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Rouse Project encourages voters to make their voices heard ahead of Columbia Association election | COMMENTARY

Columbia lien holders, both residents and businesses, pay significant dues in the form of Columbia Park and Recreation Association assessments to the Columbia Association. These assessments, which fund the majority of the organization’s work and programs, are collected to promote our shared quality of life, maintain and enhance local amenities, and advance the physical and ideological progress and values enshrined in Columbia’s founding.

Each year, lien holders are given the opportunity to elect representatives to the CA board of directors. As the anointed “keepers of Columbia’s vision,” the board directs the CA’s budget and priorities. Turnout in these elections has historically been dismal, and board members are often unopposed. This unfortunate voter apathy has allowed the CA to become an entity that is largely unrepresentative of and unresponsive to the communities it serves.

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In a long-overdue effort to engage residents and re-imagine the opportunity that exists for the CA to be a transformational entity, a chorus of voices have come together under the common refrain of renewing Columbia’s promise. While this formal collaboration, now organized as The Rouse Project, is new, our message is not.

For more than a decade, Columbia residents of all ages, backgrounds and perspectives have urged the CA’s entrenched power structure to see the myriad ways in which the institution has drifted further from our community’s founding ideals. Whether it’s the CA’s increasing lack of diversity among its elected leadership — the subject of a well-publicized community conversation in 2010 — its refusal to meaningfully engage in the Downtown Columbia Master Plan process in the late 2000s, or the growing concerns of families with children who have witnessed the slow and steady erosion of programs and facilities designed to serve the needs of Columbia’s next generation, these calls and many others have been met with dismissal or indifference from the CA.

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These concerns have simmered for years. The national awakening on structural racism paired with the CA’s inadequate response to COVID-19 proved the spark that would ignite this collective movement.

Had the CA’s long-serving board of directors been more engaged with the mounting concerns of its community, had it chosen to listen sooner to the voices reflecting on Columbia’s values, 2020 could have been different. Perhaps the CA would have found ways to support its community during these trying times by, for instance, opening pools like other communities in Howard County or working with the COVID-safe Symphony of Lights event instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits to stop it.

The CA’s unwillingness over the years to address these concerns is what has brought our diverse voices of consternation into the chorus that is now The Rouse Project. This effort is a call for a return to the founding ideals that built this city we love and a plea for resident engagement in a process that has such tremendous impact on our daily lives. When we choose not to take part in the governance of our communities, we perpetuate systems that serve power over purpose to our collective disservice.

The Rouse Project hopes to:

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  • Bring the life experience of the many diverse communities that make up Columbia to inform priorities and vision for the CA;
  • Assemble a CA board that will rise to govern for the times we are in with a deep understanding of the needs of their constituents; and
  • Implement best practices from similar forward-looking communities across the country to make Columbia an even more vibrant, empathetic, attractive community for residents, businesses and other stakeholders.

It is time to answer the call for new CA leadership and priorities that embody progress and nurture our shared experience. We hope all of Columbia’s residents and businesses will take the time to learn more and make their voices heard by taking part in the upcoming CA board elections on April 24.

The writers are members of The Rouse Project’s Steering Committee. They include former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman; the Rev. Paige Getty, senior minister at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia; Sabina Taj, former Board of Education member; and Regina Clay, former Columbia Association board of directors member.

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