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Council rejects proposed citizens commission


The Columbia Council rejected a proposal last night to establish a citizens commission to study Columbia's governance, arguing that such an evaluation should be the council's job.

"We're the people who were elected to make the decisions and changes," said Councilwoman Hope Sachwald of Harper's Choice village. "We're the people representing our villages."

The council -- the private, nonprofit Columbia Association's board of directors -- voted 6-1 against Councilwoman Norma Rose's proposal to appoint residents to evaluate Columbia's election system, the association's governing structure and other facets of Columbia's unusual system of administration.

Ms. Rose argued that the current structure -- while it has served the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, and the unincorporated community well for nearly 30 years -- might warrant changes to lead the growing town of 80,000 into the future. She said she agreed with some residents who have criticized the council as ineffective or inefficient in guiding the association, despite individual members' dedication.

"There's a problem fulfilling our responsibilities that goes beyond differences over issues," said the Wilde Lake village representative. "I'm saying we have a structural problem."

Council members contended that they don't see support from residents for such a study, adding that other issues are of higher priority.

While Councilman Michael Rethman agreed Columbia's governance structure is "not ideal," he said an outside study wouldn't be worth the time and resources.

Two citizens groups now are studying Columbia's governance, recommending changes that vary from drastic structural overhauls to minor improvements in how the association does business.

The Columbia Municipal League is circulating a petition to incorporate Columbia as a city with a government, with the goal of placing the issue on a communitywide ballot as a referendum.

Another group, Columbians for Howard County, recommended the council consider more minor changes, such as televising meetings, possibly electing council members at-large, and reviewing association programs for efficiency.

The council also has had its own long-standing governance committee, whose mission is unclear.

The association, essentially a huge homeowner organization, imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, parkland maintenance and community programs. Council members are elected from villages, which each have their own homeowner boards.

The council agreed to have a work session with Columbians for Howard County to discuss that group's recommendations.

In other business:

* The council formed an internal committee to work on improving the enforcement of Columbia's property maintenance guidelines.

* To involve youths and reduce problems such as vandalism, Harper's Choice resident Laura Waters recommended that the association schedule two of Columbia's 23 pools for teen-agers only at night and build a family fun center in Harper's Choice targeted toward teen-agers.

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