Council to hold 11 town meetings

Residents' views on future, problems of community sought


November 13, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The simple town meeting where folks say their piece and sway their leaders looked pretty good to Norman Rockwell, but it doesn't always cut it in Columbia.

The Columbia Council wants to know what residents think about the problems and challenges confronting the 34-year-old planned community as it approaches middle age.

So from tomorrow night until early next month, the council will hold not one town meeting, but 11.

It has hired a national polling firm to record and summarize each one.

It will follow up with a professional telephone survey of 400 homes.

After all that, if some categories of Columbians are still falling through the cracks, the pollsters might pick their brains in focus groups.

Local leaders say they're making an extra effort to take the public's pulse - at a cost of $12,500 to $17,500 - because the topic at hand is nothing less than charting the future of Columbia.

"When we begin to [envision] that type of scenario, then you wouldn't want to put it out there and have our residents say, `Gee, I didn't have anything to do with that,'" said Maggie J. Brown, president of Columbia Association, the homeowners group that governs the town of 88,000.

"We want this to reflect the community, not just the staff or the council or the board of directors. This is a piece that the residents have to have input into."

The Columbia Council, which oversees the homeowners association, has been trying for months to come up with a list of "strategic issues" facing the community.

Progress has been slow, so slow that council members will barely have enough time to be briefed on the issues on their list - let alone discuss or act upon them - before most of their terms expire.

With help from a professional facilitator, the council came up with a list of six issues: changing assumptions about Columbia Association services, programs and facilities; changing demographics; aging residential and commercial properties; a dwindling awareness of the town's original vision; the impact of regional economic development; and the community's governance structure.

After extensive work and discussion about which sentence belonged under what bullet point, the council took its first substantive look at one of the six issues at a meeting last week.

The staff briefed the council on long-term financial projections. That took the entire 2 1/2 -hour meeting, without any discussion among council members.

The council initially planned to take up the remaining issues individually, devoting one of its two monthly council meetings to similar staff briefings. But at that rate, the council realized last week, the briefings would not be completed until April - when six of the 10 members will be up for re-election.

The council might double up on some sessions to get through this so-called "understanding/research stage" more quickly.

"Once we get past this slow beginning, then things will start to come up that we can actually take action on and move forward," said Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake, who recently changed his name from Feldmesser when he married Wilde Lake village board member Jessica Mark.

In the meantime, the council wants to see if its ideas about Columbia's long-term problems and goals are in accord with the public's. The council has called for public meetings in each of Columbia's 10 villages, plus an 11th citywide meeting.

The first meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Linden Hall in Dorsey's Search. The citywide meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Columbia Association headquarters.

"The Columbia Council's strategic planning process is the first effort the council has made in decades to revisit the fundamental assumptions and conditions that are underpinning the Columbia community," said council Vice Chairwoman Linda Odum of Long Reach. "And we see it as a planning process, not, of course, as arduous and as broad in its scope as the original planning for the founding of Columbia."

Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice said the community's input will play an important role in planning for Columbia's future.

"The first step in the process has been for the board to delineate what it believes are critical issues the organization will be facing," he said. "The next step is to go out to the community to validate whether or not these issues are indeed the right ones and, if not, to develop new ones and set priorities for them."

The council is not relying on its own eyes and ears to gauge public opinion at the meetings. Instead, it has hired Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. for $5,000 to record the meetings and present the council with a synopsis.

Mason-Dixon will also conduct the telephone survey of 400 homes for $7,500.

The firm also might conduct focus groups if certain segments of the community - senior citizens or Hispanics, for example - do not attend the town meetings. That would cost an additional $1,500 to $5,000, depending on how many of those sessions are needed, Brown said.

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