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Group says city drive won't stall

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Another article in that section incorrectly stated that the University of Maryland System's Institute for Governmental Service had reviewed a petition by a group seeking to incorporate Columbia. An institute consultant said that it had advised the Columbia Municipal League Inc. about incorporation, but did not look at the group's petition.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Leaders of the movement to transform Columbia into a city say concerns about their petition drive that were raised recently by state and county legal authorities will not affect their efforts.

One of the drive's organizers described questions raised by officials at the Maryland attorney general's office and the Howard County Office of Law as "various legal technicalities" that can be solved.

The attorney general's office has issued a report cautioning leaders of the Columbia Municipal League Inc. on the wording of their petition to put the incorporation issue on the ballot.

Meanwhile, the Howard County Office of Law has flagged numerous issues in its continuing review of the league's petition. The questions include how the county will determine whether there are enough signatures on the petition for a referendum question.

As legal officials raise questions about the petition, the Columbia Council will hold its first symposium tonight to provide residents with information on what incorporation would mean for the planned community of 82,000 people.

The panel discussion, addressing intergovernmental and political issues, starts at 8 o'clock at Kahler Hall, near the Harper's Choice Village Center.

A second session -- about budget, finance and legal issues -- will be at Slayton House in Columbia's Wilde Lake village on April 4 at 8 p.m.

County Solicitor Barbara Cook said possible problems with the in corporation petition are small compared to the potential issues involved if Columbia is turned into a city.

"Looking at the petition is a very small part of deciding whether you can go ahead with anything," she said. "There are a lot of issues."

Municipal league leaders James V. Clark and Rabbi Martin Siegel defended the group's petition.

"It would be most unfortunate from my point of view if various legal technicalities stood in the way of the people of Columbia exercising their free choice," said Rabbi Siegel, vice president of the league.

Mr. Clark, the group's president, said it was the league itself that sought legal review of its petition by the Maryland Municipal League, the Institute of Governmental Service and the attorney general's office.

An organizer of a group opposed to changing Columbia's government, Henry Seidel, welcomed the questions raised by state and county officials, saying their input will help educate the public on incorporation.

"Their involvement, their searching for facts will help all of us," said Mr. Seidel, whose group is called Columbians for Howard County. "I see all of this as healthy."

To get the referendum question, Columbia's municipal league must obtain signatures of about 10,000 voters and then get approval for a referendum from the Howard County Council. The league has obtained about 3,000 signatures, but there is no time limit for collecting signatures.

Columbia is managed by the Columbia Association (CA), a huge homeowners association that oversees parklands, enforces property covenants and builds and maintains recreational facilities. It charges homeowners an annual fee based on the assessed value of their homes.

Maryland law provides two ways for petition drives to successfully turn the incorporation question into a referendum. In both cases, the petition has to designate the area to be incorporated.

One method requires signatures of 25 percent of all registered voters in the designated area.

The second, more complicated method requires signatures of 20 percent of the registered voters and those of 25 percent of the property owners in the area. Property owners must state their property's assessed value on the petition form.

The league's petition states:

"The undersigned registered voters, property owners or both of Howard County, in order to achieve a greater sense of control over local matters than citizens of Columbia currently have, to ease the burden on county government for such matters, and to separate the property owners' association functions of the Columbia Association from the proper functions of government, do hereby petition to have submitted to the registered voters of those areas of Howard County zoned New Town for approval or rejection at the special election the incorporation of Columbia."

Assistant Attorney General Richard Israel said in his December review of the petition that the league meets many of the requirements, such as providing space on the petition for residents to sign their names and say whether they are a registered voter or property owner.

Mr. Israel said he sees no problem with the petition if the league is seeking signatures from Columbia's registered voters only. Rabbi Siegel said this is the method the league is following for its petition.

But Mr. Israel noted that the league doesn't meet the requirements for the second method -- involving signatures of property owners -- because the petition fails to provide space for signers to state the assessed value of their property.

Ms. Cook, the county solicitor, has more concerns about the petition.

By stating that the incorporated city will be made up of the areas zoned as New Town, Ms. Cook said, the league is leaving out sections of Columbia that don't have this zoning designation, such as Dorsey Hall.

This could create problems for the county when it's time to validate signatures on the league's petition because there is no easy way to determine if a signer lives in a New Town area, Ms. Cook said.

When reviewing referendum questions, officials rely on county Board of Elections documents, Ms. Cook said. But election records on voters are classified by precinct, not by zoning designation.

Ms. Cook added that, if the league gets the required number of signatures, it would be difficult for the county to determine if people who signed the petition this year still live in Columbia.

The solicitor added that it is even difficult to determine the exact number of signatures the league must collect, since Columbia's population will grow as its newest and last village, River Hill, is developed. "It's a moving target," she said.

But Rabbi Siegel said the issues raised by Ms. Cook are simply speculation at this point. He said they will be resolved, even if it means some signatures aren't validated.

"If [the referendum] loses, it's OK with me," he said. "I don't think it's the role of a public official to stand in the way of the will of the people."

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