Columbia board split on city election reform '1 person, 1 vote' change considered


Leaders in eight of Columbia's 10 villages can't decide whether or how to change the way village board and Columbia Council representatives are elected.

Despite a messy Long Reach village election last spring that wound up in court and called into question Columbia's unorthodox voting system, most members of the Columbia Combined Board -- which includes representatives from all the village boards -- say they aren't sure the unincorporated city should adopt a "one person, one vote" policy.

"There's no great need to do this," Dorsey's Search village board member Colin Cox said at a recent Combined Board meeting. "We think you shouldn't bother with it at all."

Voting in eight villages is based on property ownership, allowing one vote per household or property. Residents or companies owning multiple houses, condominiums or vacant lots may cast multiple votes.

Some representatives oppose any change, while others say their villages haven't decided or suggest that the time and effort to change isn't worthwhile.

To amend village covenants governing elections, 90 percent of property owners must approve, a standard that Columbia officials say is nearly impossible to achieve.

Meanwhile, Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a Columbia Democrat, has been working on state legislation allowing villages in the unincorporated city of 80,000 to circumvent the rigid requirements for amending covenants and place the issue on a ballot. The 90 percent requirement is "as undemocratic as it gets," she said.

"The impression I had was that villages were going to be asking for it. If they don't want it, I've got better things to do with my time, quite frankly," she said upon discovering the villages' lukewarm stance.

The Rouse Co., the 26-year-old planned community's developer, wrote the covenants when the village associations were established. Two villages -- Kings Contrivance and River Hill -- changed their covenants, enacting "one person, one vote" policies early in their development.

"Obviously it eliminates problems," said Kings Contrivance board member Ed DiCarlo. "We think it's fairer."

The legislation would involve a change in the state property code and would apply statewide, Ms. Thomas said. "We'll try to work it out so it narrowly applies to places like Columbia," she said.

Ms. Thomas said she'll go forward only if the Combined Board endorses a change. That board, in turn, is seeking unity with the Columbia Council, the city's policy-making body. Some council members say they're reluctant to turn the issue over to state legislators.

The Columbia Council, with one member elected from each of the 10 villages, serves as the board of directors of the nonprofit Columbia Association. The association is administering a $30 million budget this year, generated largely through a 73-cent property lien, to operate the city's array of recreational facilities, community programs and land maintenance services.

Election challenge

Election rules came under fire in April when Long Reach Councilman Roy T. Lyons challenged an election in which his opponent, incumbent Gail Bailey, received 276 votes from two apartment owners -- one vote for each dwelling unit.

Village officials declared the election invalid and scheduled a new one, even though apartment owners had been permitted to cast multiple votes previously. Mr. Lyons won the June 5 election handily, after Dr. Bailey had filed a lawsuit.

Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. ruled Sept. 16 in favor of Mr. Lyons, determining that ownership of a property lot or condominium unit, not apartment units, confers voting rights, and that a tenant and a landlord from the same property each have voting rights, regardless of residency. Some villages have allowed only one or the other to vote.

The court case cost Columbia Association assessment payers about $43,000 in legal fees, and concerns that the rules could be challenged again, or manipulated, have lingered.

So far, only Howard Feldmesser, a Wilde Lake village representative, is a strong supporter of election reform.

"The groundswell [in Wilde Lake] has been: Why this [one vote per] household business? Why aren't we a democratic operation?" he said.

Mr. Feldmesser said some Wilde Lake residents felt "disenfranchised." Some compared the system unfavorably to Princess Anne, an Eastern Shore town where voting by nonresident property owners recently was outlawed.

'Not a burning issue'

Other Combined Board members don't share Mr. Feldmesser's enthusiasm.

"After all, this is a property association," said Oakland Mills village representative Eric Bauman. Issues such as upgrading aging schools and solving traffic problems are commanding more attention than changing voting rules, he said.

Hickory Ridge village representative Jim Loesch said the costs bTC of pursuing a change might be too steep for his village, which has "more important things to look at."

Owen Brown village representative Andy Stack said that voting rights "is not a burning issue in our village either."

Garnering approval of 90 percent of property owners to change village covenants discourages many Columbia officials. The Columbia Association and the Rouse Co. own 960, or about 4.6 percent, of the approximately 21,000 noncommercial and nonindustrial property lots in the eight villages without "one person, one vote," according to the association.

"Beating on doors is not practical," said Bill McKinstray, a member of the Harper's Choice village board, which supports a change.

The Columbia Council can amend the Columbia Association charter by a two-thirds vote, and is considering revising voting procedures for electing council members.

But such an amendment would not extend to village board elections, since villages are separate legal entities.

Village representatives discussed mailing ballots to all property owners, but determined it would be costly and unpredictable.

Other factors cloud the issue. For example, Town Center opposes a one person, one vote policy, fearing a next step would be creating council districts based on population. With a population of about 1,300, Town Center now has equal voting representation on the council with villages of about 13,000, such as Long Reach.

"We'd rather stay as we are and maintain the neighborhood flavor of the system," said Donna Rice, Town Center board chairwoman.

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