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Couple taking a stand downtown

March 30, 2000

When the sign came, Vicki Bodnar had already experienced some of the downside of her new neighborhood on East Franklin Street in Hagerstown's East End.

In a vacant rowhouse down the street, "the kids," as she called them, had knocked out the windows, dragged some mattresses in "and were using it for a flophouse."

And there were other problems - people ringing the doorbell, looking for drugs, sitting uninvited on the doorsteps making noise. But she and husband Teddy decided they had to follow through with their move from Northern Virginia.

They rented a van for the last of their belongings, and were coming up a two-lane stretch of U.S. 15 near Leesburg, Va., when it happened. Her husband Teddy was already asleep in the passenger seat, and then she said, "I passed out."

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The van ran off the road and struck at least three trees before coming to rest. Neither one was seriously hurt, a fact rescuers and hospital personnel said was remarkable, considering the stretch where they'd wrecked was well-known locally as a dangerous piece of road. Most of the time, they were told, when people come through such a thing unscathed, they take it as some sort of sign.

She did, deciding that she was meant to make her stand in Hagerstown. In little more than a year, she has made such an impression, mostly through her work in the city's Neighborhoods First program, that both Carolyn Brooks, coordinator of the city's HotSpots crime-prevention program and state Sen. Don Munson have suggested that she run for city office.

That's something she said she's not eager to do, but might consider it if it looked like there might be a whole new council, and that the process of educating them on the problems neighborhoods face might have to start all over again.

For a long time, until the arrival of new Police Chief Arthur Smith, most councilmembers continued to say that the idea that the city was crime-ridden was "a perception problem."

But for Bodnar, the problem was the fact that "so few people in power live downtown. We have some really good politicians, but if it's not your reality, they have a hard time believing it."

For the Bodnars, Hagerstown has been their reality for a little more than a year. They settled on two side-by-side homes on East Franklin Street after a 10-year search for a place where they could live and work, she as a commercial decorator and artist, he as an audio engineer. There's an old carriage house behind one of the homes Ted Bodnar hoped to renovate into a a recording studio, but it hasn't come together yet.

They were drawn to Hagerstown, she said, because "there's so much history around, and there were good properties at affordable prices."

After calling code enforcement officer Mike Heyser, she said he suggested she meet with Larry Bayer, the city officials in charge of Neighborhoods First, a program designed to create neighborhood associations and a sense of community where such feelings had faded long ago.

Now she and her husband are running the downtown chapter and one or the other attends the city council meeting every week. A Hagerstown native, Kenny Welch, advised them to do that before they began to lobby for any changes.

"He told us to go to council and go to the work sessions, and don't be critical until you know what's going on," she said.

She's come to the conclusion that one of the city's problems is the at-large election of council members, which has led to the election of all five members from the city's North End. People in other areas of the city feel disconnected, she said, because they don't have a councilperson living in their neighborhood and experiencing their problems.

(The likelihood of a return to the ward system is the next 10 years is unlikely, because the current council knows it would mean the return of Larry Vaughn, who they won't even appoint to the city parks board.)

But being willing to go to lot of meetings and having some good ideas doesn't explain why Vicki Bodnar is such an attractive political candidate.

Certainly she and her husband have invested plenty in Hagerstown, in terms of time and money, but Bodnar also knows how to make an argument without making enemies. The councilpeople who didn't see her neighborhood's drug problem as anything but a mistaken perception aren't described in angry terms, but as good people who merely lacked her group's first-hand experience with the problem.

And like the best elected officials, when Bodnar is talking to you, you have her undivided attention. There are no sighs of impatience, no furtive glances at her watch as the discussion rolls on.

As for a council race, she says "It's certainly not what I came here to do. I'm not convinced that I'm not more effective where I am."

But she says, if the council changes "and everybody's new and we'd have to do it all over again," well, then, she might consider it.

She recalls the nights sweltering in hot meeting rooms with her parents, who regularly took her along to observe the Alexandria, Va. City Council and wonders if being in office would keep her from doing what she's doing now.

"I guess it would depend on who else is running," she said.




Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor for the Herald-Mail.

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