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Columbia

In Columbia, big issues draw little interest for village elections

For one of the state's most tech-savvy regions, it's a quaint process — paper ballots, delivered in person at village centers, to decide community leaders.

Saturday is Election Day in Columbia, and voters will head to the polls.

Well, some of them.

If the past is any indication, interest in the annual Columbia village elections on Saturday will be scant. In a community with a population of more than 100,000, turnout is consistently under 10 percent of eligible voters. By comparison, Howard County saw a voter turnout of nearly 20 percent in the 2012 primary and more than 80 percent in the general election.

But the low turnout in Columbia belies the importance of the election. Those on the electoral governing body of the Columbia Association command a $65 million budget and run the mega-homeowners association, which funds part of its budget through a taxlike fee collected annually from property owners.

Their duties not only include managing swimming pools, golf courses and parks, but also maintaining the vision of diversity and inclusion inspired by developer and planner James Rouse almost 50 years ago. They also have considerable influence over the future of Columbia, whose population and economy is growing — especially with the addition of cybersecurity and technology companies.

That so few vote is a twist in the history of a community that prides itself on resident involvement, and some say it's troubling that so few make their voices heard.

"It takes an extraordinary level of interest to just get to the ballot box and consider voting for anyone," said Tom Coale, a community blogger and former elected representative.

In fact, it's hard enough to get candidates willing to serve on the 10-member Columbia Council, which is unpaid. In last year's village elections, only four of seven open seats on the council had contested races. In those four races, 1,452 votes were cast — and that was considered a good turnout.

Some villages can't get enough votes for an official election. In recent years the Village of Hickory Ridge, with 4,659 eligible households, has failed to gather the 330 total votes needed for quorum — meaning they had to try again another day.

Election organizers in some villages have resorted to hosting flea markets and conducting raffles at polling places to entice voters to turn in their ballots.

The stakes are high for a community at a crossroads, with ambitious proposals for growth.

A plan by Howard Hughes Corp. is already underway to redevelop Columbia's town center, lakefront and mall by adding millions of square feet mixed-use space. In the center of the new downtown, an arts park with cultural venues and attractions is being considered on 36 acres surrounding the landmark Merriweather Post Pavilion — which itself is the subject of a massive renovation initiative.

The area also is confronting transportation issues, zoning fights and debates about village center revitalization.

That's what makes the election apathy perplexing to some.

"Back in the day, people campaigned. It was a big deal," said Jessamine Duvall, manager of the Hickory Ridge village association. ""Now we are sometimes begging people to run."

Village elections are conducted in each of Columbia's 10 villages.

The rules vary. In some villages, all residents 18 and older can vote; in others, each household is allowed one vote; in others, it's a mix of residents and business owners. All votes have to be cast at the respective village centers. Some get ballots in the mail and bring them in, others pick them up at the polling place on election day. The votes are counted by the individual villages.

Voters pick a village representative to the Columbia Council, and elect residents to make up that village's board of directors.

Those elected don't always have direct control over the forces reshaping Columbia — the county executive, County Council and planners hold sway over many of the biggest issues — but association leaders use their status as a bully pulpit to represent the opinions of Columbia residents.

"Jim Rouse did have a good vision for this place, and we are trying to preserve it," said Russ Swatek, an association board member from Long Reach who is not up for re-election this year. "Our goal is to make it the community of choice."

The association has "a role in looking out for the aesthetics of the whole area, to make sure that it is a desirable community," Swatek said.

Coale, who is currently running for a seat in the House of Delegates, said poor awareness, awkward timing and lack of partisanship makes the process exclusive to anyone not in tune with Columbia's political scene.

"The visibility of the Columbia Association and the village governance structure is just so low, for you to be aware of it takes your own motivation," he said.

For some, like Wilde Lake resident Tom Scott, voting is a duty — one he's fulfilled regularly since moving to Columbia in the early 1970s.

"For me, the Columbia Council probably has more direct control over my life and my decisions than people at the state level," Scott said. "The average Columbian doesn't understand that at all."

Duvall knows this all too well. Since 2011, Hickory Ridge has failed to make quorum on election day, resulting in a second election effort that usually takes place the following Saturday to try to add more votes. If that fails, whatever total they have becomes official.

Duvall is optimistic things will be different Saturday, thanks to a contested election. But she's also offering residents a document shredding service and an e-cycling event — where residents can turn in unwanted electronics — at the Hickory Ridge polling center. She hopes residents will come for those events, and vote while they're there.

Nobody is selling Columbia," she said. "When you moved to Columbia [in the 1960s and '70s] you were given the pitch. You were hooked, and nobody does that anymore. People move here because of the school system, and proximity to Washington and Baltimore. Nobody gets the Columbia thing anymore."

llavoie@tribune.com

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