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Residents protest property-based balloting rules


Columbia has no harbor or merchant ships, but that didn't stop residents from simulating the Boston Tea Party yesterday to protest what they view as a yoke placed on the planned community by its founder: a property-based voting system.

After parading through Wilde Lake village -- Columbia's oldest village -- residents, community leaders and Howard County politicians dumped tea bags inscribed with "One Person-One Vote" into a receptacle marked "The Harbor" by Wilde Lake's edge to draw attention to a year-long effort to change the voting rules. The act was symbolic of the American colonists' revolt in the 1770s to throw off vestiges of British rule.

The voting rules -- established in covenants by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer -- limit balloting in most Columbia villages to one vote per property lot in community elections, a system many residents say is undemocratic, outdated and discourages participation in the 28-year-old unincorporated community of 82,000 residents.

"Columbia was built as the Next America," said Virginia H. Scott, Wilde Lake village One Person, One Vote Committee volunteer who was collecting ballots yesterday. "This isn't the Next America. This was the last America."

Even Columbia founder James W. Rouse, a Wilde Lake resident, agrees the time has come to change the voting system in a community where election turnouts perennially are less than 10 percent of eligible voters.

But leaders of Wilde Lake's campaign acknowledge that the costly and labor-intensive effort is a long shot. The covenants require 90 percent of Wilde Lake property owners -- or about 1,945 of 2,161 owners, including 340 absentee owners -- to cast ballots approving an amendment that would allow any village resident over age 18 to vote in Columbia elections.

Ballots will be tallied at Wilde Lake's annual meeting Dec. 6.

"I feel a mistake was made in the way it was set up, and now we're paying the price in trying to get it changed," said Verna Lawes, chairwoman of Wilde Lake's committee.

But some residents argue that Columbia's property-based voting system is appropriate in a community set up as a huge homeowners association, not a government.

And a nonprofit institute that represents 10,000 community associations nationwide says Columbia's voting rules are the norm, not the exception. Other large community associations, such as Reston, Va., and Montgomery Village in Montgomery County, operate similarly, she said.

And even if Wilde Lake's effort succeeds, it still would leave seven of 10 villages with rules restricting balloting to one vote per household and allowing owners of more than one property -- including corporations -- to cast multiple votes in elections for village boards and Columbia Council.

The controversy over voting rights in Columbia came to a head two years ago when a disputed election for Columbia Council in Long Reach village ended in Howard County Circuit Court. A judge ruled invalid an election in which one candidate received 276 votes from two apartment building owners -- one vote for each unit.

Ms. Lawes said she already has encountered opposition from residents who fear that changing the voting rules might increase renters' voice at the expense of homeowners' influence.

"It's unfortunate," she said. "We're all Americans in a democracy. Homeownership doesn't give anyone better classmanship than anyone who rents."

Renters in Wilde Lake and other villages with similar voting rules are accorded one vote per rental unit, under the court interpretation.

Some Wilde Lake residents say the current system is fair and that the "one person, one vote" campaign isn't worth the time and nearly $4,000 projected for the effort.

Paul S. Newman said residents are charged association fees based on their properties and that voting should be carried out similarly. "We're a unique place, and we deserve to be different," he said.

Another Wilde Lake resident, B. J. Mandos, said it seemed that property owners took more interest in community affairs than "transients." And besides, she said, "these are just little baby issues. It's not like a big city where there might be really important issues at stake."

Debra Bass, spokeswoman for the Alexandria, Va.-based Community Associations Institute, said voting rights rarely become an issue for community associations, because residents are more worried about architectural controls. The associations would have difficulty preventing fraud in elections that weren't property-based, she said.

But many Columbia residents said they feel disenfranchised in elections for the 10-member Columbia Council, which sets policy and a $35 million budget for the Columbia Association, and village boards, which enforce property maintenance guidelines and represent residents on issues such as traffic and crime.

The owner of a $150,000 home with a family recreational membership pays more than $1,000 annually to the Columbia Association.

"The things villages and CA are involved in are different than the usual things small homeowner associations are involved in," said Chuck Rees, spokesman for the Columbia Municipal League, a citizens group trying to incorporate Columbia as a city.

Columbia Council representatives and county politicians -- including County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- commended Wilde Lake's effort yesterday.

"Pure and simple, one person, one vote is the democratic way to go," said state Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat representing west Columbia.

Two Columbia villages -- Kings Contrivance and River Hill -- have "one person, one vote" policies. Kings Contrivance amended its covenants in the early 1980s before the village fully developed, and new River Hill included the policy in its covenants from its outset in 1991.

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