Sunday, December 25, 2005

Questions from the Columbia Flier Editorial Board

1. Which Columbia Association programs would you like to see get higher priority? Lower priority? Started? Eliminated? What changes would you suggest and what would be their financial implications?

Higher Priority: Time banking. Aside from a few stories in the papers and a buried page on the Columbia Association website, there hasn't been very much promotion of this program, which is unfortunate, because it seems quintessentially "Columbia." The Columbia Association Network (CAN) encourages public service and volunteerism by providing credits – "Time Dollars" – for each hour a resident spends helping others in the community. These credits can then be used in exchange for services from another participating resident.

While promoting volunteerism is a nice, lofty goal for a program, the tangible benefit of CAN – that which gets people to participate – is that it captures and adds real, fungible value to community service. Previously, the only incentive to serve had been altruism, which only gets you so far in this world, I'm afraid. CAN, however, builds on this motivation, while also leaving room for good old-fashioned self-interest. And it operates efficiently by allowing our neighbors to decide for themselves the highest and best uses of their endless talents and limited time. It's an economist's dream!

That said, CAN needs broad participation to actually work: the broader the pool of services available, the more likely it is that residents will join – a self-perpetuating cycle. In that vein, CA could do a better job marketing the program and describing actual services that are available now (there is no such information on the CAN webpage). Moreover, the range of included volunteer time could be expanded. For instance, time credits could be given to residents who serve on neighborhood committees or – as in Oakland Mills – serve as street captains, informing neighbors about the news of the village and organizing events that help strengthen bonds between residents. Also, some cities – Ithaca, New York, for one – have even gone so far as to create a unique form of currency used by local merchants. We should explore a system like this and ways that it can be integrated with CAN.

Because it is a volunteer-based system, CAN requires few CA resources to support it. There is already a program director in place, and additional marketing might increase costs marginally, as would widening the program to include a local currency component. But I don't feel that additional costs would register significantly on the CA budget (of course, one must always be aware of the costs of numerous small programs adding up).

Lower priority/Started/Eliminated: Maybe this is a cop-out – including all three of these categories together – but I feel very strongly that we need to stop dredging our lakes. By this, I don't mean we should allow them to entirely fill with silt. Rather, I would like to actually solve the silting problem or at least try.

Columbia was conceived before the days of "proper" stormwater management, and as such, our lakes serve as de facto stormwater retention ponds, in addition to aesthetic and recreational amenities for the community. While stormwater retention is essential to preserving fragile ecosystems – particularly the Chesapeake Bay – our current practices are neither sustainable nor, for that matter, effective.

Excessive stormwater run-off is continuing to plague our streams and open space. After each storm, water rushes through our streams, stripping the beds of soil and over time, diminishing the land's ability to support plant and animal life, and filling our lakes with material that must ultimately be dredged. When Columbia was founded, the prevailing approach to "respecting the land" was setting aside sensitive areas – stream buffers, steep slopes, etc. As is clear now, setting aside the land is not enough to prevent it from harm, even without additional development. The open space problems we face now – dredging being a major one – will continue to compound unless action is taken now.

Instead of passive and reactionary approaches to open space management, we need to be aggressive and proactive. The myriad problems of dredging will surface every decade unless we begin significant interventions now. These should include stream restorations and more integrated, holistic open space management (possibly strategic plantings, new wetlands, etc.). However, even though CA is the largest private landowner in the state of Maryland, it only posses approximately one-third of the total land in Columbia. If we truly want to address the continued degradation of our open space, we must build on these interventions in open space and move them to our own backyards.

I am not a proponent of heavy-handed, top-down approaches to anything. I believe that with the right information and a proper system of incentives, people will respond accordingly. CA should investigate and, where possible, implement programs for reducing the stormwater runoff from residential and commercial property. There are likely a variety of mechanisms to accomplish this, from education and demonstration programs to perhaps grants or loans to homeowners.

Although stream restoration and incentives for backyard remediation appear costly, what are the potential savings? Have we investigated the long-run costs of having to dredge each of our three major lakes every ten years or less? What savings are to be gained from stopping that and taking a more decentralized approach to stormwater management? My hunch is that we may end up spending a bit more up front on aggressive and proactive interventions, but that most of the costs will be made up for by the lack of dredging costs. I also think CA needs to more aggressively pursue governmental assistance for its open space management costs. I understand that its status as a public benefit organization limits available funding, but this may be an area that needs to be reexamined. Finally, there is a growing movement to create local, citizen-based watershed groups in Columbia that could assist in the implementation of these programs.

2. What would you as a Columbia Council/board member do to make the Columbia Association a more open organization?

I would push CA to have a stronger online presence. The web is an essential and easy tool busy people (i.e. all of us) can use to keep abreast of matters and happenings in their communities. I don't know if the right form is an improved website with more interactive web features, maybe even live video feeds of meetings, but this is an area that could always use improvement. Moreover, ensuring that debates between board members occur in the boardroom and not behind closed doors is essential. If the board wants to discuss things at times other than regularly scheduled meetings, why not create an online forum -- viewable by all -- for them to do this.

3. Do you believe your village needs a master plan to guide its redevelopment in the coming years? If so, how would you suggest such a plan be devised and implemented?

Yes! I suppose that's not a surprise given the village I'm seeking to represent. Such plans should come from the citizens. If Oakland Mills is any example, this is not only possible, but it provides the best outcome – a plan that almost everyone supports.

Citizen-driven planning, however, is the easy part (Town Center notwithstanding). Implementation is where the hard work begins. CA board members perform a key role in this, building consensus and reaching out to key partners, which will certainly include, among others, local business owners, Howard County Government, General Growth, village center owners and local non-profits. There are creative ways to accomplish anything, and implementation of these often ambitious plans will certainly require creativity and cooperation.

4. Do you think the board/council does an adequate job representing the interests and concerns of residents to the CA president and staff? If not, what improvements would you suggest?

Its record is probably mixed. I don't know, however, that there are any systemic improvements that can be made. The board will always have two constituencies (citizens and the corporation) that are occasionally at odds with each other. While board members obviously need to strike a balance between the two, I would hope in that balance the needs of citizens are weighted a bit more. See below for my thoughts on how CA could be a more effective organization, which could translate into the board more effectively representing citizens.

Regardless, citizens will always have to be diligent in observing the actions of CA staff, as well as board members. Ultimately, there is no better oversight mechanism for a public organization than informed, active citizens.

5. If there are any issues of particular importance that this questionnaire does not touch on, please outline them, and your prescription for dealing with them, here.

I think CA really needs to reexamine its role within the community from a big picture perspective. The organization has a lot of high-minded rhetoric in its mission statement and charter, but what does this actually mean and how is it manifested? Many of its problems, I think, are the result of a lack of a clear sense of purpose for the organization. Whatever it is, CA gets a lot of money each year from residents who deserve to have that money well spent.

Furthermore, I think the board must reexamine and ultimately clearly define its role within the organization. Many of the problems the board has had over the years stem from a desire by some board members to serve as managers. Boards should focus on big picture, high-priority issues, and not on minutiae – as has been the case.

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