if you don't know what they are. Work for one of the candidates. Put together a neighborhood machine. Feel the power!

With so few people involved, small groups can influence outcomes. Then they have access to a decision-maker, a representative who will be beholden in the best possible way.

As usual, Columbia generates a wealth of talent, people who have the experience needed in community affairs and in special fields to do what a government must do. In general, Columbia's government needs a dose of professionalism, a cadre of serious-minded people who think it's important to run the place well, who see unrealized potential and who believe it's their responsibility to care.

A warning is in order, though: If you take it seriously, you might end up with an emotional stake in the outcome.

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

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