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Policy-making process needs overhaul, leaders told


An array of Howard County government, civic, church an business leaders agreed yesterday that the legislative and policy decision process needs overhauling if countians are to play a more participatory and constructive role in shaping the county's future.

Among the most often-voiced recommendations by those attending the Building Community Leadership Conference:

* Institutions, from the County Council to zoning boards, should strive to include a broader segment of the county's mixed economic and ethnic populations in discussions.

* Systems for involving citizens in public decisions aren't working, making many citizens feel alienated.

* The public-hearing process needs to be adjusted so that

negotiation and mediation are emphasized.

The public hearing process tends to polarize citizens, elected officials and government leaders against one another, many at the conferance noted.

"Too often groups come to public hearings with the view that there can be no compromise. There's too much polarization. If there is a compromise, inevitably some people feel they haven't been served," said Fran Wishnick, a member of the Columbia Council, which serves as a board of directors for the non-profit, private Columbia Parks and Recreation Association.

Michael Davis, president of the Howard County Economic Forum, one of the conference organizers, said that the "current process doesn't promote problem solving and harmony."

"We need to improve the process so that it's more intelligent and participatory. We need to search for ways to improve communication."

Participants in the conference at Howard Community College did not lay out specific ideas for addressing those concerns and a gamut of others raised by attendees -- from the need for a broader understanding by residents of the county's role in the Baltimore-Washington region to the need for more affordable housing.

Such suggestions will be fleshed out this summer by discussion groups which organizers hope to pull together from the 130 attending the conference, said Carol Filipczak, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, a coalition of neighborhood associations and one of the conferance organizers.

Discussion groups will be organized by topics of interest expressed on a survey those attending the conference were asked to fill out.

The discussion groups will be followed by a conference in the fall in which group leaders will be asked to present goals and recommendations for improving the county and establishing a vision for the county's future, said Ms. Filipczak.

The conference's main goals were to foster an understanding of the needs of residents and the business and service communities and to develop ways in which communities can become informed participants in decisions by government officials and others.

Scott Fosler, president of the National Academy of Public Administration, a Washington think tank, was the keynote speaker.

He presented seven broad "questions" that he said organizers and discussion groups should consider in their efforts to come up with ideas for shaping the county's future.

Those "questions ranged from examining the county's historical roots effect on the present to debating what the vision for the county's future should be.

"Whenever you make a decision today, you should first be looking seven generations ahead and thinking about what the effect of that decision will be then," said Mr. Fosler.

Mr. Folser said that many communities nationally also are beginning to examine how their institutions work and effect their lives and what can be done to improve those systems so they serve to bond rather than fragment communities.

He said once community leaders have shaped a vision for Howard County's future, they can achieve that vision in three key ways:

* Building on "commonalities" rather than focusing on conflict.

* Determining which amenities in the community people want preserved.

* Developing better information networks so people can stay informed.

After the conference discussions were concluded Mr. Folser said he observed that many attendees expressed a sense that the "public process today is not working."

He said many participants seem to generally express an interest tTC in seeing more inclusion of a broader segment of the community in the decision-making process, a shift away from conflict and polarization on issues, and a clearer understanding by media organizations of the way they present issues.

"Howard County has enormous resources to accomplish what these people are setting out to do," said Mr. Fosler. "There's clearly a lot of goodwill to find new ways of doing things."

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