Uncharacteristic calm before election

Small turnout for candidate forum a week before voting

Columbia

April 15, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Columbia residents will go to the polls Saturday to decide who will sit on a board that, for the second year in a row, has been torn by bitter policy disputes and personal politics.

But unlike last year's Columbia Council elections, when local controversies put voters in a "throw-the-bums-out" mood, it is not clear how residents will vote - or whether many will bother to vote at all.

About 125 people turned out for a pre-election rally a year ago, when many Columbians were upset with then-Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty and her council supporters. Most of McCarty's allies were ousted in that election, and she soon resigned.

Since the last election, the council has been caught up in a series of controversies, its bungled search for McCarty's successor chief among them. Just a few months ago, at standing-room-only meetings, angry residents were demanding that council members resign.

But much of the public interest in council affairs seems to have died down since then.

At a candidates forum yesterday, the residents who turned out to watch barely outnumbered the candidates. Eleven of the 16 council hopefuls participated. About a dozen residents attended, counting the timekeeper and two moderators.

Whether or not most residents are tuned in, the elections come at a critical time in Columbia's 34-year history. The nearly built-out community is seeing revenue top out just as its older homes and recreational facilities have started looking long in the tooth. Some village centers are ailing. Crime and school test scores are concerns in some neighborhoods.

One point on which every candidate seems to agree: The council, which oversees the huge homeowners association and its $44 million annual operating budget, will have to decide whether and how to continue providing Columbia's 87,000 residents with a wide range of services - from swimming pools to Swedish massage.

"As we did in the early days, we're dealing again with the issues of the soul of Columbia. What is it we want it to be?" said Kenneth Jennings, a vice president of African Americans in Howard County, a community group that organized yesterday's forum with St. John Baptist Church. The 3 1/2 -hour event took place at the Howard County Board of Education's headquarters.

Seven of the council's 10 seats will be decided in the election. Sixteen candidates are running. One village, Kings Contrivance, has opted to have two days of polling, on Friday and Saturday.

Sherman Howell, another vice president with African Americans in Howard County, told the candidates not to take the small audience as a sign that Columbians aren't paying attention.

He said his group would be making endorsements and circulating them widely. "I will have my SUV loaded with fliers to deliver to the churches," Howell said.

Low-interest loans

At the forum, candidates were asked to give their views on a range of issues, including affordable housing and whether the Columbia Association should make low-interest loans to residents so they can fix up their properties.

Most candidates said they would be reluctant to have the association get into the banking business, but that they might not object to some sort of partnership with a bank.

Hickory Ridge challenger Robert E. O'Brien was the exception. "I don't mind getting into the loan business for worthy candidates," O'Brien said.

Long Reach candidate Shelby A. Tucker King, the Columbia Association's former general counsel, noted that the association already has a program to help residents whose homes violate association covenants get low-interest loans from a bank. The association guarantees the loan but does not lend the money itself, she said.

Swimming pool fees

The candidates also were asked whether they would support a plan to make swimming pools free. Family pool memberships start at $165 a year.

Most of the candidates said that it would be nice to reduce pool fees, but that any change would have to be part of a broad strategic plan for the community.

"There is no such thing as free pools," said Councilman Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance, echoing Oakland Mills candidate Earl Jones, who noted that the pools are already subsidized with more than $1 million a year in association lien funds.

Wilde Lake candidate Mary Kay Sigaty noted that the association has a program that allows people to use the pool for free if they volunteer at the facility. She said the program needs to be better publicized.

O'Brien also was the exception on the pool issue. He wants to cut annual pool fees to $25 per family and also make all neighborhood pools heated. O'Brien has said he does not know how much that would cost.

His opponent, incumbent Miles Coffman, was out of town yesterday and did not attend the forum, but Coffman has said O'Brien's plan would cost the association millions of dollars that it cannot afford.

The candidates

In Wilde Lake, four candidates are vying for the seat being vacated by Vincent Marando.

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