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Oakland Mills: Columbia Council Candidates Q&A

The following are responses from the Oakland Mills candidates for Columbia Council / CA Board of Directors. Information on the Oakland Mills election and voting info is available here.

1. Please tell me a bit about yourself and what you hope to bring to the Columbia Council.

Ginny Thomas

Relocating to Maryland from the New York City area, my husband Chuck and I chose Columbia because of the Rouse promises, which distinguished it from typical suburbia. I got involved in politics to help neighbors fight for a consumer protection bill when we couldn’t get a local builder to repair faulty construction. As a social worker, MSW, I was also worried about underfunding of social services, public schools, and the library. This led to seats on the Village Board, the Howard County Council, and the Maryland House of Delegates. As a member of the Howard County Council, I sponsored the county’s first Civil Rights legislation, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. Subsequently, at UMBC, I helped create the Maryland-Medicaid Health Choice program. In 2014, I returned to the Oakland Mills Village Board because our Village Center area needed major redevelopment. During my term as Co-Chair of the Village Board, the community approved an updated Master Plan for Oakland Mills. We successfully lobbied for county funding for Bridge Columbia, a pedestrian/bike path that spans Route 29 and serves as our gateway to Downtown.

What do I bring to the CA Board?

  • A wealth of experience at every level of local and state government, giving me the skillset to continue forging partnerships with public and private-sector entities;

  • Deep familiarity with the nuances of the highly complex 200-page CA budget;

  • The empathy of a social worker who spent her career fighting for equitable opportunities for all, including individuals who are economically, physically, and mentally disadvantaged.


Rashida George

I am a mother of two HCPSS OM students and a proud resident of the Oakland Mills community. I am a Social Worker by profession and have also worked for many years in education and justice systems. Much of my work in these systems and in the helping profession has been in leadership and advocacy roles. This being my sixth year in Oakland Mills, I am energized and excited to bring my passion and expertise to my home community.

I may not have served 2 terms on the County Council, nor 3 terms in Maryland House of Delegates. However, currently, I am the Chairperson for the County Council’s Racial Equity task force Legislative Process subgroup, a board member of the Oakland Mills Online (OMO) community, founder of an organization based on Restorative Justice education implementation and training. Cumulatively, I have been a voice for those who are often ignored or underrepresented. I hope to bring a fresh perspective on existing and new matters to the Columbia Council.

2. The impact that the pandemic has caused on CA's financials has resulted in the CA Board having to make difficult decisions on which services to keep and which services to cut. How would you prioritize the services and amenities that CA offers? What is CA doing well that they should continue? What could CA be doing better?

Ginny Thomas

Stewardship of 3600 acres of open space is the biggest item in the CA budget. It was one of Rouse’s top priorities. Maintaining the open space is not cheap, yet our pathways are available for ALL to enjoy—not just Columbia residents—and our green space alleviates pollution from vehicular traffic and provides stormwater management that benefits the entire county. We already have a few partnership agreements with Howard County regarding certain ponds; CA must explore ways to expand the county’s contribution to maintaining this space that benefits the whole county. Affordable daycare for working parents is a critical service, especially during the pandemic, since many of our residents work in the health care and service industries—jobs that cannot be done remotely. Early in the pandemic, I successfully fought to reopen CA’s Before and After-School care centers in Columbia schools quickly so parents could get back to work. CA has provisions to make the service affordable for income-qualified families. Outdoor pools should be open and available to all to the fullest extent possible. Although I favored reopening ALL pools this summer, the current budget only opens 15 pools, due to financial and personnel (e.g., qualified lifeguards) constraints. However, I introduced a Resolution whereby CA will make reopening the remaining 8 pools its first priority as soon as funds become available. We just learned that Howard county is getting $63 million in CARES funding, so CA is requesting funds for essential community activities, with pools at the top of the list. The county funds pools elsewhere in the county; it is imperative to offer this most basic form of summer recreation to all residents. To improve resident feedback, I asked for shorter, more frequent surveys, focused on specific issues. What could CA do better? Find more areas for partnerships with the county to fund facilities, programs, and open space maintenance. CA lien payers should not have to bear the entire cost of services that the county funds for people who live outside Columbia.


Rashida George

I understand that the pandemic has caused immense financial constraints and impact on the CA budget. I think it is counter-productive to spend money on fitness centers that function at a loss. Our pool situation was a very saddening one. The pools have historically been central to community life, fun for our children, a place for making connections and a beneficial outlet for all involved. To have ignored this as a priority for all communities was a sad and damaging decision. Being more people and community-centered in the decision-making. Columbia has however taken very good care of the many trails and some of our outdoor spaces. It would seem that CA needs more transparency around the budget, the development of an external budget review committee to analyze, encourage transparency and potentially add community voice pertaining to the budget and allocation of funds.

CA could also better utilize their Communications department to better connect with the villages, attendance to bi-weekly village board meetings should not be the sole means of connection to or with village residents. Increasing financial resources to the village centers- adding to its attraction and programming and connecting with the lower/low-income populations.

CA would benefit from having a liaison or a small department designated specifically for communication between CA and the villages. This person or department can also work in the capacity of a “Welcome Center” for new Columbia residents.

3. The Columbia Association considers itself the "keeper of the Rouse Vision". How can CA best embrace this role?

Ginny Thomas

CA must continue to exercise wise stewardship of the 3600 acres of Open Space with which it has been entrusted. Any attempt to encroach on or degrade this precious land must be resisted. Conversely, every attempt should be made to help everyone enjoy and appreciate this resource. CA staff and board must continue to strive to ensure that staff, boards, and advisory committees represent the diverse community in Columbia. I will continue partnering with organizations to develop strategies that promote diversity and equity. Recreational facilities, especially pools, should be available to all residents, and CA should continue offering subsidies to economically disadvantaged residents so they can use these and other facilities. I will continue to support CA pre- and after-school programs and camps, along educational programs for all ages. This is important so we can empower individuals and families to achieve their potential.


Rashida George

In reference to Rouse’s vision - "The form and function of the neighborhoods and villages as distinct places within a whole city has contributed to a sense of community among people that has been expressed in their community participation; their openness to one another; and in their initiative in creating new institutions to improve life in their communities."

The CA mission and vision is to “Create and support solutions to meet the evolving needs of a dynamic and inclusive community. Engage our diverse community, cultivate a unique sense of place and enhance quality of life”

CA could best embrace the Rouse vision by reconnecting to Rouse’s village concept, through encourage engagement and participation to better inform the needs of the communities and celebrate the diversity by truly being inclusive. Our playgrounds and pools were designed to create “a sense of neighborliness” which has unfortunately been overlooked by CA.

4. What role should CA play in community and in economic development? What is CA’s role in spurring investment in older neighborhoods in Columbia?

Ginny Thomas

CA’s role in redeveloping the oldest Village Centers is limited by the fact that the commercial elements of the centers are in private hands. Nevertheless, I made it a key goal for the CA President to work with the county’s Economic Development office to identify and pursue new opportunities for the Oakland Mills Village Center, in light of needs that have changed greatly since James Rouse created the village concept. It is also critical to ensure that Columbia residents play a key role in the county’s Comprehensive General Plan for the New Town, which may lead to zoning changes within Columbia. I have been urging the CA Board of Directors and staff to take a proactive position--not just react to what the County may propose on how to handle zoning in Columbia. Some developers would like to abolish New Town zoning entirely. CA is conducting a process to get feedback from residents on the future development of our village centers, neighborhoods, and employment parks. When I served on the Howard County Council, I worked on a General Plan and a Comprehensive Land Use Plan so I have the experience to help guide the CA Board in responding to this highly complex task, which directly affects Columbia residents. This is an area where experience matters! CA also plays a role in covenant enforcement which is important to keep to attract new residents, especially in our older villages.


Rashida George

While CA might not have total responsibility over economic development in the community, I do believe that they can play an active or more prominent role in advocating for an increase in opportunities for small and minority business owners in the villages. CA can foster partnerships with county and/or community organizations and non-profits to support this effort.

5. Let's talk about Symphony Woods. What do you envision for the future of Symphony Woods? Do you support the revised plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods and protecting Symphony Woods as a CA-owned public amenity?

Ginny Thomas

The CA Board of Directors must continue to play a key role in deciding in a series of public meetings the future of the 51 acres of Symphony Woods. This area is as vital to Columbia as Central Park is to New York City. Residents should have a voice in how it is used. Given the increased density of the downtown area, we have to make sure that this green space is preserved for community use in a way that will help mitigate the pollution and runoff caused by increased traffic and construction in the downtown. The Inner Arbor Trust, CA staff, the CA Board and other stakeholders developed a Concept Plan to preserve this fragile ecosystem. It’s a great plan, but pressure from commercial interests could impede its full realization. This area should always be our little Central Park, even when surrounded by dense development. It was–and must remain—central to realizing the Rouse Vision. I strongly support the culturally diverse programs (many of them free) which the Inner Arbor Trust offers in the Chrysalis. This is a great example of using a public space in a way that does not degrade the environment.

Rashida George

I am in support of Symphony Woods. I believe the space has potential to be a major attraction for Columbians, Howard County residents and all visitors. It has been nearly 10 years since the original concept was developed, I think it is time to bring this to fruition.

This will be a great space to gather, rich in culture and outdoor space beautification and utilization. If owned by CA then it is likely that CA should fund the project. If this is impossible or a far reach, then the acquisition of funding should be sought by the current management. I am open to further discussion around the management of Symphony Woods.

6. Symphony of Lights has been subject to litigation between the various landowners and downtown arts and culture organizations. What do you want to see happen with Symphony of Lights? Do you support or oppose allowing the event to continue as a driving event on or adjacent to Symphony Woods?

Ginny Thomas

The issue is not the continuation of Symphony of Lights; rather, it is the survival of a precious piece of Columbia’s open space. Originally conceived as a fundraiser for Howard County General Hospital, Symphony of Lights is now owned by a for-profit organization. They were offered opportunities to make it a walk-through event or use other land, since the current route involves bringing in construction equipment and thousands of cars that tear up the land, compress tree roots, and increase runoff and pollution throughout the area. To minimize their expenses and maximize profits, the new owners refused to negotiate with CA, leaving us no recourse except litigation in order to protect Symphony Woods--the crown jewel of Columbia open space.


Rashida George

Although this seems to be somewhat of a complex issue, I am not sure that litigation was a necessary. I would like to think that such a family-focused attraction which brings revenue to the area could have been amicably resolved. My family are avid fans of Symphony of Lights so I want it to remain, the event should continue as a driving event. During cold winter months, who wants to walk such a distance? I think the drive-through element adds to the experience. Updating and repositioning the lights could also improve the experience.



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