Council hopefuls want big changes

Challengers' issues include longer terms, one person, one vote

Elections to be held April 20

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

The three challengers in this month's Columbia Council elections favor extensive changes in the way the planned community is governed, while the incumbents want to take a more cautious approach.

After the April 20 elections, the council is expected to consider altering the quirky, confusing, undemocratic system by which the town of 88,000 is run.

Voting rights and council terms vary across town, and each village has one representative on the council regardless of population. Yet the system has its defenders because the presiding institution is not a municipal government, but rather a private homeowners association.

"I think a lot of changes are called for," said Barry Blyveis, a challenger from Owen Brown. Like the two other challengers, he is a member of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens watchdog group.

A retired Justice Department attorney, Blyveis, 62, said he would like changes to be gradual. "I don't believe in taking giant steps," he said.

The measures he favors would add up to a significant departure from the current system. Blyveis said he would like to explore turning the community into an incorporated municipality or a special tax zone that would leave schools, county and police protection to the Howard County government. Advantages would include aid from federal and state governments, he said.

"People have pretended to investigate and study this issue, but there are people available at universities that for $10,000 to $20,000 will review the matter, present the advantages or disadvantages, and then we present that to the people of Columbia," Blyveis said.

He calls for one person, one vote, a radical concept for Columbia and many homeowners associations, which mostly link voting rights to property ownership. In eight villages, the rule is one vote per household. In the other two, it is one person, one vote.

Blyveis, a 29-year resident who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1994, also would like to add to the Columbia Council an 11th member who would be elected at large and serve as chairman. The chairman would have more authority than the current chairman, who runs meetings and sets agendas.

`Sort of our mayor'

"This person should be sort of our mayor and speak out for Columbia," he said. "At present, we don't have an effective voice to go to the county or the state and say, `Hey, we're not getting our fair share.'"

The Columbia Association president does not fulfill that role, Blyveis said.

"The president is not the mayor," he said. "It's more the city manager."

The incumbent from Owen Brown, Pearl Atkinson Stewart, thinks change is in order, but not to that extent. She does not favor incorporation, which she said would force homeowners to pay for an expensive new layer of bureaucracy.

Stewart, who has lived in Columbia since 1974, said she would support lengthening council terms to two years if all villages agreed. Now, terms are one year in some villages and two years in others, including Owen Brown.

"I think two years is a good amount of time for a term," said Stewart, 64, who is retired from a job in facilities management at Howard Community College. She served 10 years on her village board and is seeking her third two-year term on the Columbia Council.

Stewart said she is satisfied with the system. She noted that the Columbia Association's Governance Structure Committee, which studied the topic for 15 months, failed to reach a consensus on a new form of governance and instead offered several widely different models in a report submitted to the council last month.

"They couldn't come up with any [alternative]," Stewart said. "That tells me that apparently our system was a good system, because they couldn't find anything wrong. The reason why they couldn't come up with anything better is because it is a very workable system."

The contrast between the candidates from Hickory Ridge are similar.

Challenger Joel Yesley is calling for public input in the form of a referendum before any changes are made. But his preference is for a radical reshaping.

An economist who has lived in Columbia for a year and a half, Yesley, 58, favors one person, one vote; electing council members at large instead of by village; lengthening council terms; and combining the council with the Columbia Association board of directors. Currently, the same 10 people serve on both panels, which have different functions.

"I believe the current setup lends itself to a too-close relationship between the council and CA," he said. "I don't think that's a healthy situation."

Incumbent Miles Coffman, who is seeking his third one-year term, said the council needs to find out what changes, if any, residents want.

"That's not my call," said Coffman, 52, a 17-year resident who served on his village board for 10 years before joining the council. Unemployed, he has a professional background in banking.

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