Drive for city status revived; Leadership dispute fuels debate on best form of government


A leading proponent of Columbia's incorporation as a city is renewing his effort to revamp the local governing structure, saying a homeowners group such as the Columbia Association is "simply not efficient when trying to do something this grand."

Neil Noble, who was active with the Columbia Municipal League before it disbanded several years ago, said Howard County's planned community of 87,000 residents has grown too large to be governed by anything but a real government.

"It's time to start up this incorporation effort again," said Noble, 52, a 10-year resident of Oakland Mills. "If we can get the same momentum that we had five years ago, who knows what might happen."

To many Columbia residents, incorporation is still a dirty word. During campaigns this month for the Columbia Council -- which serves concurrently as the association's board of directors -- nearly all the candidates said they would oppose making Columbia a municipality.

But the recent debate over the leadership and performance of association President Deborah O. McCarty has renewed talk of changing the governing structure. McCarty, who succeeded Padraic M. Kennedy as Columbia's unofficial "mayor" in August 1998, said structural flaws are at the root of the controversy. The system, she said, may not "serve us as well as it did 30 years ago."

The association, whose mission is to promote the common good and social welfare of the Columbia community, provides many services, operates recreational facilities and maintains more than 3,100 acres of open space. Its governing body is the Columbia Council, an unpaid group with one representative from each of the 10 independent villages.

Voter turnout is considered high if it reaches 19 percent. Most villages allow only one vote per household; a minority adhere to the principle of one man, one vote.

A consultant hired by the Association to mediate the community conflict over leadership, Steve Beall of Beall Consultations, recommended in a recent report to the council a "full review and revision" of the association's governance structure. He said the structure was once "innovative and exciting," but is now a "major obstacle" to the association's development.

The Columbia Municipal League, an ad hoc group of incorporation supporters, spent about two years collecting signatures on a petition aimed at putting the incorporation question on a county ballot. Members gathered about 3,700 -- fewer than half the 8,000 needed at the time -- before disbanding in 1996.

Incorporating Columbia, which would make it the second-largest city in Maryland, could help address several long-standing problems, Noble said.

According to Noble, it could create a more proportional system of representation; increase voter participation by having local elections coincide with state and federal elections; allow residents to write off the association "lien," Columbia's equivalent of a property tax, on their income taxes; and dilute what he sees as the undue influence of the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, on the city's direction.

"It's their own kingdom, and to take away a piece of their kingdom is going to make the lord of the manor pretty angry," he said.

Noble has scheduled a communitywide meeting at 7: 30 p.m. May 17 at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills.

Alex Hekimian, a former Columbia Council member and one-time president of the watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, was among those supporting incorporation several years ago.

Though he isn't actively advocating a municipality anymore, he suggested ways of improving Columbia's governing structure to McCarty and the council in a letter last month. Among other things, his proposal would:

Create a seven-member board of directors with six representatives from districts of equal size and a seventh, the board chairman, elected at large.

Change all board terms to two years.

Approve compensation for board members.

Make the Columbia Council a separate advisory body to the board.

The current structure, Hekimian said, has no checks and balances because the council serves as the "legislative, executive and judicial branch all rolled into one, which, in the wrong hands, could lead to abuses of power."

Noble said the rules governing incorporation are different now; the county would have to accept the change.

"It's an uphill battle the whole way," he said.

But it's not as if he has to start from the beginning: The signed petitions are in a safe place.

"There's no statute of limitations on petitions," Noble said.

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