Columbia battles over representation

History, liens figure in perplexing mix of voting regulations

October 01, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

There aren't too many places in America where debate still rages over the principle of one man, one vote.

Then there's the Undemocratic Republic of Columbia.

Here in the hub of a county that a Declaration of Independence signer called home, 30 miles northeast of the nation's capital, there reigns a form of democracy that only the landed gentry could love:

The more property you own, the more votes you get.

In most of Columbia, the rule for local elections is one vote per household, no matter how many adults live there. Yet there's no suffrage shortage for folks with more than one home. They can cast a ballot for every house, condo and townhouse they own.

Renters can vote. But their landlords have at least twice as much power at the ballot box if they live in town. They're entitled to vote once as owners of the home where they reside, and again for every place they rent to somebody else.

"It certainly doesn't fit the old model from civics class," said Lee Richardson, chairman of a citizens committee studying ways to improve the unusual, confusing, quasi-governmental system by which the town of 88,000 is governed.

The Governance Structure Committee is trying to develop a plan for a more perfect Columbia and recommend it to the Columbia Council by the end of the year.

But don't expect a revolution.

The system has plenty of defenders because Columbia was established 34 years ago not as a run-of-the-mill municipality, but as a giant homeowners association, one of the country's largest. It makes sense, supporters say, for a property owners group to tie voting rights to property holdings.

Yet a host of quirks and inconsistencies in voting rules -- which vary from village to village -- often makes that system unfair even to members of the propertied class.

In some parts of town, business owners can vote if they own or rent commercial space there, even if they aren't residents. But great swaths of Columbia's commercial areas, including industrial parks, Town Center and some village shopping centers, are afforded no voting rights though they are subject to Columbia's equivalent to property tax, called a lien.

Corporate Office Properties Trust pays about $300,000 a year in Columbia Association liens on the 1 million square feet of office space it owns in the town's Gateway Industrial Park. Yet the company isn't entitled to cast a single ballot in local elections. At the same time, the man who rents a small storefront for a fish market in Wilde Lake gets to vote.

It's a wonder the disenfranchised aren't dumping tea into Lake Kittamaqundi.

"This is clearly taxation without representation," said Dwight Taylor, president of Corporate Development Services, the development subsidiary of Corporate Office Properties Trust.

Taylor said his company has no desire to meddle in matters pertaining only to homeowners, such as what colors are approved for house paint. But he would like the Columbia Association to locate fitness centers closer to Gateway, whose work force of 15,000 is the size of Columbia's largest village. And he'd like the right to vote for the council members who decide that kind of thing.

"In effect, we're underwriting CA's budget, and we ought to have a say in what CA does," he said.

Chalk up some of Columbia's inconsistencies to its time as an emerging democracy.

For its first 15 years, Columbia was run by a board made up of employees of the Rouse Co., which developed the planned community. Grafted onto this company town, however, were utopian ideals about community involvement and participatory governance. There were elected village boards, town meetings. By 1982, Rouse employees were off the board and elected representatives were in.

The wide range of services the Columbia Association provides also makes the place look a whole lot like a municipality and raises certain expectations for democracy. While Howard County provides police, garbage pickup and schools, the association operates pools and maintains miles of pathways and open space. It enforces housing standards akin to zoning.

"Everybody thinks we're a government," said Councilman Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search. "We're a strange animal, and they're trying to find a way to make it more equitable."

Most homeowners associations link voting rights to property ownership, said Sandy Denton, a board member of the Community Associations Institute based in Alexandria, Va. It's not unheard of, however, for voting to be on a one-man, one-vote basis, Denton said.

What's more unusual, she said, is mixing those voting systems in a community -- as is the case in Columbia, where eight of 10 villages vote by property, and the other two vote by individual. The same goes for giving commercial property owners voting rights in some areas of town, but not others.

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