Town weighs how to govern

Columbia committee ponders changing historic governance

`People have to be heard'

Three models eyed to fix complications, inconsistencies

Howard County

March 10, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The rules for running the town of Columbia are riddled with charming quirks and undemocratic affronts.

One man, one vote is mostly a foreign concept. Taxation without representation is a familiar one. Two governing bodies with separate responsibilities preside over the place, yet the same people serve on both. Even they get confused about which hat they need to wear for what function.

For the past 15 months, a committee of residents has tried to come up with a more consistent and understandable system for governing the unincorporated town of 88,000.

If there's a quick fix, they haven't found it.

In a 46-page report and 100-plus-page appendix to be unveiled at a Columbia Association board of directors meeting Thursday, the governance structure committee proposes several models for remaking the system - some of them as complicated and undemocratic as the one they are trying to replace.

"This is America, and that's not democracy," said Harry Dunbar of Owen Brown, a longtime Columbia resident who attended many committee meetings after failing to win appointment to the panel.

Dunbar was referring specifically to a plan to put Columbia in the hands of a single board whose members would not be publicly elected, but instead appointed by elected village officials. The model is one of three that were presented, but not officially endorsed, by the committee.

"Personalities, local politics, neighborhood concerns, issues of democratic representation, etc., all seem to drain time and energy from a process that ought to be about examining the qualifications of those running and making a rational determination of whether they represent the kind of people we need to run CA," the report said in describing that option.

"For these reasons, the citizens of Columbia are not sufficiently equipped or inclined to choose the governing directors of CA as a corporation."

A system of indirect democracy might seem odd for a town that professes to value community input, but some say it is appropriate because the Columbia Association is a private, nonprofit corporation, not a municipality.

The committee's three models vary widely, so there is something to please or offend nearly every political sensibility.

One calls for electing Columbia's leaders citywide, allowing every adult resident to vote and imposing strict campaign spending and disclosure rules. Another would maintain the current system of electing 10 Columbia board members, each representing a village, but adds an 11th at-large representative.

"We hesitate to say this is the way we ought to be," said Lee Richardson, who chaired the committee and wants the public to have input before major changes are made. "People have to be heard from. What do they want their community to be like?"

The committee proposed the three models because its 18 members could not reach consensus, members said.

"There were very heavy conversations going on," said Councilman Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search, a member of the committee before his election to the council last year. "They got heated at times."

Some members quit the committee in frustration because they wanted to consider more sweeping changes to the organization, such as making the town an incorporated city. In creating the committee in 2000, the Columbia Council instructed the group not to consider that option.

The committee was able to agree on a number of changes that would fit any of the three models.

It recommends, for example, that the Columbia Council merge with the Columbia Association's board of directors.

The two panels were created when the Rouse Co., which developed the town, ran the place. For its first 15 years, Columbia was run by a board of directors made up by Rouse employees.

During that time, the Columbia Council was created, as strictly an advisory body, with residents serving as members.

By 1982, residents had taken the reins of both panels. After winning election to the council, members automatically appoint themselves to the board of directors.

But they often get their respective roles confused.

The 10 officials are supposed to handle financial matters, personnel issues, the budget and policy changes in their capacity as the board of directors. But they have sometimes acted on those matters at council meetings - creating confusing and, some council members have warned, potential legal problems.

The council also recommends that board members serve staggered three-year terms to reduce turnover. Now, terms are one or two years, depending on the village.

Other suggestions include reducing the number of council members to five or seven, possibly elected by district instead of village so that representation is proportional. Currently, each village has one representative, regardless of size.

The committee does not take a position on whether voting rules should be standardized, although that is suggested in at least one of the models.

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