Three Maryland Municipal League officials tutored Columbia residents last night on the mechanics of turning their community into an incorporated city.
From the basics of signature-gathering to the nitty-gritty of Article 23A of the Maryland Annotated Code, the officials listed the steps for bringing municipal government to Columbia, now governed by a homeowners association.
But even the experts were stumped on one point.
"How do you get past the apathy?"
Bill Eckman, past president of the league and mayor of La Plata in Southern Maryland, posed the question to the 15 of Columbia's 87,000 residents who attended the meeting at the Other Barn in Oakland Mills.
Eckman said he had no easy answer. Most people ignore local government unless they are riled up over an issue, he said.
Columbia was shaken up, at least by the standards of a comfortable suburb, over the stormy tenure of Deborah O. McCarty, who resigned as association president in May. The Columbia Council has asked for a formal study of a range of governmental structures.
So, Neil Noble, who led an unsuccessful petition drive to incorporate Columbia five years ago, thought the time had come to try again.
Last night's meeting was the second of four Eckman has organized through August to discuss incorporation or other forms of government, including creation of a special taxing district. About 30 people showed up for the first meeting in May.
"God, I hope there's more people that show up," he remarked as last night's meeting got under way.
While the crowd remained small, it was a well-informed group.
Roy Saltman, of Harper's Choice, got into a spirited discussion with one panel member about what section of the Maryland Annotated Code -- Article 25A or Article 23A -- grants residents the authority to incorporate.
The Columbia Association, a homeowners group, provides services and operates recreational facilities. Some residents say Columbia has outgrown that form of government, devised by the Rouse Co. when it developed the planned community more than 30 years ago.
The league officials did not push for or against incorporation, but they explained how it could be accomplished. The league is an association of Maryland's incorporated cities and towns.
Linda Burrell, the league's manager of member relations and education, said that the effort would begin with a petition drive. It was not immediately clear how many signatures would have to be gathered.
Once enough signatures were gathered, organizers would have to present a charter to Howard County officials, who have the final say on whether Columbia would be allowed to incorporate.
Kevin Best, research manager for the league, said that an incorporated city could leave many government functions to the county. Some incorporated cities provide only street lights.
Eckman said it is possible that incorporation could cost residents more than the current arrangement, but he also said it could result in savings. Residents would be able to deduct city property taxes from their federal income tax -- something they cannot do with the assessment levied by the association.
Incorporation would not spell the end of the Columbia Association if it were to choose not to go quietly, league officials said. To take control of association property such as parks, the city government would have to seize it by eminent domain, Best said.
Even so, the Columbia Council could continue to collect the assessment if it chose. It would be up to residents to vote those officials out of office if they want to stop the assessments, the league officials said.