Governance changes again being considered

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After four years of debate and stacks of memos and legal opinions, a Columbia Association committee has produced a report that could lead to some of the most radical changes to the governing system in Columbia's history.

The most significant suggestions include giving the town's 10 village boards the power to remove the association president and board members. The study also suggests that the association eliminate the Columbia Council in all but name because the same members serve on the council and association's board of directors. The most controversial proposal, according to committee members, calls for uniform voting rights and rules among Columbia's villages.

Committee members are cautiously optimistic that the council will adopt at least some of the major changes.

"If we're going to do it, now is the right time," said Jim Loesch, chairman of the committee that wrote the study. "This is as favorable an environment as I've ever seen."

Residents will have a chance to voice their opinions at a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Slayton House in Wilde Lake Village Center.

Four years ago, Loesch sat on a similar committee that produced many recommendations. That committee met over a 15-month period and produced a 46-page study with an even longer appendix. But the council did not adopt any of the committee's major recommendations and instead formed a second committee.

This time, the committee has met 16 times, exchanged more than 300 e-mail messages and spent more than 400 volunteer hours on the project, Loesch said.

"If the council doesn't vote on it this time, it's probably not going to happen," he said.

The study has drawn criticism from the watchdog group Association for a Better Columbia, which argues against the proposal to increase the power of the 10 village boards.

"We don't think their role is to be surrogates for our democracy," said Joel Pearlman, an ABC member. "Village boards were created to deal with village matters, not to speak for the people of Columbia. The people should be allowed to speak for themselves."

Another proposal essentially would eliminate the Columbia Council, a vestige from the days when the residents shared positions of power with the Rouse Co., which founded the town.

Under the current system, each village elects a council member. The council then appoints itself the board of directors, which makes most major Columbia Association decisions. On the council, members are supposed to represent the interests of their villages. On the board, those same members are supposed to represent the overall interest of Columbia Association.

"That's the way it works in theory," said council and board member Tom O'Connor. "But people wear both hats. I would claim we all have our own prejudices built in no matter what we're calling ourselves."

The most contentious issue will be the call for uniform voting. Voting rights, election rules and Columbia Council terms now vary from village to village. Some villages allow each resident to vote; in others, only property owners.

"The democratic argument is that everyone should have a say," said O'Connor, who represents Dorsey's Search village. "The fairness argument is that not all residents have to pay the lien [an assessment on Columbia property owners], and only the people who pay should be able to vote."

Even if the council can agree on changes to election rules, it might face significant hurdles to implement them. Past attempts have failed because of strict village bylaws that require 90 percent of all eligible voters to agree on changes.

Joshua Feldmark, council and board chairman, said he hopes the group will reach a decision by March. "It needs to be made before the next election [in April] because we need to be held accountable for the decision we make," he said.

If the council decides to do nothing with the report, "there will be some scathing criticism," Loesch said. "The committee members will be pretty put out. It may even elicit some backlash from the state legislature. There's as much risk if they just do nothing as there is if they do something."

An article in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun about Columbia's governance system incorrectly stated that a new report suggests giving Columbia's village boards the power to remove the Columbia Association's president and board members. The report suggests allowing village boards to remove the board members, but not the president. The Sun regrets the error.
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