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Some major institutions not represented at debate on Columbia's future


The Howard County Republican Club tried to stimulate debate on the future of Columbia with a "town hall meeting" this week, but several premier institutions that shaped the new town weren't represented.

The absence of the nonprofit Columbia Association and the Rouse Co. -- as well as several other civic and business organizations invited to send panelists to the forum on Columbia's governance -- drew criticism from two citizen groups that advocate major changes.

Club officials said they sent invitations to the association and Rouse by letter and followed up with telephone calls.

"It's like an out-of-touch king who snubs his subjects," said Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, an 8-year-old citizens advocacy organization. "They care very little about grass-roots feelings."

Chuck Rees, spokesman for the Columbia Municipal League, which has a floundering year-old drive to incorporate Columbia as a city, said he believes the Columbia Association and Rouse "like the way things are now. In that sense, they're resistant to change or entering a debate about it."

Brian Meshkin, Republican Club president, said he regretted the association's absence from Tuesday's event.

In July, the club, which lists its membership as 300 households, released a paper encouraging debate on the future of Columbia and suggesting alternatives for governing it.

"I feel CA passed up an opportunity to present the facts as they see them," said Mr. Meshkin. "This wasn't a hearing or a trial."

But Columbia Association spokeswoman Pamela Mack said the club's invitation to the forum at the Central Library in Columbia came too late to arrange an appearance by association officials. She said the invitation -- addressed to the association's president and received Sept. 5 -- more appropriately would have been sent to the Columbia Council, the association's elected board of directors.

A Rouse spokeswoman said that no one in the organization received an invitation and that the developer has an "ethics policy" prohibiting participation in political activities to maintain "total neutrality in local politics."

Meanwhile, state Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Republican who represents East Columbia, said he's working on state legislation that would require the county to rule within a certain time frame on whether the municipal league's petition to incorporate Columbia is valid and, if so, to set a time limit for gathering signatures. The County Office of Law has raised questions about the petition's validity but has issued no firm opinion.

At Tuesday's event, Mr. Hekimian and Mr. Rees said Columbia needs governance that's more democratic -- and less costly -- than is provided by the association, which essentially is a huge homeowners corporation. The association charges Columbia property owners an annual fee to oversee recreational facilities, community services and parkland maintenance.

"We're looking for Columbia to recapture its dream, recapture its soul," Mr. Hekimian told about 40 in attendance. "We're looking for a city of the people, by the people and for the people, not of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation."

Mr. Rees emphasized financial advantages he said would come from incorporation, including lower interest rates for borrowing and making the annual property charge tax-deductible.

Harper's Choice village resident Gloria Fitelson agreed, saying her family doesn't receive enough value from the association in return for more than $700 in annual property charges.

But John E. Conlon, a Dorsey's Search village resident who sits on a financial advisory committee for the association, said the association serves residents well and warned that there are many unanswered questions about incorporation.

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