Bring people together, group urges Reform-minded activists note gap between affluent and low-income residents


A reform-minded citizens group urged the Columbia Association last night to bridge an ever-widening gap between the town's upper- and lower-income residents and create more opportunities for youths.

Columbians for Howard County, formed earlier this year to oppose a drive to incorporate Columbia as a city, told association officials that bridging the gap might help ameliorate the underlying causes of the increase in crime in the community.

The group also recommended that the nonprofit Columbia Association (CA) become a strong advocate of the community's transportation needs -- even as it plans to divest its bus service -- and suggested that a new system for electing representatives be considered.

"I want to look at Columbia in the next 10 years and see the Columbia Council and CA as leadership," said May Ruth Seidel, co-founder of the citizens group. "It's very important for us to become advocates for all groups in Columbia and bring groups together. That's the role I see for CA. If not, maybe that's an issue for incorporation."

The council oversees the association, which imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to finance recreational facilities, social programs and parkland maintenance.

The director of Columbia's five low-income housing developments and a pastor who lives in one said that poorer youths often feel excluded from mainstream Columbia activities

and sometimes rebel.

They said those youths find it difficult to become part of the community's economic and social fabric once they're out of school.

Pastor Stephen W. Williams III of the new True Life Church said youths who project a "hard image" often are simply bored and lack direction.

But some of Columbia's neighborhood activities centers now are obsolete, he said. More programs are needed other than TC recreation to train youths mentally and spiritually, he said.

"Columbia always is thought of as a city people look at and admire," Mr. Williams said. "At the same time, we can't ignore treating the cancers that are spreading in our community."

Group members said the association must balance economic needs with the opening up of programs to more segments of the community.

Ms. Seidel also suggested reforming the structure of the council -- a board whose 10 members are elected by villages of widely varying populations -- by drawing election districts, electing at-large members and possibly paying the members.

Councilwoman Hope Sachwald said she opposed such changes because they might make the council "political."

A "little bit of political stimulation might be a good thing. Voter turnout is pathetic," said Bernie Lobe, a member of the citizens group.

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