Council's focus on longer-term planning scored

Some say larger issues lost in exhaustive process

`We're getting too esoteric'

Concerns include upkeep of facilities, assessments


August 04, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Politicians are sometimes accused of being so consumed with winning the next election that they ignore the long term. But some think the Columbia Council might be going too far the other way.

Months of often tedious, detail-filled strategic planning meetings about the town's future might have bogged down the process, some believe, while more important issues - decreasing the assessment and maintaining facilities - are falling by the wayside.

"I think sometimes we get too mired in details and we can't see the forest for the trees," said Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills. "And I'm afraid we might be missing some really important stuff."

But council Chairman Miles Coffman said it will take time for the panel to do a good job. He contends that the group is on track to finalize a plan by April and get citizens' reactions on issues ranging from programs for older adults to improving swimming pools.

The council's monthly planning meetings sometimes resemble a three-hour minutiae session - councilors debate what is a strategy and what is a priority, and meticulously discuss how each priority should be worded.

Community members who attend the meetings often look confused and sometimes mouth I'm bored to one another.

Now in the second year of the process, the council is studying four issues: adjusting programs and services to meet changing needs; forging partnerships to add services; maintaining Columbia's vision, and improving governance.

Council members and Columbia Association staff members brainstorm to address these issues, sometimes making lists on butcher paper and marking prioritized items with colored dots.

The council has discussed ways to better serve seniors and how to improve the association's aquatics facilities and programs. Ideas have included a leaf pickup service; reduced Columbia Association program rates for older, low-income adults; and more heated pools and theme pools to attract varied groups of people, such as teen-agers or older adults.

Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness, is leading the sessions and said it is time for the council and the association to start looking toward the future now that the original vision of how Columbia would be developed - with its many pools, walking paths and services - has been largely implemented.

"We wanted to take a hard look at the next five to 10 years - what should be the main strategies for maintaining the overall health of the community and what role should CA play in that," he said.

Focus on concrete ideas

Russell said that although she supports the council's strategic planning process, she thinks the group should focus on more concrete ideas, such as determining how much it will cost to maintain the association's properties in the future.

"Sometimes I think that we're getting too esoteric in our planning," she said.

The 10-member council determined the four categories after extensive research that included 11 poorly attended town meetings and a telephone survey.

The Columbia Association paid Mason-Dixon Polling & Research about $15,000 for the poll and other services, including attending and summarizing the town meetings. The association also paid James G. Dalton of Derwood, in Montgomery County, $6,750 to run a council retreat and lead some meetings.

Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens watchdog group, questioned the methods the council has used to identify issues. He worries that the telephone survey did not allow residents enough time to think and respond as a written survey would, and contends that it only reinforced what the association staff wanted to study.

The council should concentrate on ways to make living in Columbia more affordable and ways to decrease the cost of the assessment, he said.

"They sure are spending a lot of people-hours on it, and if it doesn't accomplish much, it's a wasted effort," Hekimian said. "If they had started by focusing on all the priorities of the residents, they would have gotten much further."

Coffman, however, said he is comfortable with the current set of issues, which he said could change if other needs surface.

Rouse's vision

One category - serving the growing Hispanic, African-American and Asian communities - has concerned at least one council member. Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice said that idea does not fall under developer James W. Rouse's vision of people of different racial and economic backgrounds living together. He said Columbia should be colorblind and "all-inclusive."

"We're not excluding people. Anyone can join any of the programs right now," he said. "Next we'll bring in religion - we'll have Korean-Catholic swimming."

But other councilors have said it is important to consider the diverse needs of people of different races.

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