An election with few candidates

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Columbia residents who go to the polls Friday or Saturday will be among the faithful few participating in the unincorporated community's annual rite of spring -- a virtual rubber-stamping of a homeowners' election ballot that has few candidates.

The dearth of races will have Columbia officials scrambling -- as usual -- to meet quorums to validate elections with such gimmicks as a flea market, prize giveaways and free admission to post-election parties planned to attract voters.

Only two of eight open seats on the 10-member Columbia Council, the nonprofit Columbia Association's board of directors, will be contested -- posts in Oakland Mills and Kings Contrivance villages. Five of six incumbents will retain their seats unchallenged.

Four of 10 villages -- Wilde Lake, Hickory Ridge, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown -- will have contested elections for village boards, the advocacy bodies that enforce property maintenance guidelines.

Columbia activists offer several theories for the frequently uncontested elections: a lack of compensation, few contentious issues, fear of losing, confusion about Columbia's unusual system of governance and satisfaction with current representation and the community.

About one of every three council and village board elections has been contested since 1988.

Residents are less inclined to run for a volunteer position on a private homeowners association board, such as the Columbia Association, than for political office, said Richard C. Lewis, a former CA councilman.

"There might be some professional courtesy there, and the spoils are not very great," said Mr. Lewis, a member of the Columbia Forum, which has studied Columbia's governance. "In a homeowners association, people are less likely to run when the community feels the job is getting done."

Former Councilwoman Fran Wishnick points out that 60 residents have leadership roles in Columbia -- 10 council members and 50 village board members -- far exceeding most communities' representation.

But village boards sometimes lack candidates to fill positions, including this year in Dorsey's Search and River Hill. In those villages, the newly elected boards will appoint residents to fill vacancies.

The lack of contested races also contributes to perennially poor voter turnouts, with villages struggling to reach 10 percent quorums, activists say. Villages failing to meet quorums must schedule a community meeting to elect representatives.

Town Center, which must meet a 10 percent quorum with no contested election, will have four polling locations to make voting as convenient as possible, said Wendy Todd, village manager.

It's also not unusual for election officials to recruit voters from the ranks of residents shopping at village centers, where polls are situated.

"If we have 15 percent, I'd be tickled pink," said Councilman Gary Glisan of Oakland Mills, the only current council member who has been challenged. "If it's a nice day and people have other things to do, they'll probably do other things."

Unopposed Councilman Michael Rethman of Hickory Ridge said candidates and voters often are scarce because "people in this town are busy. If there were serious problems, people would be out there."

Some say changing Columbia election rules -- which restrict voting to one vote per household in most villages -- and mailing ballots would generate more participation.

An abundance of cakewalks also does little to stir healthy debate on issues, activists say.

"I'd love to see more contested elections," said Dorsey's Search village's departing councilwoman, Evelyn A. Richardson. "We need to talk about the issues more."

The Columbia Municipal League, the citizens group leading a drive to incorporate Columbia, wanted to use the election to stimulate debate on the issue but was largely unsuccessful in fielding candidates.

"We ran into the same indifference everyone else does," said the group's spokesman, Rabbi Martin Siegel.

One council candidate -- Barry Mehta, who is challenging Mr. Glisan, the Oakland Mills incumbent -- is sympathetic to the league's cause. Two Kings Contrivance village board members, Lewis Lorton and George Pangburn, are competing for that village's seat.

The council sets policy, recreational membership rates and the budget -- a $33.1 million operating budgetand $5.1 million capital budget in 1995-1996 -- for the CA, which imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to oversee the community's facilities, programs and parkland.

Here is an analysis of the two council races:

* Oakland Mills -- This election could be a mini-referendum on incorporation, with Mr. Mehta, who favors incorporation, challenging Mr. Glisan, who is skeptical about it.

Mr. Mehta, 53, wants to incorporate Columbia as a special tax district or a municipality to make the annual levy tax-deductible, which he says would help sales of Columbia homes. The levy -- 73 cents per $100 of assessed property value -- comes to $547 for a $150,000 home.

"I don't favor incorporation blindly," he said. "There should be some form of arrangement to make the [levy] deductible without harming the structure of CA or the functions of Howard County government."

Mr. Mehta, president of a Catonsville adult day care center, said his campaign is based on his own vision of Columbia's future, not the pro-incorporation Columbia Municipal League's.

Mr. Glisan said he is neutral on incorporation but that incorporation proponents haven't demonstrated how residents would benefit if Columbia became a city with a government.

"I look at this issue as far more than whether we just write off" the annual levy on income taxes, said Mr. Glisan, 49, a computer consultant and first-year councilman.

Mr. Mehta advocates providing a "basic package of services" to all residents who pay the CA levy, including access to certain recreational facilities. Now, residents must pay additional fees for all facilities.

He said he would challenge CA managers to cut costs by 5 percent without reducing services, calling insubstantial the half percent reduction ordered in February by the current council.

Cuts are easier proposed than made, Mr. Glisan said, because all CA programs are considered "sacred cows" by some constituency.

Mr. Glisan said he helped improve the CA's budget process and accountability last year, requiring earlier requests from villages and more justification for capital projects. But efficiency can be improved, he said.

Mr. Glisan recommends reviewing every CA program -- including goals, participation rates and popularity -- and setting more detailed guidelines for the proposed spending plan prepared by the CA staff.

He suggests having more "town meetings" -- such as the council's two recent governance symposiums -- to encourage more resident participation.

Both candidates say the council should assume a greater role in addressing public safety issues, noting recent crimes at the Oakland Mills village center.

Mr. Mehta is running for the council -- which hears frequent complaints about property maintenance violations -- while he tries to resolve his own covenant dispute. The Oakland Mills Architectural Committee issued Mr. Mehta a violation notice last week, saying he hasn't complied with guidelines for his home addition.

* Kings Contrivance -- In this race, incorporation isn't an issue, since both candidates prefer the current governance arrangement. But Mr. Lorton says the CA needs reforms and Mr. Pangburn recommends no specific changes.

Mr. Lorton said he and Mr. Pangburn have "radically different personalities. Mr. Pangburn "is much more politic than I am," Mr. Lorton said. "I'm not afraid to take the personal risk to make things happen. I like to serve as a catalyst for change if appropriate."

Mr. Pangburn, 45, a manager at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acknowledged, "It would seem Lew Lorton would look with a greater degree of skepticism about how CA operates than I would."

Mr. Lorton said the council lacks information to make key budget decisions and must assume a stronger role in directing the nonprofit association. "This is our government, not CA's, and I want to take it back," he said. CA operations should be more open, he said, adding that he has had trouble getting information, such as an organizational staffing chart. "There's a specific attitude of stonewalling requests for information, hiding the way CA works," he said.

Mr. Lorton, 54, executive director of Health Care Open Systems and Trials, researched about 30 proposed capital projects in the CA's 1995-1996 budget and concluded that justification was insufficient for many. He also has pointed to last year's $1.5 million Wilde Lake dam repair and dredging project, which the council ordered reviewed by an outside auditor for possible mismanagement. That report hasn't been made public.

"I don't have any confidence things are being done efficiently -- maybe well, but not efficiently," Mr. Lorton said, adding that it is hard for residents to know whether they get their money's worth.

Mr. Pangburn, a five-year village board member, said he has no plans for changing the CA. "It's important to have balanced, impartial people on the council who are interested in Columbia as a city in the near term and longer term," he said. "If you look at things as half-full or half-empty, Columbia is pretty close to full."

COLUMBIA COUNCIL AND VILLAGE BOARD ELECTIONS

DORSEY'S SEARCH

Polls: Linden Hall, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: Simple majority

Voting rights: One vote per property owned or rental lease held

Columbia Council candidates: S. Kenneth Puckett, unopposed

Village Board seats open: Three

Village Board candidates: Colin Cox (I); Village Board will make appointments for two remaining vacancies

Terms: Two years

HARPER'S CHOICE

Polls: Harper's Choice Village Center, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 10 percent of eligible voters

Voting rights: One vote per property owned or rental lease held

Columbia Council: Hope Sachwald continues two-year term

Village Board seats open: Three

Village Board candidates: Thomas Forno, John Hogan, William McKinstray (I)

Terms: 2 years

HICKORY RIDGE

Polls: Hawthorn Neighborhood Center, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 10 percent of eligible voters

Voting rights: One vote per property owned or rental lease held

Columbia Council candidates: Michael Rethman (I), unopposed

Village Board seats open: Five

Village Board candidates: Phil Berman (I), Miles Coffman (I), Linda Hitzelberger (I), Mark Nedzbala (I), Chelakara Sarma, Walter York (I)

Terms: 1 year

KINGS CONTRIVANCE

Polls: Amherst House, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 161 ballots (50 percent of the average number of voters the past three elections)

Voting rights: One vote per person age 18 or older

Columbia Council candidates: Lewis Lorton, George Pangburn

Village Board seats open: Five

Village Board candidates: Guy Guzzone (I), John R. Kaye, Myles Larkin (I), Barbara N. Seely (I), Charles A. Rees

Terms: Two years

LONG REACH

L Polls: Long Reach Village Center, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 50 ballots

Voting rights: One vote per property owned or rental lease held

Columbia Council candidates: Roy T. Lyons (I), unopposed

Village Board seats open: Two

Village Board candidates: Ron Beard (I), Cecilia Januszkiewicz (I)

Terms: Two years

OAKLAND MILLS

Polls: Oakland Mills Village Center, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday; Thunder Hill Wawa, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 10 percent of eligible voters

Voting rights: One vote per property owned or rental lease held

Columbia Council candidates: Gary Glisan (I), Barry Mehta

Village Board seats open: Five

Village Board candidates: Eric Bauman (I), David Hatch (I), Charu Mehta, Mary Owens, Janet Ruck Pastor (I), Peter Rulison (I), Keith Speidel (I)

Terms: One year

OWEN BROWN

Polls: Owen Brown Place, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Friday; Owen Brown Village Center, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 10 percent of eligible voters

Voting rights: One vote per property owned or rental lease held

Columbia Council: Karen Kuecker continues two-year term

Village Board seats open: Three

Village Board candidates: Walter A. Davidson (I), Catherine C. Hester, Wanda Hurt (I), Jay Stearman (I)

Terms: Two years

RIVER HILL

Polls: Pointers Run Elementary School, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 10 percent of eligible voters

Voting rights: One vote per person age 18 or older

Columbia Council candidates: David Berson (I), unopposed

Village Board seats open: Two

Village Board candidates: Kennedy T. Paynter Jr. (I); the new board will appoint a fifth member.

Terms: Two years

TOWN CENTER

Polls: Town Center Park, Vantage Point Road, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday (Town Center office at Oakland,in case of rain); Vantage House, Banneker Road, Davidge Drive, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 10 percent of eligible voters

Voting rights: One vote per property owned or rental lease held

Columbia Council candidates: Suzanne S. Waller (I), unopposed

Village Board seats open: Three

Village Board candidates: Warren Galke, Gilbert Schiffman, Margaret Woodworth (I)

Terms: One year for council, two years for village board

WILDE LAKE

Polls: Wilde Lake Village Center, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Quorum: 10 percent of eligible voters

TC Voting rights: One vote per property owned or rental lease held

Columbia Council candidates: Norma Rose (I), unopposed

Village Board seats open: Five

Village Board candidates: John F. Baker, Janet Blumenthal, Michael Deets (I), Howard Feldmesser (I), David Gardner (I), Verna Lawes (I), George Nacht

Terms: One year

I = incumbent

NOTE: Most villages require a quorum, or a minimum number of ballots, to validate an election and avoid a legal procedure for a "second election."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°