Council election set for April

Six of 10 members up for re-election leaning toward run

Possible opposition unclear

March 15, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Six of 10 Columbia Council members are up for re-election next month, and all intend to run or say they are leaning that way.

It is not clear how many will face opposition.

Some observers expect this year's elections to be less competitive and contentious than in the past two years, when residents were mobilized by issues related to then-Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty and later, the search for her successor.

A group that got involved in the last two elections under different names, Citizens for Columbia and Vote 01, plans to sit this one out, said Jean Moon, a Columbia resident who helped organize both efforts.

"I just don't feel the same urgency this year," Moon said.

Elections are April 20. Under Columbia's quirky voting rules, which vary by village, Owen Brown and Kings Contrivance also will hold balloting April 19.

In most races, no one has filed the necessary paperwork to become an official candidate, including incumbents. Filing deadlines are this week and next, depending on the village.

Candidates often wait until the last minute to file, village officials said. Council members who have said they will run for re-election are: Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge; Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake; Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice; Donna Rice of Town Center; and Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills.

Pearl Atkinson Stewart of Owen Brown said she probably would run but had not made a final decision.

Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search, Linda Odum of Long Reach, Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance and Ed Stern of River Hill are completing the first year of two-year terms. The length of terms ranges from one to two years, depending on the village.

The council sets policies and approves a budget for the Columbia Association, a homeowners organization that provides recreational facilities, maintains open space and enforces property standards in the unincorporated town of 88,000.

In April 2000, Citizens for Columbia rallied residents to oust council members who supported McCarty, whose leadership skills and commitment to the community were being questioned.

The group backed two successful challengers, Morrison and Coffman.

McCarty resigned that May after 20 months on the job.

Last year, after fierce council infighting over the search for McCarty's replacement, Vote 01 recruited candidates to run on a single campaign promise: to bring about a more collegial council. Four of the seven seats at stake in last year's elections were won by candidates recruited or backed by Vote 01.

Since then, the council has hardly been a love fest. Relations between some members remain strained, chiefly between Morrison and Russell.

But the council has been quieter than in the past two years, when members accused each other of concealing public information, leaking confidential matters to the press and being racists.

"It was a hotter time," Moon said, adding that she thinks the current board has been more professional than the previous two. "It's just the nature of the game that when things are going wrong, people tend to get agitated and get more active. So maybe things are going well."

The relative calm has not been hailed in all quarters. Some council critics, including members of the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, complain that the Vote 01 camp has stifled debate and failed to tackle critical issues.

The previous council certainly had more on its plate. It hired a new president, turned down a big land annexation deal, reached legal settlements with two Columbia Association vice presidents forced out under McCarty and changed the way property assessments were calculated - a move later reversed amid complaints that it opened the door to huge rate increases.

The council has spent most of the year working on "strategic planning." The exercise is intended to chart Columbia's future, and many council members feel strongly that it will succeed. But the only tangible result has been the compilation of a short list of issues facing the community.

The hottest issue the council took up all year was whether to drop towel service at Columbia Association gyms. It decided to continue providing towels after health club patrons complained.

"I think there are some things that still need to be accomplished, and I would like to be a part of that," Morrison said.

He said he would like to continue working on strategic planning and help evaluate the town's governance structure, which has been the subject of a 15-month study by a citizens committee.

"I think there's still a lot of work to be done," said Feldmark, who joined the council last year. "A year is just about enough time to figure out what's going on and next year's the time to really start hammering out the issues that are really important to me. I think it would be unfair to the people of Wilde Lake to take a year, learn everything and leave."

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