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Voter group will study governance


The Howard County League of Women Voters decided last night to study the possible incorporation of Columbia as one of its two research projects for the next year.

With that decision at its annual meeting, the league became the second independent organization to embark this spring on a study of incorporating the 28-year-old planned community of 82,000 residents. The Chamber of Commerce is the other.

The Columbia Council, the Columbia Association's board of directors, also is studying Columbia's nontraditional form of governance.

"Any issue that impacts as many people and taxpayers in the county has tremendous ramifications for the county as a whole -- the tax structure, the voting structure, the entire form of government," said Rosemary E. S. Mortimer, newly elected president of the league.

The 120-member league is a nonpartisan educational group.

Since last fall, a group calling itself the Columbia Municipal League has led a petition drive to put the issue of incorporating Columbia -- which accounts for about 40 percent of the county's population -- before Columbia voters in a referendum.

The pro-incorporation group must gather signatures of roughly 10,000 registered voters in Columbia and seek the County Council's approval for a referendum. The ballot question would have to include a city charter outlining powers, duties and limitations.

The League of Women Voters intends to work independently of the Columbia Municipal League in studying whether incorporation would be a good idea, but would listen to the pro-incorporation group's proposals, Ms. Mortimer said.

"We'll make up our own mind, but it certainly can't be done in a total vacuum," she said.

After a study last year, the League of Women Voters took a position on a controversial referendum question, opposing a change in the county charter that gives residents more influence over comprehensive rezoning decisions. The ballot question passed in the November election.

In the incorporation study, the voter league will set general criteria that would guide the group's evaluation of an incorporation proposal, such as a city's boundaries and who would be eligible to vote on the issue. It would consider pros and cons of various forms of government, such as mayor-council or commissioner, powers that a city could exercise and the effect a city would have on county government.

Anita Iribe, the League of Women Voters' outgoing president, said the organization will research other Maryland counties that have municipalities to see how the arrangement works and whether duplication of services exists.

The Columbia Municipal League also is considering these issues and plans to work out details for the formation of a city in a charter, which has yet to be developed. The municipal league plans to seek assistance in drafting the charter and studying financial implications from the University of Maryland Institute for Governmental Service.

The municipal league says it wants to create a city government that is more democratic, accountable and responsive than the nonprofit Columbia Association, essentially a huge, multifaceted homeowner organization. The group's leaders say incorporating would create a greater sense of identity for Columbia, give the community political power and foster more participation by residents in a wide range of issues.

The Columbia Association imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, parkland maintenance and community programs and buildings. Essential services, such as public works, schools and police and fire are provided by the county.

League of Women Voters member Wanda Hurt said the organization will be contributing to a "dialogue on democracy. Anytime you can have a dialogue on democracy, it can't be wrong."

"This opens it up to another group with another perspective," said Ms. Hurt, a member of Columbia's Owen Brown village board. "A lot of people in the [voters] league are not Columbians. They can give a fresh view."

The voters league also decided to continue its study of public transportation in Howard County.

It also honored Ms. Iribe, who has been president for the past five years.

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