Columbia residents could get the chance to call the shots on key issues facing the unincorporated city -- through referendums.
The Columbia Council agreed Oct. 14 with a committee's recommendation that the Columbia Association charter should be amended to include a referendum provision allowing residents to petition for a popular vote on certain issues.
"It's a great first step toward making our governing body more open and democratic than in the past," said Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, which advocates reducing the association's annual property lien and making the association more accountable.
But the council is divided over whether referendums should be ** binding or nonbinding, said Chairwoman Karen Kuecker. A binding referendum would give residents the ultimate say on matters petitioned to a public vote; a nonbinding referendum would give an indication of public opinion to help guide the council.
Councilwoman Norma Rose, leader of the council's charter review committee, supports binding referendums. "That, to me, is what a referendum is," she said.
Columbia residents have no opportunity to bring council decisions to a public vote.
The council needs a two-thirds majority vote to amend the association charter.
Provisions for conducting referendums, such as criteria for petitions, voting eligibility rules and limits on what matters would be subject to referendum, have not been determined.
"This is very general, a principle," said Ms. Rose of Wilde Lake. "I think it's a big step forward, having approval of the concept."
Election rules in eight Columbia villages complicate the referendum issue. Those rules permit one vote per household, or property, rather than one vote per person.
The council, composed of one member elected from each of Columbia's villages, sets policy and the budget for the nonprofit Columbia Association, which runs recreational facilities and community programs and maintains common grounds. CA charges property owners an annual fee (currently 73 cents per $100 of assessed value) and has a $30.6 million operating budget and $9.4 million capital budget.
Reston, Va., an unincorporated community similar to Columbia, requires referendums for charter amendments, new capital projects exceeding $200,000 and certain property assessment changes.
In committee discussions, Ms. Rose has said that the council had nothing to lose by instituting referendums.
"Either apathy is so intense that there's no harm done, or there could be a resurgence of community activism from this right of citizenship," she said. "It would meet a primary goal of [the association] -- to promote citizen involvement."
Other council members say they're concerned that the process could be abused. Council Vice Chairwoman Fran Wishnick of Oakland Mills said that it could be too easy for residents to be "reactionary," sign a petition or spread information without being fully informed.
Councilwoman Suzanne Waller of Town Center said that she doesn't support the recommendation for referendums. She has said that residents have ample opportunity to vote and communicate their desires at the grass-roots village level.