I think at least some people know that I used to be the President of the Howard County Citizens Association (HCCA); specifically, from 2000-2003. My successor as President did OK for about a year, then, for reasons it's not necessary to mention here, the organization lay fallow for a couple years, until the current President, Bridget Mugane, resuscitated it about four years ago.
I give Bridget a ton of credit for bringing vitality and energy back to the organization. I certainly didn't like the work I and others put into the organization to go for naught, and she has certainly ensured that such will not be the case. However, I have to say that I have serious questions about what HCCA has become.
What HCCA had been, at least in the several years I had been active with it, was an organization that looked at broad issues within Howard County. The most specific issue we looked at was the establishment of the Maple Lawn development-- hardly a piecemeal issue. But HCCA board members-- several, in fact-- advised the county on the 2000 General Plan. We were a sounding board for the development of the senior housing legislation that currently exists in Howard County. We supported mixed use development in Howard County. We advocated for the establishment of a Hearing Examiner, as well as a People's Counsel, in Howard County. And we advocated in general for greater public input and transparency in local government.
HCCA does still look at some of these "big picture" land use issues-- involvement in the Turf Valley referendum effort and the downtown Columbia Master Plan makes sense-- but what doesn't make sense is some of the more piecemeal activities of the organization. Such as involvement in the downtown Columbia tower. Such as whether or not to allow a deceleration lane on Thunder Hill Rd. to facilitate the development of a Walgreen's at 175 and Thunder Hill. Such as opposing Howard Community College's purchase of Belmont conference center. While these issues are certainly pet projects (or pet peeves) of members of the HCCA board, are they really issues that require their input "to voice the needs and concerns of County residents"? Does someone in Glenwood really care about Belmont? Would North Laurel in any way be aggrieved if the deceleration lane on Thunder Hill Rd. is approved? The answer to both questions is "highly doubtful"; however, the HCCA board would like to impose their solutions on these very localized issues, under the aegis of being the voice of Howard County residents. This is at its most charitable, an overstepping of mission.
Moreover, all too often I see HCCA's role in the public arena as not being one that offers solutions; however, but as one that offers plenty of criticism. With the experience and savvy of the people on the HCCA board-- many of whom I like and consider allies-- this is unfortunate. As anyone knows, it is easy to criticize. It is much harder to think creatively and advocate viable alternatives. I would submit that if HCCA is ever to reach its full potential, it needs to do more to develop and to advocate these viable solutions, and less attending public meetings and showing "great concern" on this or that topic.
An informed citizenry is the bedrock of democracy; HCCA and groups like it perform a valuable service in that regard. However, there exists a fine line between advocacy and education, and presuming onto the populace that they know best for the community. For HCCA to maintain credibility in the community at large, and withstand becoming marginalized as a shrill voice of negativity in the wilderness, it needs to develop a better understanding of where this line resides.