Yoga-loving 'Visionary' Is Behind Drive to Incorporate Columbia

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every morning, James V. Clark arises at 3:30 a.m. and goes to the patio of his Columbia home to gaze at the stars and meditate. "It focuses me for the day," he says.

These days, Mr. Clark, 70, is switching focus from his management consulting firm to leading a movement to incorporate Columbia -- a drive to turn the 27-year-old planned community into Maryland's second largest city.

Columbia "has been good to me and my family, and I feel a great need to give something of significance back," says the 23-year resident of the new town.

Opponents of turning Columbia into a city often cast those working on the incorporation drive as anti-authoritarian grumblers. But Mr. Clark, a man of wide-ranging interests and experience, considers himself a "visionary."

He has advanced degrees in drama and educational administration, attended law school and has worked as a high-school teacher, trash hauler, prison instructor and public relations director for the University of California system. He came to this region to serve as dean of Antioch University's Graduate School of Education in 1972.

But in recent years, Mr. Clark says, spiritual pursuits have been his passion. He practices yoga and ventures monthly to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York to meditate.

In 1992, he went on a one-month mission, sponsored by the Church of the Savior, to work on construction projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, India and Thailand. "After that trip, I came back thinking I had enough money," he says.

Mr. Clark's Wilde Lake village home is stocked with reflections of his varied life: photos of his yoga guru and of Mother Theresa, whom he met in India; books on business, philosophy and religion; incense sticks; computer equipment and technical reports, and a large map of Howard County's voting precincts.

He says he became more interested in Columbia affairs in 1992 after a dispute involving late-night rowdiness at a park adjacent to his home. The village board that governs his area of Columbia worked against him, he says.

And right afterward, he received a citation for alleged violations of his village's architectural covenants. "That experience drew me out of my cocoon," he says.

It perhaps was only natural that he then would became active in the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a 7-year-old citizen advocacy group that helped launch the incorporation drive.

To bring the incorporation question to a vote, Mr. Clark's group must collect roughly 10,000 signatures, 25 percent of Columbia's registered voters. The Howard County Council then would have to approve putting a referendum on the ballot.

At issue is whether the Columbia Association (CA) -- the private, nonprofit agency formed by developer James W. Rouse to provide services to the new town and collect an annual levy on property owners -- will remain in charge of Columbia.

Mr. Clark and others favoring incorporation believe Columbia, with 80,000 residents, has outgrown CA, which is essentially a huge homeowners association. The association's supporters contend it is uniquely structured to efficiently manage Columbia.

In a two-hour interview with The Sun last week at his home, Mr. Clark talked about the incorporation movement. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

L Q: What do you hope to accomplish by incorporating Columbia?

A: I say this with great respect to Jim Rouse . . . we need to enrich this town, take another giant step toward making this a modern town, heading into the third millennium. . . . The best way to do it is through incorporation, to have an accountable, responsive, elected type of governance.

The Columbia Association has outlived its merits, its relevance. I perceive the Columbia Association as being run essentially by a small, tired clique. . . . They do not have an attorney of their own. . . . They do not have a budgetary arm.

Q: You've collected about 1,400 signatures. How difficult will it be to raise roughly 10,000 signatures, gain approval from the County Council for a referendum and overcome CA's influence?

A: We're in . . . for the long haul. Hopefully we'll get it before November '95 . . . We know it is a difficult task, and we also know it has to have the approval of the Howard County Council and we realize that Howard County by definition favors status quo.

We realize that less than 12 percent of Columbia residents voted in the last Columbia [Association Council and village board] elections. We recognize the lethargy, the inertia that exists here, in part promoted by the Columbia Association.

HTC We expect opposition from the status quo, from the deep-pocket Columbia Association. Just as what happened in [Virginia] where Disney, with millions of dollars, wanted to build that park, the people stood up and were counted. And we expect the same thing to happen here.

Q: Would it be difficult for the County Council to deny a referendum?

A: If they deny it, they'll have to put it in writing -- and hopefully face the wrath of Columbia residents.

Q: Would it be unfair to characterize the coalition as a small group of malcontents?

A: One, we're not a small group. We consider everyone who signs that petition as being a representative of Columbia. . . . The fact [that] it is so easy to get signatures on that petition argues for it being a representative group, and it should be so treated.

Q: Other Columbia groups have studied incorporation. Governance forums have been held. Why do you think no changes were made, and how's your group's effort different?

A: They talked it to death. They analyzed, they rationalized . . .

They tried to work within the framework of the Columbia Association. [With] the use by the Columbia Association of stonewalling [and] diabolical, Machiavellian, divisive tactics -- along with some mud-slinging -- they just eventually demised.

The difference in our effort [is] we're on the streets. We have a petition out there. We're meeting the public, Columbia residents, face to face. We're answering their questions, finding out how appreciative they are [we're] taking this giant step, this meaningful, concrete necessary step . . . toward becoming a municipality.

Q: Why do you think making Columbia an official "city" would be an improvement?

A: Columbia is 80,000 strong and growing, second only to the city of Baltimore in size. And here [we're] cramped in the present form of this small clique as represented by the Columbia Association -- tired, power-hungry, deep-pockets-with-other-people's-money Columbia Association clique. They're directing the show. They've lost their vision.

I have every intention of setting up an eyeball-to-eyeball conference with [CA President Padraic] Kennedy, and subsequently with Jim Rouse . . . to put forth our position . . . not confrontational, but as a concerned citizen with a vision, rooted in 23 years of residency.

Q: What do you think is wrong with the way Columbia is run now?

A: The decision-making process is a simplistic one, dictated by the [CA] director, who plays a back-seat subtle role, and [by] the staff. It's too narrow a base for a potentially great city like Columbia.

Q: If Columbia indeed becomes a city, what status do you envision it having?

A: It will have a voice. It will have status. When it goes to the state legislature, it will have a strength politically that it certainly does not have now.

Q: How would you counter those who say Columbia's unique arrangement works well and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it?"

A: I respect their opinion. I respectfully disagree. . . . My vision says it is broken and it does need fixing.

Q: What functions would a city of Columbia perform? Would it assume any services now performed by Howard County or start new ones specifically for Columbia?

A: The people are concerned about increased taxes. . . . We have a commission of lawyers and other very knowledgeable sources to aid in crafting the charter, essentially the future destiny of Columbia.

Q: Would Columbia be obligated to assume some services now performed by county government, since it would take a share of state revenue away from Howard County?

A: What the county is doing very well now -- if it ain't broke, we won't fix it.

Q: How do you respond to critics who charge that a city government will increase bureaucracy, costs and taxes?

A: We feel. . .the present Columbia Association format is expensive, that there's a lot of pork. Contrary to the federal government and private sector downsizing, CA is still upgrading, giving Pat Kennedy bonuses, increasing salaries.

At issue is this question of accountability. . . . Here we are, with an $87 million debt which I had nothing to do with as one resident, and with an extraordinarily high interest rate. . . . If we cut off some of that fat and leave with the county what they're doing an excellent job with, we can actually see no increase in taxes.

Q: In an era of anger and distrust toward government and public officials, why would a movement to create a new city government be popular?

A: Precisely because it's new . . . We're talking about new machinery. We're talking about new sophisticated, talented visionaries taking over the decision-making process. . . . Especially here in Columbia. We've got highly educated residents.

Q: Will you try to tap into a sentiment that people feel they don't get their money's worth from CA, or that they don't know what their money goes for?

A: Yes, indeed . . . It's just difficult for a lay person to really put a finger on how the money is spent.

Q: The Columbia Council is studying the governance issue. Do you plan to work with it?

A: No . . . With the history of maintenance of the status quo, I don't expect it to deliver. However, our coalition will take credit for any significant advances by the Columbia Council because we will serve as a catalyst.

Q: What are your odds of succeeding?

A: I'm an optimist. . . . To get up at 3:30 in the morning, you have to be inner-directed, have to see the big picture. . . . In that context, it's a tremendous task. That's why I'm involved, because it's challenging. . . . I tell my son, it's like basketball, you know, you expect the goal's defenders to have their hands all over the basket.

It makes the game exciting.

Adam Sachs is a reporter in The Sun's Howard County Bureau.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
64°