Through Columbia's Looking Glass

Let's face it, Columbians are a pretty pampered and complacent lot -- particularly when it comes to the city in which they live.

With all the athletic centers, neighborhood swimming pools, lakes, pathways and tot lots, life in Columbia is a little like getting regular injections of nirvana. Outsiders peering through the looking glass at the city may wonder what it's all about. But for those mad hatters and white rabbits among us who populate Columbia, it's all perfectly normal and nifty on this side of the mirror.


Trouble is, with all its superficial appeal, the Wonderland that sprang from Lewis Carroll's imagination never completely lived up to its advertising. It was a topsy-turvy place, filled with bottomless pits and things that were not as they appeared or were supposed to be. There were cracks in the looking glass.

Dare I say it? There are cracks in Columbia's looking glass, too. The fact that most of us go on with our routines in relative bliss doesn't mean that problems don't exist. And yet, on numerous occasions, officials of the Columbia Association have pointed to various surveys that have been done over the years that seem to imply that Columbians are basically happy with the services that CA provides; all those pools and parks I referred to above.


The theory goes that because Columbians like the services, they like CA. Hence, almost any criticism of CA is unwarranted.

John Hansen, chairman of the Columbia Council, which oversees CA, made similar statements last week in a letter that ran on this page. Hansen cited statistics from surveys done by the Columbia Forum and the Alliance for a Better Columbia to support his conclusion that the "Columbia Association rates well with the community it serves."

I'd like to suggest another conclusion: Columbia rates well with the community because of all of the services. The Columbia Association, like Wonderland, is to most residents simply this entity that we don't completely understand, suspect we should pay more attention to but aren't absolutely sure why we should care about.

The same surveys that Mr. Hansen cites to support CA, I believe support my conclusion as well.

For example, in the Columbia Forum survey conducted in 1991, fully 30 percent of those queried had no idea what CA did at all. Only 21 percent knew that the Columbia Council served as CA's board of directors and made major policy decisions.

Not only that, but in the Alliance For A Better Columbia survey, one-fourth of respondents thought that the Rouse Co. ran the show, while only 10 percent believed Columbia is governed by residents and their representatives on the council.

Granted, surveys aren't always the most accurate barometer of public opinion. In the end, we all have to form our own opinions with whatever tools are available.

Columbia Council members, however, seem quick to defend themselves and the association they oversee on some fairly flimsy evidence. They get unjustifiably puffed up about their role in an organization that few people seem terribly focused on. The sorry fact of the matter is that, according to one survey, only 35 percent of all residents have ever voted in the village elections where council members are chosen.


What does that say? In my mind it says that, beyond workouts at the Athletic Center, there aren't a lot of people in Columbia who are chomping at the bit to get involved in what the Columbia Association does. And no wonder. When it comes to CA, a lot of people simply don't get it.

For the record, and in a nutshell, CA is essentially an oversized condominium association that last year alone collected $29.8 million in assessments and fees and operated on a $28 million budget. The Columbia Council is its elected board of directors. It is only in the absence of a real government that CA has taken on a quasi-governmental role. It is still a private corporation.

But Columbians have a voice, if they choose to use it.

The fact that so many don't may explain why a majority of council members felt comfortable enough recently to allow one of their colleagues to vote on a proposed golf course, even though the course would abut the member's residence and would increase his property values. I believe council members chose to overlook an obvious conflict of interest in part because they sense that no one is watching.

Absent close scrutiny, the council often acts in a vacuum. And too often, in that vacuum, the Columbia Association bureaucracy becomes the only voice the council hears. Unless there is an unusual hue and cry from the community, rubber-stamping is the preferred role the council takes.

Unfortunately, none of the problems I'm describing is unique to CA or the council. It occurs in many bureaucracies when the public is detached from the process.


Because Columbians are relatively happy and uninvolved, CA -- seemingly the source of such widespread content -- rarely gets the scrutiny it needs. It's a little like watching the Queen of Hearts ordering all the white roses to be painted red, without anyone batting an eye.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.