Proponents of incorporating Columbia have failed to mobilize broad support among residents, but they have succeeded in inspiring an emerging political consensus that more modest reforms are needed in the planned community's governing body.
This is not a new achievement. Demands for changing the functioning of the Columbia Association (CA) go back almost to the new town's inception 28 years ago.
And even though the same issues keep cropping up -- the need for CA to be more financially accountable, more open and to involve more citizens and reform its election process -- very few substantial changes have resulted over the decades.
A key reason for this, say some who have been involved in the recurring debate, is that the CA resists changes and limits public debate on controversial issues, particularly financial issues.
"This thing is worse than the O. J. trial," local lawyer Alan Schwartz said of citizens' long-running but failed efforts to change the operations of the private, nonprofit association.
Mr. Schwartz led a three-year study of Columbia's governance that concluded in 1992 with few results.
Helen Ruther, a community activist and former Columbia Council member, blames CA leaders for the inertia, saying they are "very resistant to change. They like the status quo."
CA officials deny that. CA President Padraic Kennedy said he welcomes ideas for changing the organization but added, "It doesn't mean all thoughts are good."
This time around, there may be a bit more reason to believe that changes at CA could follow, as a wide variety of political players have joined the push for reforms -- including Howard County Council members, incorporation activists and an anti-incorporation group.
For example, the groups agree that the CA needs to attack its debt more aggressively and possibly add at-large elections to its neighborhood-based voting.
But more aggressive incorporation advocates say these relatively minor internal changes, though helpful, would not solve the structural problems inherent to trying to run many aspects of a community of 80,000 with an overgrown homeowners association. So they are still seeking to turn Columbia into what would be Maryland's second-largest city.
Potential for consensus
"I think there is potential for an evolving consensus, but that doesn't preclude" incorporating Columbia as a city with a government, said Rabbi Martin Siegel, spokesman for the pro-incorporation group, the Columbia Municipal League.
"The issue is the degree of change, not whether any changes are needed."
The rabbi said his group wants an elected mayor, an independent staff for the Columbia Council and the use of referendums so that residents can control spending. Those changes could be adopted now without incorporation, he said, but CA lacks the will.
Although he opposes incorporation, County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader said he supports several Municipal League reform ideas. "I'd like to see CA embrace a reform agenda," said the east Columbia Republican.
"There seems to be an undercurrent of that kind of thinking in the community."
Roy L. Appletree, a former Columbia Council member who led a community governance study in the late 1970s, said reform efforts are largely misguided. Residents expect too much from the CA, he said, and the organization fulfills its mission well.
Sense of community
Columbia residents are longing for a greater sense of community, he said, and "lay blame on CA when it's lots of other forces. They're trying to capture that small-town community and think CA should be that magical something."
The association imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, community programs and parkland maintenance.
The elected, 10-member Columbia Council represents residents and is the nonprofit corporation's board of directors -- a dual role that many say leads to inherent conflicts.
The Municipal League has been circulating a petition since September aimed at placing the incorporation question before Columbia voters as a referendum. It has gathered about 3,000 signatures.
Under state law, the league needs nearly 9,000 signatures and must draft a city charter outlining a new government. Then it would have to gain approval for a referendum from the County Council, whose members generally oppose incorporation.
Several County Council members and Columbia activists question the Columbia Council's willingness to consider broad reforms, noting the council's recent rejection of a proposal to appoint a citizens commission to study Columbia's governance and recommend changes.
'Wrong message' sent
County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said the rejection "sends the wrong message" and helps confirm a perception that the Columbia Council is a "closed body."
A task force would lend "inclusiveness," Mr. Gray said.
Ms. Ruther, the Columbia activist, said she, too, was surprised by that decision. "Why they have to hold on to this thing so jealously, I don't know," she said.
In rejecting the independent commission, Columbia Council members said it is their job to decide whether Columbia's governance needs changing.
But members say they are open to suggestions and are arranging a work session with Columbians for Howard County, the anti-incorporation group that has recommended changes ranging from cable television coverage of meetings to the CA's taking a role in crime prevention.
"I think people ought to bring these ideas to us all the time, and we ought to consider them on an ongoing basis," said David W. Berson, Columbia Council vice chairman.
Fran Wishnick, co-founder of Columbians for Howard County and a former Columbia councilwoman, said she is optimistic that the Columbia Council will act on her group's recommendations, which also include forming another kind of independent commission to study and recommend changes in Columbia's operation.
She stressed that her group and the pro-incorporation activists of the Municipal League have different agendas. "We're not of the opinion that the entire Columbia Association is broken or that there are such significant problems that the entire organization needs an overhaul," she said.
Many groups have studied CA, created by Columbia's developer, the Rouse Co., in 1965 to provide the new town's services and facilities. But other than a transition of power on CA's board of directors from Rouse appointees to the elected Columbia Council in 1982, the system has changed little.
And the issues raised over the decades of debate about CA's functioning are largely the same as those that have driven the Municipal League to seek the formation of a city:
* From 1971 to 1972, a Roles Study Committee evaluated residents' role in decision-making in the developer-controlled community. A committee report noted "declining interest and a feeling of powerlessness on the part of some residents."
In community meetings, residents cited "poor communication" and difficulty holding private institutions accountable, with concern centered on the new town's growing debt, the report says.
Residents also urged changing election rules to allow one vote per person rather than one vote per household, an objection that has recurred throughout Columbia's history.
* In 1975, the Columbia Council established the Committee on Alternate Financing, spurred by a national recession slowing Columbia's growth, CA's growing debt at high interest rates and dissatisfaction with Rouse.
The committee recommended incorporating Columbia as a special tax district to gain lower interest rates, making the annual assessment tax-deductible and establishing a public entity.
The report also said incorporation would diminish "inherent conflicts" within CA because of its mix of quasi-government, business, civic and homeowners association functions. A bill submitted to the state legislature in 1978 lacked support from the community and lawmakers and died in a legislative committee.
* In 1979, an offshoot of the alternate financing committee of the mid-1970s presented to the Columbia Council a city charter for Columbia. The council rejected the municipal option as the economy improved, and residents gradually assumed more control from Rouse.
* In 1992, the Columbia Forum, a group studying wide-ranging aspects of Columbia's future, recommended financing an independent commission to analyze governance alternatives, changing property-based voting rules, electing the Columbia Council chair citywide and providing the council an independent staff. Those goals have languished.
Tense meetings recalled
Mr. Schwartz, who chaired the forum's governance committee, recalls tense, antagonistic meetings with association representatives and "tremendous haggling" over recommendations and the report's wording.
CA officials "made no bones about the fact they were opposed any major modification of the CA role in Columbia's governance," Mr. Schwartz recalled. "So they have worked actively to really thwart the community effort to even put on the community agenda a vote for any type of change."
CA spokeswoman Pamela Mack counters that the organization hasn't been obstructionist.
"I would certainly agree we had different perspectives, and we certainly debated our points of view," she said.