The democracy they deserve

April 19, 2002

THIS WEEK, a bit of contention broke out between some candidates in this weekend's elections in Columbia -- a small sign of life in the Howard County community's somnambulant political life. Columbia, the center of one of the nation's richest counties, long has had too little true political debate and, sadly, that appears unlikely to change even as the community faces enormous challenges.

It's tempting to dismiss the lack of genuine democracy in the planned suburb as unimportant. Columbia is not a city or even a town; the closest thing it has to a government separate from the county's is the Columbia Association (CA), essentially a condo association managing its parks and recreation facilities.

But with almost 90,000 residents, Columbia would be Maryland's second-largest city if it were incorporated. The community accounts for roughly two-thirds of the county's tax base. And CA is one of the largest condo associations in the nation; its $50 million yearly budget is five times that of Howard County's parks department.

Moreover, with a tax-like lien on Columbia properties guaranteeing a stream of rising revenue, CA for years has racked up a terrible record of monopoly inefficiency. (It somehow manages to lose money on its golf courses.)

All this has deep roots, going back to the early 1960s when James W. Rouse announced his company had secretly bought up almost 10 percent of then-rural Howard County for a little more than $20 million and would build a unique city there, a place he billed as "The Next America."

From the start, Columbia has been a company town, dedicated to an image that would aid land sales and the Rouse Company's bottom line. Until 1982, when residents were first deemed capable of electing CA's board, it had been made up of Rouse employees. CA's first president, hired by Rouse, stayed on for 26 years.

Not surprisingly, grass-roots efforts for change have repeatedly met with resistance from above. Drives for incorporation -- an idea with legal and financial problems but that this newspaper long has considered worth serious study -- have been quickly quashed. An outsider hired to become CA's second president in 1998 lost her job within 30 months amid a tangle of squabbling and power plays. A longtime CA vice president replaced her, and a self-appointed cadre of community leaders went to work making sure that nothing so messy happens again.

The latest insult to democracy came this spring when CA's board unveiled the fruit of 15 months of work by a residents' committee studying Columbia's "governance" structure. Right now, one board member is elected from each of Columbia's 10 villages -- by varying rules but often by the principle of one property, one vote.

The committee was not allowed to consider incorporation. It came up with three other options, one of which calls for the CA board to be appointed. In justifying this, the committee's report actually characterized Columbia's citizens, who constitute one of the most highly educated large communities in Maryland, as "not sufficiently equipped or inclined to choose the governing directors of CA."

This must be, because in this weekend's elections, only three races for six open CA board seats have drawn more than one candidate. As in the past, the contested races may elicit just a few hundred votes. There is hardly a clamor -- aside from some isolated activists -- for much of anything different. Columbians, evidently, are getting the democracy they want -- and deserve.

But they may be able to keep this up for only so long. Columbia is in the throes of big change. Rouse, finishing the community's last villages and its downtown development, is well into turning its attention elsewhere. Columbia, in its 35th year, is well into middle age, with a wide variety of attendant infrastructure, financial and social problems. The community needs capable, intelligent leadership, and that won't come without the sometimes fractious debate that arises from a healthy political life.

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