As next month's elections for the Columbia Council approach, two council members are urging the public to run for office - but without joining any outside organizations.
In a recent letter to the editor in The Sun and a column in the "Crown Prints" newsletter for Kings Contrivance, council members Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown and Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance, respectively, have advised prospective council and village board candidates to run independent campaigns.
This comes at a time when some council members see a party system emerging in the planned community and its nonpartisan council.
Atkinson-Stewart and Halpin did not identify the outside groups or name specific examples, but used the identical line: "In the past, there has been an issue with individual candidates pledging their support to an organization in exchange for promises of financial and campaign assistance."
Seven seats are open in the April 26 elections for the council, which governs the 95,000-resident Columbia Association and also acts as its board of directors.
Council and village board candidates are not required to be part of a political group or outside organization to run for office.
The council and boards are all nonpartisan, volunteer positions.
"Some people don't understand that we're not a political organization," said Atkinson-Stewart when asked about her March 2 letter. "I wanted to stress that we're not political. ... I don't want to see us change to a political party."
Halpin said he wrote his column for the Feb. 27 issue of the Kings Contrivance newsletter to encourage people to run and "for people to understand that they can be themselves and they don't have to join a group."
"I think competition is good in anything," said Halpin, who once proposed a $5,000 stipend for each council member as a way to entice more residents to run in the usually sparse elections.
The association's board voted down the idea.
"If there's only one person running, I'm not sure we end up with the best candidate," he said.
The only organized group that appears to be active in this election is Vote Smart Columbia, which counts among its members people who are also part of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizen watchdog group that often clashes with the views of the council's majority.
Vote Smart is actively recruiting council candidates who would favor its positions, including: free access to the association's pools for resident children, the distribution by CA of an annual financial report to every Columbia home, and one vote per adult in Columbia elections. (Voting rules vary in each village, with some allowing only one vote per household.)
Vote Smart members said they didn't feel targeted by Halpin's or Atkinson-Stewart's letters, and they were unsure to which groups the council members were referring.
"This organization has sought out candidates ... with the intention of learning what their platform is, what they support and what kinds of changes they would want," said Tom Forno, a Vote Smart spokesman.
"If it coincided with the interests of the group, they would have earned the endorsement of the group," he said.
In last year's council elections, the group backed winners Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake, Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills and Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice. The group also endorsed two unsuccessful candidates.
While Vote Smart has not required candidates to run on certain platforms in exchange for financial support, Forno said, this year the organization may offer endorsed candidates financial support from money raised.
"To use that money on behalf of the candidates we endorse, I think that's a very logical thing to do," Forno said. "We haven't done it yet, but I could foresee that happening."
However, Ruth Cargo, one of Vote Smart's founding members, doubted whether the organization would have enough money to financially support candidates.
She said any money raised would likely go toward fliers for the group.
The organization has not announced endorsements; filing deadlines in all the villages have not passed.
Neither Atkinson-Stewart nor Halpin is running for re-election this year.
Both Halpin and Atkinson-Stewart have received support from groups in the past.
Last year, Atkinson-Stewart was endorsed by African Americans in Howard County.
When Halpin ran in the 2001 elections, he was backed by Vote 01, a group that made the campaign promise of having a more collegial council.
But Halpin said his situation was different because he was not obligated to run under any platform by Vote 01, which no longer exists.
"I wasn't involved with them. ... They called me in," he said. "There was no continuing obligation."
Atkinson-Stewart said she was endorsed by African Americans in Howard County because "I've done a lot for the African-American community."
The group doesn't "give you money. ... They don't give you people to campaign," she said.
Some of the council members don't agree with Halpin's and Atkinson-Stewart's assessments about outside organizations.
Russell, who is running for re-election, said she found their comments puzzling because both council members had been backed by outside groups.
"I honestly don't know where this is coming from, why they would think people running for positions wouldn't want support," she said.
"In the history of voting anywhere, anytime, people strive for support from individuals and groups of like-minded citizens," Russell said.
Council member Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search said he doesn't care "which way you run, it doesn't matter."
"People run for different reasons, and let them run for whatever reason they want," said O'Connor, who is seeking office again. "That's what we're here for."
Feldmark said he has no objection to outside groups getting involved in Columbia's elections.
"That's part of democracy and part of making sure we're accountable," said Feldmark, who is running for re-election.
Schneider, a member of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, said candidates should be free to associate with outside groups to further their campaigns.
"We can certainly support groups with different views, as long as they have the good of Columbia in mind," said Schneider, who is in the middle of his two-year term on the council.
While the council is nonpartisan, some council members are starting to see the community moving toward a partylike system.
In 2001, for example, both Vote 01 and issue-oriented Vote Smart emerged to back candidates.
A clear divide
In a column in the Kings Contrivance newsletter last summer, Halpin explained to residents what he saw as a clear philosophical divide on the council, which he categorized into the "TEAM Party" and the "ZIT Party."
Halpin wrote that the Team group, which he said he was a member of, "generally believes that CA team members (employees) are an invaluable asset to CA, are competent and diligent, and have the best interests of Columbia and CA at heart."
He wrote that the ZIT group "generally believes that CA team members are expendable, are incompetent and lazy, and only have their best interests at heart and not Columbia nor CA."
Council Vice Chair Linda Odum said she also sees two factions starting to appear, although her explanation is more mild than Halpin's. She sees a group that believes CA should restrict its actions to those of a homeowners association, and a group that views CA as more than just a homeowners association that should strive to improve the quality of life for residents.
"I think that what we are witnessing is the incipient stage of political activities at the local level in Columbia in an organized fashion," said Odum, of Long Reach, who is running for re-election.
"And it's probably going to emerge to something like a party system, far less formal and structured," Odum said.
Council Chair Miles Coffman said he has also noted that a party system appears to be emerging. Coffman said he would "rather see people run because they want to make Columbia better" and not necessarily be obligated to outside groups.
"I think if [groups] help get good discussions, it's great," said Coffman of Hickory Ridge, who is seeking re-election. "But to get people to run ... because [the groups] want a couple of issues passed, that's not a way to get people on the council."