Advocates of change look back


The group leading a movement to incorporate Columbia took a look back at previous attempts to alter the community's governance, showing that this yearning for change is nothing new.

Last night, the Columbia Municipal League Inc., which has launched a petition drive to turn Columbia into a city with a government, invited leaders of two previous attempts at change to describe the complicated financial, legal and logistical issues they encountered.

At the core of each effort was the desire by residents to gain more control over community finances and affairs, the six speakers said during a league press conference.

The speakers included three former Columbia Council members who were involved in either of two previous efforts -- one in the mid-1970s to gain financial advantages by creating a special tax district, the other in the early 1990s when the Columbia Forum think tank recommended pursuing changes in governance.

Columbia, a 27-year-old planned community of 82,000 residents, is run by the nonprofit Columbia Association, which functions like a huge homeowners group. A 10-member elected council directs the association, which imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, community programs and parkland maintenance.

The speakers said little has changed in Columbia's administration despite "thousands of man-hours" devoted to studying governance alternatives during the past 20 years. They ascribed part of the problem to the complexity of the issues -- taxation, refinancing debt, accountability, relationship to the county, democracy and making the transition to a new governing system.

"There's no crisis," said Roy Appletree, a former council member who served on the Alternative Finance Committee in the 1970s. "It's hard to deal with an abstract crisis, as important as it may be."

Most of the speakers agreed that some changes in the current system would be desirable, such as increasing accountability to residents, reducing costs for borrowing and repaying debt and changing voting rights to allow one vote per person rather than per property. Determining how to deliver those changes and gaining public support has been difficult, they said.

"The issues are so complex and fragmented, it's difficult to get a handle on them," said Vince Marando, a University of Maryland government professor and Columbia Forum participant.

But Mr. Marando said he's convinced that changes are needed to improve democracy and accountability. "The governance process has some very fatal flaws here," he said.

He said the association lacks a traditional system of "checks and balances" and doesn't operate as openly as a government. Also, he said, high turnover on the council leaves appointed association managers as the community's strongest continuous presence, in the absence of a popularly elected leader.

Alex Hekimian, a Columbia Municipal League member who also heads a community watchdog organization, billed last night's press conference as an informational meeting, not a debate of the pros and cons of incorporating as a municipality.

"There really isn't a detailed proposal on the table of what a municipal form of government would look like," said Mr. Hekimian. "That will happen in future months.

"This is to try to gain an historical perspective on what has already happened. A lot of people in Columbia, especially newer residents, see this as a brand new thing. They don't have the appreciation of all the hard work that has gone on before."

The 1970s study by a Columbia Council-appointed committee resulted in the council's approval of a draft charter for a special tax district -- a public entity with limited powers and taxing authority. The legislation was introduced in the state legislature in 1978, but wasn't acted upon.

That committee wanted to improve Columbia's financial condition in the wake of a recession without radically changing the existing system, said Sandra Fitzgerald, who served on the committee. "It wasn't very threatening," she said.

Alan Schwartz, a leader of that 1970s committee and of the Columbia Forum's governance task force 15 years later, said the special tax district legislation nevertheless was viewed as radical politically. "There was a great deal of concern over the political climate," he said. "Columbia was still seen as very different than the rest of the county."

Members of the past and present groups agreed that Columbia residents are beginning to examine more closely how their community is governed. "The discussions and dialogue have touched a broader base and it's starting to penetrate the Columbia Council," Mr. Marando said. "There are a number of spinoffs coming off here."

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