Elections approaching for Columbia Council

It is an unpaid civic position with several hours each week consumed by meetings, researching issues, talking to constituents - and even a bit of ridicule.

Still, people aspire to be on the Columbia Council, the 10-member advisory panel for the planned community.


"There are two things that seem to draw people to run for Columbia Council. One is ego and the other is service for the community," said Barbara L. Russell, who is running unopposed for her seventh term as the Oakland Mills representative. "Sometimes it's a mixture of both and sometimes it's not."

Others take a lighter view of why people run..


"It requires a certain degree of insanity," said David Willemain, a Columbia Council candidate from Harper's Choice. "The position is very demanding."

Elections will be held this weekend in eight of the 10 Columbia villages. Town Center will hold its election April 29, and Owen Brown will appoint its member.

The Columbia Council meets once a year, in May, when the elected council representatives appoint themselves as the Columbia Association board. The board meets twice a month, listening to often lengthy presentations before a discussion and vote.

For Willemain and many other candidates, the key issue this election is the re-development of Town Center.

"It's the downtown issue and just the way that Columbia Association does business," said William Santos, a candidate from Wilde Lake.

Campaigning for the Columbia Council is a time-consuming task, candidates said, and it starts several months before the elections. Santos and Philip Kirsch, the other candidate for the Wilde Lake seat, said they spend many days talking with residents and drumming up support. Kirsch and other candidates say they have a team of campaign volunteers who help post fliers and send e-mail.

Some candidates said they expect to spend between $300 and $500 on this year's campaign.

To reach voters, some candidates have developed Web sites. Gail Broida, a candidate from Town Center, is cruising the campaign trail on a Segway transporter, a two-wheel, self-balancing scooter.


Center of controversy

The Columbia Council and board have a history of being at the heart of community issues. Plans to incorporate the planned community as a city were debated several years ago. In addition, abolition of the Columbia Council and discussions on raising the Columbia assessment prompted heated discussions.

In 2004, the Alliance for a Better Columbia filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office accusing the association board of violating a state law regarding open meetings and access to public documents.

Alex Hekimian, president and co-founder of ABC, said the association board and Columbia Council have changed over the decades for good and bad. He said many candidates, including his campaign for the council in the 1990s, advocate change in the way the association does business.

"The concern about CA and how it functions is not a new thing," said Hekimian, who helped start the watchdog group in 1987. "It has been a generic problem ever since Columbia has been formed and it continues to be."

Russell and other current members said the board is an argumentative ensemble at times.


'So much stress'

"I have never served on a board that has been so difficult in just working with people on the board - there just has been so much stress," Russell said. "The level of stress is very high, and it doesn't seem to change. It's one of the most stressful boards I have ever been involved in since high school. It even seems that when we are all on the same track, it still seems stressful."

The board of directors has launched political careers. Numerous former members have campaigned for political office and some, including former Howard County Council members Paul Farragut and David A. Rakes, have won.

Joshua Feldmark, a current member of the board, is a candidate for Howard County Council.

"On some level, I will miss some of the laughing and yelling," Feldmark said. "I think there is a certain level of freedom on the Columbia Council that does not exist on the County Council."

The Columbia Council elections produce moments of drama in the planned community.


Villages have extended deadlines because no candidates filed for elections. In some elections, not enough ballots were cast to make the contests valid. Some villages require that 10 percent of the population cast ballots for the election to be official. Others, such as Dorsey's Search, allow a candidate to win with a majority of the vote.

Luring voters

Villages with a population percentage requirement have used live bands and raffles to lure residents to the polls.

"We have a huge plant sale, and that was very successful, and that brings out a lot of people," said Sandy Cederbaum, Oakland Mills village manager, who will have another plant sale Saturday.