Rees, Richardson hold to their separate paths

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After leaving the Columbia Council next month, Charles A. Rees and Evelyn A. Richardson will continue moving in opposite directions.

Mr. Rees will devote more time to a citizens group he helped found last spring that's pushing to incorporate Columbia as a city. Ms. Richardson hopes to join the citizens organization spawned last month to counter that movement.

Though Columbia has no political parties, the two colleagues pitched their tents in different camps while on the council.

"Evelyn's basic bias was, things are pretty good. She needed pretty strong evidence anything was wrong or merited change," Councilman Michael Rethman of Hickory Ridge village said. "Chuck was the exact opposite. To him, everything was wrong. He needed overwhelming evidence that anything was right.

"Both at times were accurate."

the Columbia election today and tomorrow, voters will elect replacements on the council -- the 10-member board that directs the Columbia Association -- for Ms. Richardson of Dorsey's Search village and Mr. Rees of Kings Contrivance village.

Dorsey's Search, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown villages will begin balloting today, and polls in all villages will be open tomorrow.

Columbia Association, which has a $33 million operating budget, imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, park maintenance and community programs and buildings.

Ms. Richardson, an eight-year councilwoman and the board's longest-serving member in Columbia's brief history, is regarded as a strong supporter of association projects -- particularly the $5.5 million Fairway Hills Golf Course -- and the "Columbia concept" of governance, involving two tiers of private, nonprofit homeowners' organizations.

Mr. Rees, who is leaving after his first two-year term, opposed big-ticket association projects and advocated drastic changes in the way Columbia is governed, arguing that the system is undemocratic and lacks accountability.

During his term, Mr. Rees advocated reducing expenses and staff raises, while Ms. Richardson opposed those efforts.

Ms. Richardson, 56, said she's proud of the council's accomplishments and wants to pursue other interests, adding it was time for a "fresh voice."

"What people don't realize is they're getting a bargain out of people who serve on the council," Ms. Richardson said of the unpaid board.

Mr. Rees, also 56, found it much easier to leave. He said he became frustrated that, as a minority voice with ties to groups critical of the association, he couldn't get his ideas fully aired, much less win support. He said he even sensed hostility from his colleagues.

RTC "I feel at a little bit of a dead-end on the council," said Mr. Rees, an activist with the citizens watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia. "I felt the deck was stacked against me. There was, for lack of a better phrase, well-poisoning. I was discounted from the very beginning."

But several council members said Mr. Rees was puzzling, always taking copious notes but hesitant to express his views.

Ms. Richardson first ran for council in 1987, prompted by concern that spending by village associations -- which receive Columbia Association grants -- lacked oversight. As a Dorsey's Search board member, she objected to that board's plan -- eventually scrapped -- to spend a surplus on a Chesapeake Bay cruise.

On the council, she helped create Columbia Association scholarships for community service and start a new public safety committee. She also oversaw a consultant's study of management salaries and heads a committee that annually evaluates the president and determines his pay increases.

Golf course advocate

But she is perhaps best known as a staunch advocate of the controversial Fairway Hills Golf Course, scheduled to open in September. Ms. Richardson said she helped resurrect the project -- shelved for financial reasons early in her tenure -- in conversations with association managers in the early 1990s.

After lengthy debate over the project's high cost, profit potential and environmental impacts, the council narrowly approved it in 1993. Ms. Richardson, an avid golfer, predicted it would be "enormously successful."

"I don't know if I've ever worked on a project as hard as that," said Ms. Richardson, a former reporter for a suburban Philadelphia newspaper who moved to Columbia in 1984. Her husband, Robert, manages commercial projects nationwide for the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

Donald Dunn, former chairman of a Columbia Association golf advisory committee, said he thought the project was dead several times. "If [Ms. Richardson] hadn't been on the council during this period, Fairway Hills would not exist," he said.

Ms. Richardson often displayed that strong-willed attitude, said Council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker.

Dorsey's Search village manager Anne Darrin described Ms. Richardson as the quintessential follower of Columbia developer James W. Rouse's vision of a unique community governed by homeowner advocacy boards and a nonprofit corporation that provides amenities.

"She believes in the Columbia concept, the entire process," Ms. Darrin said.

Ms. Richardson said Columbia's innovative structure allows it to maintain a "small town flavor," even with 80,000 residents.

But Mr. Rees, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and 22-year Columbia resident, advocates an overhaul.

He said Columbia falls far short of the Abraham Lincoln maxim of government "of the people, by the people, for the people." Columbia was conceived and its association established as a "government of the developer, by the developer, for the developer," he said.

Although Rouse relinquished control of the board to residents in 1982, corporate interests -- not residents' interests -- still seem to reign in Columbia, Mr. Rees said. "In more recent years, it seems like Columbia has just had one master replaced with another," he said.

Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, said he saw Mr. Rees' main goal as trying to "infuse the council with the idea that residents need to have a stronger voice in what happens in CA. If that meant putting the corporation's interest as a second priority, that's what ought to be."

Still 'flaws'

Mr. Rees said the council made strides toward increasing its control over the budget proposed by the association staff and establishing formal procedures for closing meetings. But his belief that Columbia's governance has "fundamental flaws" didn't change, he said.

However, Councilman Rethman said: "Chuck's heart and ethic were definitely in the right place, but it was difficult to figure out where he wanted to go, his raison d'etre in terms of the council."

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