River Hill begging for candidates

Election: A Columbia village of mostly well-off, busy residents scrapes to find enough leaders.

April 23, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Iraq isn't the only place where representative democracy is a tenuous concept.

During Saturday's elections for the River Hill Village Board, Mohammad Saleem's name will be the only one on the ballot for four open seats. And once he is elected - if enough voters show up to make the election count - he will be joined by only two other board members, which barely makes a quorum.

All of this is creating something of a constitutional crisis in Columbia's most affluent village, which has never had so many open seats and so few candidates.

"This is kind of strange that people are not running," Saleem said. "I just hear they're too busy, taking kids to the games, to baseball and volleyball."

Village board member Cabell Greenwood is expected to contribute to the serious shortage of local elected leaders by leaving that job to take a seat on the Columbia Council. Not surprisingly, he is running uncontested.

With Greenwood gone, the board will again have four open seats. That leaves only three board members, the minimum for a quorum.

Under village rules, the board should have at least five members but can take up to seven, said Susan Smith, the village manager. She said the village is trying to attract other candidates to be appointed to the board by publicizing the vacancies in the village's newsletter and talking to residents who might be interested in serving.

"None of our elections have been contested for several years," Smith said. "We're hoping somebody will come forward and step up to the plate."

Saleem does not want to be pessimistic about the lack of people vying for village board seats. He is confident that someone will volunteer to serve on the board, which governs River Hill, Columbia's newest village.

"Some people, they don't want to go though the exercise of writing and submitting [a candidate's statement]," he said. "I'm sure there will be people interested, and they'll come to us later on."

Instead of actively campaigning for his election, Saleem has been spending his days searching for others who might be willing to serve on the village board, asking people at social gatherings if they know anyone who might want to join.

He said he gets the impression that many people feel being a board member is a "thankless job," but to him it is not. After four years of service on the board, Saleem is running again because he thinks he has more to contribute. As an architect and urban planner, he said, he brings a "balanced approach" to the board.

"You feel you're contributing something to the community. It's something that affects all of us," he said. "We don't want to be isolating ourselves."

The village board - which is responsible for creating and approving the village's budget - has spent the past year fielding resident concerns and working on the development of the 12--year-old village. The members have helped get a tot lot approved behind new condominiums near the village center, asked the Columbia Association to help come up with a way to alleviate the village's overly popular pool and voted to support the Rouse Co. petitioning Howard County to increase the allowed residential density in Columbia.

Ed Stern, the village's current Columbia Council representative, attempted to encourage residents to be more active in his March column in the village newsletter. He wrote: " ... please, no excuses. Think about running for the Village Board or CA Council. We all have jobs inside or outside the home. We all have kids. We all have errands to run. We're all double and triple booked. We all have our hands full. That's just the way it is. We still need you to step up to the plate."

But still, not a lot of people seek seats. The board has thought about canceling elections during uncontested races - Owen Brown and Town Center have that policy - but the members wanted to encourage residents to participate, Smith said.

This year, the village is moving its polls outside the Giant Food in the village center, instead of the usual place at Claret Hall. Children's elections - where children can elect a dolphin, shark, sting ray or seahorse for the village to adopt at Baltimore's National Aquarium - will also be held outside Claret Hall.

"We're hoping if we're more visible to people, it'll help promote the whole process," Smith said.

The lack of competition is being felt in most of Columbia's 10 villages. Seven seats are open on the Columbia Council this year, and only Long Reach has a contested race, with two candidates.

In village board elections, only Oakland Mills has a contested race, with six people running for five slots. That village board has been especially active in the past year, trying to revitalize its village center. The board successfully lobbied for a grocery store to replace the Metro Food and is supporting the plan to build a senior apartment building in a vacant lot at the center.

Greenwood said he was concerned about by the lack of competition Columbia-wide for the council and village boards, but he expected he would not face a challenger for the council seat after years of uncontested races in River Hill.

"I think for a lot of people, unless you're an outgoing politician, there's that feeling of `Gee, what if I lose,' " he said.

Saleem will not have to worry about that, as long as 46 people show up to vote Saturday. But he needs to find more people to serve with him.

"I understand everybody has busy lives," he said. "We all have to figure out how to volunteer."

Voting in River Hill will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Giant Food in the village center or, if there is inclement weather, inside Claret Hall, 6020 Daybreak Circle. One vote is allowed per resident, who must be at least 18 years old.

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