Columbia candidates urged to be nonaligned

Political parties seen emerging in council elections

Howard County

March 16, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

As next month's elections for the Columbia Council approach, two council members are urging the public to run for office - but without joining any outside organizations.

In a recent letter to the editor in The Sun and a column in the "Crown Prints" newsletter for Kings Contrivance, council members Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown and Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance, respectively, have advised prospective council and village board candidates to run independent campaigns.

This comes at a time when some council members see a party system emerging in the planned community and its nonpartisan council.

Atkinson-Stewart and Halpin did not identify the outside groups or name specific examples, but used the identical line: "In the past, there has been an issue with individual candidates pledging their support to an organization in exchange for promises of financial and campaign assistance."

Seven seats are open in the April 26 elections for the council, which governs the 95,000-resident Columbia Association and also acts as its board of directors.

Council and village board candidates are not required to be part of a political group or outside organization to run for office.

The council and boards are all nonpartisan, volunteer positions.

"Some people don't understand that we're not a political organization," said Atkinson-Stewart when asked about her March 2 letter. "I wanted to stress that we're not political. ... I don't want to see us change to a political party."

Halpin said he wrote his column for the Feb. 27 issue of the Kings Contrivance newsletter to encourage people to run and "for people to understand that they can be themselves and they don't have to join a group."

"I think competition is good in anything," said Halpin, who once proposed a $5,000 stipend for each council member as a way to entice more residents to run in the usually sparse elections.

The association's board voted down the idea.

"If there's only one person running, I'm not sure we end up with the best candidate," he said.

Courting candidates

The only organized group that appears to be active in this election is Vote Smart Columbia, which counts among its members people who are also part of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizen watchdog group that often clashes with the views of the council's majority.

Vote Smart is actively recruiting council candidates who would favor its positions, including: free access to the association's pools for resident children, the distribution by CA of an annual financial report to every Columbia home, and one vote per adult in Columbia elections. (Voting rules vary in each village, with some allowing only one vote per household.)

Vote Smart members said they didn't feel targeted by Halpin's or Atkinson-Stewart's letters, and they were unsure to which groups the council members were referring.

"This organization has sought out candidates ... with the intention of learning what their platform is, what they support and what kinds of changes they would want," said Tom Forno, a Vote Smart spokesman.

"If it coincided with the interests of the group, they would have earned the endorsement of the group," he said.

In last year's council elections, the group backed winners Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake, Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills and Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice. The group also endorsed two unsuccessful candidates.

While Vote Smart has not required candidates to run on certain platforms in exchange for financial support, Forno said, this year the organization may offer endorsed candidates financial support from money raised.

"To use that money on behalf of the candidates we endorse, I think that's a very logical thing to do," Forno said. "We haven't done it yet, but I could foresee that happening."

However, Ruth Cargo, one of Vote Smart's founding members, doubted whether the organization would have enough money to financially support candidates.

She said any money raised would likely go toward fliers for the group.

The organization has not announced endorsements; filing deadlines in all the villages have not passed.

Neither Atkinson-Stewart nor Halpin is running for re-election this year.

Both Halpin and Atkinson-Stewart have received support from groups in the past.

Last year, Atkinson-Stewart was endorsed by African Americans in Howard County.

When Halpin ran in the 2001 elections, he was backed by Vote 01, a group that made the campaign promise of having a more collegial council.

But Halpin said his situation was different because he was not obligated to run under any platform by Vote 01, which no longer exists.

"I wasn't involved with them. ... They called me in," he said. "There was no continuing obligation."

Atkinson-Stewart said she was endorsed by African Americans in Howard County because "I've done a lot for the African-American community."

The group doesn't "give you money. ... They don't give you people to campaign," she said.

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