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Panhandle group seeks more clout in Charleston

October 09, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Far from the hallways of the state Capitol in Charleston, a group of Eastern Panhandle residents are coming up with their own ideas about how they believe state government should work.

Clint Hogbin has been working as a community activist for 15 years, but when he focused his efforts on state issues, he always felt powerless.

Hogbin said it always seems that unless he is connected to some "well-funded" organization, he is not going to get anywhere to influence state issues.

"I've always felt a sense of disconnect between the average citizen and the folks we elect," the Hedgesville resident said.

Now Hogbin feels like he has a direct link to the Legislature through the Eastern Panhandle People's Empowerment Coalition, a group of about 100 local residents who are tackling issues important to them such as farmland preservation, drunken driving, littering and school safety.

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Since last March, the coalition's members have been holding community meetings to gather public input, crafting legislation in marathon sessions lasting over several days and going to other organizations in the state to seek support for their ideas.

When their legislative proposals are complete, they will take them to Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, who will introduce the proposals in the Legislature.

Unger, who came up with the idea for the coalition, sees the effort as the ultimate example of grassroots politics.

"Instead of being Senator Unger's bill, it will be the people's bill. Then it will be my job to fight to get it through," Unger said last week as he grabbed a bite of lunch at a Martinsburg restaurant.

People involved in the coalition say having a senator whose main duty is to deliver their proposals is a form of democracy like no other in the state.

The coalition represents a wide cross-section of people with varying interests.

Tired of Washington, D.C., city life, Lavonne Paden and her husband moved to Hedgesville five years ago to try their hand at farming while continuing to run their financial and print consulting businesses out of their home.

Paden lived in Fairfax County, Va., long enough to know she never wanted to go back to that lifestyle again, and wanted to help Berkeley County balance its growth with its rural landscape.

Paden is one of about 20 people in the coalition who have been formulating a farmland protection act Unger plans to introduce in the Legislature in January. Using up to $35 million available from Congress, the coalition's proposal would set up "protective easements" on Eastern Panhandle farms to protect them from urban sprawl. Any farmer who participates in the proposed Voluntary Farmland Protection Act would agree to a protective easement in return for an amount of money awarded to the grower.

The 20 or so farmers, community activists and others who worked on the Voluntary Farmland Protection Act began meeting earlier in the year to put together the proposal. As the group began formalizing their proposal, they realized it was difficult to fine-tune the plan with that many people, so a core committee of about six members was organized to write the final proposal.

Four nights a week for three weeks during the summer, the core committee met in Martinsburg attorney David Hammer's office to write the act. Hammer donated his legal services to write the plan, and volunteers had access to fax machines, copiers and legal resources.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for local citizens," said Hammer.

Hammer said the group is fortunate to have people like Paden working on the proposal.

While living in Fairfax County, Paden worked for the Land Trust Alliance in Washington. The alliance is the trade organization for land trust groups across the country. It was Paden's job to come with new strategies to help land trust organizations preserve open space.

Coalition members said Paden's experience has been invaluable to the group.

"My idea would be to start a new model," Paden said in describing her ideas for saving farmland in the Panhandle. "There's still plenty of time and open space around here."

The group's school safety committee wants to strengthen the penalty for bomb threats made against public schools. Currently, a bomb threat is a misdemeanor and the group does not feel that is sufficient punishment for the acts.

Doug Hovatter, who has been working on the school safety group, said he likes the enthusiasm he sees in the coalition, and the ability to get immediate feedback on his ideas.

Hovatter said the group embodies the whole idea of "we the people."

"I think it's really the true emphasis our Founding Fathers had for the states," Hovatter said.

The coalition has helped secure money for "Operation Groundhog," which employs camouflaged cameras to catch people illegally dumping trash along highways. It also wants to increase penalties for drunken driving, Unger said.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, who was in Martinsburg on Saturday for several events, said he welcomes any avenue to increase public involvement in state issues. Underwood held one of his cabinet meetings in Shepherdstown last month to listen to concerns of local officials, and he hopes to develop a state government office in the Panhandle to better meet the needs of citizens.

"To me, that's very important," Underwood said.

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