Creating best places

July 19, 2006

Magazine rankings are not the most reliable gauge of excellence. Baltimore not long ago earned the dubious - and competing - titles of a "fittest" and "fattest" city within the same year by the same magazine. But Money's choice of Columbia and Ellicott City as the fourth-best small community to live in is notable. It speaks to what people truly value - and what candidates for public office ought to be addressing.

The magazine's list was developed from a variety of criteria, from average incomes to air quality. But what Money noted about Columbia was its charm, its variety of housing, its good schools and the fact that parks and open spaces account for more than one-third of the community's 14,000 acres.

That concern for quality public education and for quality of life is reflected in the recent poll of Maryland voters conducted by Potomac Inc. for this newspaper. Schools are by far the top issue for voters. There are a half-dozen quality-of-life issues that also matter to voters. They do not include slot machines, illegal immigration and the state budget, which are so far down the rankings as to be hardly worth mentioning.

Since 2003, Potomac's surveys show, the economy, the environment and health care have gradually been creeping up as voter concerns. This makes sense. They are the sorts of concerns that draw people to a community like Columbia, with its proximity to good jobs, good schools, good health care and the diverse cultural attractions of two major cities.

But you wouldn't know this by listening to what so many political candidates - whether they are running for Congress, governor or other state offices - are offering the electorate so far in the campaign season in their mostly substance-free ads.

It's also worth noting that Money's best places to live aren't necessarily anti-tax havens (Maryland has much lower sales and income tax rates, incidentally, than the average of the magazine's best places) and don't necessarily have giant surpluses in their government budgets. But by and large, these top-rated towns did have good schools, public libraries, museums, universities and other taxpayer-subsidized amenities nearby.

In short, what voters ought to be hearing this year is how can we get Forest Hill, Eldersburg, Glen Burnie, Middle River and all the other suburbs, towns and counties to be as successful as Columbia and Ellicott City. That would be an agenda worth talking about.

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