Changing the system from the inside out

Ideas: Former political gadfly Wolfger Schneider now fights for citizens as a Columbia councilman.

August 09, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

For years, Wolfger Schneider had been a self-described political gadfly, lobbying at the local and county levels for environmental concerns, such as deposit laws for containers.

But this spring, he decided the time was finally right to try to change the system from the inside. He ran for a two-year term on the Columbia Council from Harper's Choice. In an upset, he became the only new face on the 10-member council, which also serves as the board of directors for the Columbia Association.

He may be in his freshman year, but he is full of ideas on how to improve the suburb that he has called home for 33 years.

"I certainly hope that we're able to keep Columbia what it is, and keep it from aging and decaying," he said.

Schneider, 61, won his seat in a hotly contested April election against council Chairman Lanny J. Morrison, winning a close race, 234-208. He was the only member of the Alliance for a Better Columbia - a citizens watchdog group that often clashes with the council - who was elected. The other two ABC challengers lost by large margins.

Schneider has been a member of ABC for about 10 years - "I suppose that brands me," he said. He described the group as a "democratic thorn in the side" of the homeowners association, often questioning the council's and the association's actions.

"It's really just a bunch of nice guys that get together and like to think about how we can make Columbia a better place," he said. Schneider's ideas stem from his concern that the average Columbian does not belong to any of the association programs that require a fee, and therefore does not get anything special from his or her assessment payments. "I think it's time that the Columbia Association not only caters to special interests, but to the whole community," he said. "Let's do something special - whatever form it takes. I'm sure we can think of something that can appeal to people."

Schneider said the Columbia Association should consider providing leaf pickup services for residents and making the association's 23 outdoor pools cheaper.

He quickly put leaf pickup services on a list of possibilities the council is considering as part of its strategic planning process to better serve the area's older adults. The process started last year in an attempt to address the town's greatest needs.

"Let's face it - the older Columbians have the biggest trees and the heaviest leaf loads," he said.

ABC President Alex Hekimian said Schneider's concerns show he is an independent thinker and represents the residents' perspectives, which sometimes get lost during council meetings.

"I think too often the Columbia Council members tend to drift toward what's good for the corporation," Hekimian said. "I think what Wolfger keeps in mind is that residents are the first priority."

In the short time that Jackie Maier Rose, a member of the Harper's Choice Village Board, has known Schneider, she has become certain he represents the village's interests, she said, and described him as "very sincere and very compassionate."

"I think he tries to do everything he can in his power," she said. "Everyone that I know that knows him speaks very highly of him."

Schneider was drawn to Columbia in 1969 primarily because it was close to his job at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where he is a professional staff engineer. But he was also attracted to the area because it was sold "as a city surrounded by green."

He values the area's 80 miles of pathways, which he often explores on weekends with his bicycle, and the mix of urban and suburban settings.

Schneider first moved to Wilde Lake. Ten years later, he moved to a house next to Cedar Lane Park in Harper's Choice. He likens his home to living in the country. He and his wife, Susan, see foxes in their back yard and deer eat their shrubs.

"When I first moved here, I couldn't sleep at night because the crickets were so loud," he said.

And Schneider hopes that his community values and residents' concerns will not be upstaged by what he calls the Columbia Association's "corporate posturing," contending that the association does not easily disclose information.

He mentioned the resignation in October of Councilman Steven Pine of Kings Contrivance, who left out of frustration over his inability to get financial information from staff.

"If CA were run more like a government, if it were as responsive as those county governments are, I think some of the tension would go away between the people and CA," he said.

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