Council rebels push for change


Every year, the Columbia Council's vote to reappoint the Columbia Association's president and division directors barely provokes a murmur.

A "pro forma" procedure, said association spokeswoman Pam Mack.

Until this year.

Council members Norma Rose and Chuck Rees, who've developed a reputation for challenging Columbia's status quo, objected to the council's limited role in evaluating the managers, who are paid between $50,000 and $100,000 and direct the unincorporated city's facilities, services and finances.

The two activists abstained, despite Columbia Association (CA) President Padraic Kennedy's assurances that votes on the officers would be based on "more than faith." Other council members expressed confidence in Mr. Kennedy's recommendations, because the council evaluates him directly.

The vote, Ms. Rose and Mr. Rees say, was an example of the tail wagging the dog, a clear demonstration that the elected council is too often uncritical and easily influenced by CA's professional staff that runs the unincorporated city of 80,000.

"One of the biggest disappointments was when residents did get control [in 1982], they didn't take control," said Ms. Rose, a councilwoman from 1974 to 1976, while the board was controlled by members appointed by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

"It could change, but the culture of CA has been that management is in control. . . . It's been really clear [that] important decisions are made by management and brought to the council for approval," said Ms. Rose, a 25-year Columbia resident.

That dynamic has contributed toward what the two consider wasteful spending, membership and program rates that many residents can't afford and a decision-making process that confounds many residents.

Other council members and association leaders say criticism that the council lacks independence -- often leveled by advocates who fail to get their way -- is unfair and belittling.

"There are times we defer to the expertise of [association] staff, and times we say to staff, 'Absolutely not,' " said council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker.

Council members are obliged to "probe deeper" into association proposals, and have ultimate authority, Vice Chairwoman Fran Wishnick said. "Sometimes council members feel their job is to protect the status quo or push through what staff recommends. Generally that means they're in agreement with positions."

CA established in 1965

The private, nonprofit association, the administrative body for the planned community, manages recreational facilities, social programs and common grounds and administers a $40 million budget. The Rouse Co. established the association in 1965 to provide amenities, and wrote legal documents for 10 villages.

The 10-member council is the association's board of directors, setting policy, the budget and the annual property charge.

While Ms. Rose and Mr. Rees pursue overlapping interests, they don't work together. Mr. Rees is a member of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens advocacy group; Ms. Rose is not.

Ms. Kuecker said that incumbent council members "braced" for Mr. Rees' arrival in May. "Being a staunch member of [the alliance], we knew what to expect," she said.

Still, Ms. Rose, 60, a Clarksville Middle School social studies teacher, and Mr. Rees, 55, a University of Baltimore law school professor, have some similar goals:

* Placing more emphasis on the association's public service aspects, which they believe are overshadowed by a "corporate culture."

"I don't think residents should be looked at primarily as a market," Ms. Rose said. "CA is treating residents more as consumers. . . ."

Mr. Kennedy said that the association makes "public service decisions in a prudent and businesslike way," recommending facility and program rates that serve a broad population at reasonable costs while keeping the organization financially viable.

* Making the association more accountable, open and responsive to residents, encouraging broader participation and instituting democratic principles, such as referendums and a "one-person, one-vote" policy rather than one vote per property.

Mr. Rees has questioned whether the council has closed sessions too frequently -- seven during his first three months -- and its failure to vote publicly to close a meeting, state a purpose or record minutes.

* Reducing the association's spending and its $80 million debt.

Ms. Rose said that if past councils had taken more initiative, they might have avoided "mistakes," such as CA's move to a new leased headquarters, approved in 1991, a move she termed a waste of money showing "the institution's needs being given priority over the community's."

She returned to the council in 1992 "probably in a bad mood," she said. "I wanted to make sure nothing like that happened again."

Mr. Rees, who began agitating for change soon after moving to Columbia in 1973, has been an outspoken critic of the association's property assessment method, claiming that homeowners' annual bills are 25 percent to 50 percent too high. In 1991, he conducted presentations, trying to stir up a residents' revolt to reduce the association's charge.

"He's a tireless worker for residents," said Bill Sowders, who worked with Mr. Rees on the Kings Contrivance village board. "He's very passionate about some issues and he really pursues them with unparalleled zeal."

A state exemption allows the association to base charges on 50 percent of property value, while the county government assesses property at 40 percent of market value. In April, Mr. Rees represented an Alliance for a Better Columbia member in an unsuccessful court challenge of the association's assessment. The association charges 73 cents per $100 of market value -- equivalent to $365 per $100,000 of assessed value.

'A good place to live'

Columbia is "a good place to live," Mr. Rees said. "I think we're paying a lot for it."

Ms. Rose agrees. "We should have more available at nominal fees, given how much we're spending for a parks and recreation association. It's a pretty hefty tax," she said. "Except for open space and some special events, there's very little that's open to everyone."

For example, every Columbia child should be able to swim at one of 21 neighborhood pools for a "nominal charge," she said. She also recently proposed creating low-cost summer camps for middle school students.

'Populist' approach cited

Wilde Lake Village Board Chairman Howard Feldmesser said that Ms. Rose wants to involve the "disconnected. She's really trying to return Columbia as a place for all the people," he said. "She has a populist type of attitude."

Mr. Rees supports creating a public government -- a special tax district or municipality -- for Columbia, which he calls a "company town" because of the Rouse Co.'s influence. He served in the 1970s on a committee that evaluated incorporation options and recommended forming a special tax district.

He said he ran for the council partly because he wants to help "democratize" Columbia. In the early 1980s, he led a successful door-to-door campaign to change Kings Contrivance's voting rules to allow one vote per person. Eight of Columbia's 10 villages base voting rights on property ownership, with only Kings Contrivance and River Hill allowing one vote per person.

At a June public hearing on the association's $5.2 million golf course project, he railed about Columbia's "failure of democracy," complaining that opponents had no opportunity for a referendum.

Ms. Rose said she's not optimistic about changing the administrative structure, but sees more consensus for reducing fees for association facilities and programs.

Both agree that some others on the council could be allies for their causes, to varying degrees. Mr. Rees said that positive signs include council committees formed to evaluate pool operations, facility rates, the association's charter and governance.

Still, the council is "very cautious about making changes," he said. "Some don't want to change the status quo at all, and others are reluctant to make any changes unless we undergo a thorough cost-benefit analysis."

Often at odds with others

Other council members and Mr. Kennedy acknowledge that Ms. Rose and Mr. Rees have strong views, and are often at odds with other members. "I believe both Chuck and Norma have ideals they want to see come to pass," Ms. Kuecker said. "I don't know if they're feeling frustrated because they're not ideals others on the council are feeling. They shouldn't give up on their ideals. But it may not happen."

Long Reach Councilman Roy T. Lyons said that the two members sometimes agree with the council majority, and other times appear "almost anti-CA."

"I see that they define problems differently than most of the rest of us," he said, adding that the diversity helps keep the council from being construed as a rubber stamp.

Mr. Lyons said he respects their views. "They're voting from their hearts," he said. "I've got to think they're there because some people in their villages support their views."

Ms. Rose and Mr. Rees have voted in the minority frequently. Last week, for instance, they were the only members to oppose a measure authorizing the association to borrow up to $10 million, largely to pay for the still-controversial golf course.

Ms. Rose said that she wants to rekindle the high degree of participation and interest that residents showed during Columbia's earlier days. She has led efforts to re-evaluate the association's charter and plan a town meeting, and she supports electing some council members citywide.

Columbia residents should be "reinvited into the process," she said. Longtime residents have gradually curtailed their involvement "because it wasn't very rewarding working within the CA-village framework."

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