Council votes to create charter review panel COLUMBIA


The Columbia Council approved by unanimous vote last night the creation of an internal committee to review the charter -- written in the 1960s to guide Columbia's development -- and make recommendations that could change the way the planned community is governed.

Council member Norma Rose, who co-sponsored the proposal with Fran Wishnick, pointed out that lawyers for the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, wrote the charter for the quasi-governmental Columbia Association (CA).

The 27-year-old charter is Columbia's constitution, providing a structure of governance and rules.

"There have been a lot of changes since then, planned and unplanned," said Ms. Rose of Wilde Lake. "It's time we ask if this implement is suitable for the current purposes of CA -- to serve 80,000 residents and those who will be living here."

The private, nonprofit association charges Columbia property owners an annual fee to operate recreational facilities and community programs and maintain open space areas.

Ms. Rose said the committee will attempt to clarify issues, ensure that the charter is "consistent with community expectations" and address "fairness issues with regard to elections."

The committee will seek to recommend ways to "provide for a more representative system of selecting CA directors," she said.

"I have no way of saying now what the outcome will be," said Ms. Rose. "But at least there will be a public education of what governance in Columbia is based on."

The 10-member council -- one representative from each village -- and CA's president act as the association's board of directors, setting policy and the annual budget, which is $30.6 million for 1993-1994.

Concern over Columbia's voting rules arose in April when two apartment building owners swung the outcome of Long Reach's council election by casting 276 votes between them -- one for each dwelling unit.

Long Reach officials overturned the election because of an "erroneous" interpretation of the rules and scheduled a new election.

Ms. Wishnick, of Oakland Mills, said, "It's very healthy for an organization to review its charter, and I think representation issues need discussion."

Ms. Rose opposed suggestions from other council members that CA's attorney attend charter review committee meetings to respond quickly to legal questions.

"Frequently, our committees include [CA] staff members," she said. "I didn't envision it that way. I think one of the problems we face as a body is the ability to work things through ourselves without heavily depending on staff. I'd like this to be an experiment in doing so."

Council member Chuck Rees of Kings Contrivance asked whether the committee also should evaluate a change to a more conventional public form of government for Columbia. Member David Berson of River Hill recommended study of the issue but by a separate committee.

"These are both very large topics. One would swallow the other," Mr. Berson said.

The review committee will make its recommendations for changes to the council by Oct. 31, and hearings will be set to involve residents. The council can amend the charter with a two-thirds vote.

"We shouldn't change for the sake of change," said Council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker of Owen Brown. "It must be wanted by the community."

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