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Neighborhoods angst - city group splits 12/21

December 21, 2000

Neighborhoods angst - city group splits 12/21



In what could be a giant step backward for the revitalization of Hagerstown, the downtown chapter of Neighborhoods First has voted unanimously to end its association with the city and become an independent organization.

Now, just in case you think this is little bitty squabble between government and a citizens' group, please think again. This is the group spark-plugged by Ted and Vicki Bodnar, who put on an Easter Parade, a summer festival at the ice rink and began a campaign to get downtown residents to beautify with downtown flower boxes. Not to slight the other members of their chapter, but city government losing the Bodnars' support is like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig leaving the Yankees in the middle of the pennant race.

The issues that led to the break-up are many, but the last straw was a set of proposed guidelines for Neighborhoods First organizations, which up to now have functioned with a small pamphlet of instructions. What galls the downtown group even more is that even though the guidelines were developed over two months, their input was not solicited.

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"And I'm in City Hall every day," Ted Bodnar says.

Among other things, the proposal would put some restrictions on the neighborhood groups' ability to seek grants and prohibit them from endorsing any candidate for office. It would also require them to prepare a plan and project it out five years. But city officials say the proposal is only a starting point for discussion and months away from being implemented.

Larry Bayer, the city employee who oversees the Neighborhoods First program, said that the guidelines were written "because there were some questions about what the scope and purpose of what Neighborhoods First was, and we never had anything except a couple of two-page pamphlets."

The timing of the proposal's release, a little over a month before the filing deadline for the next city election, was a coincidence, Bayer said, adding that it was necessary to address some serious issues like liability and the individual chapters' ability to sign contracts.

"Right now the groups operate as an arm of the city, and they're covered by our liability because when they put on something, it's a city-sponsored function and there's a real concern," Bayer said.

Bayer also said that the city wouldn't intentionally try to squash political activity because considering the poor turnout in the last city election, "somehow we've got to spur interest in the local-government process."

Endorsements of specific candidates would be prohibited, Bayer said, because the groups receive city funds and some cash from Community Development Block Grants, which come with guidelines restricting such activity, Bayer said. However, if the group wants to hold a registration drive, a forum with all candiudates or pass out sample ballots which name all who are running, that would be OK, Bayer said.

As for the planning requirement, Bayer said the city would be available to help, adding that what's wanted is really not a full-fledged master plan, but a list of the group's goals.

"I hope we can convey to them that there's nothing in here to limit what they can do. I would be very surprised if the final document looks like this," Bayer said.

Mike Heyser, the City Building Inspector and one of the officials who works with the downtown group, offered an olive branch, saying that if the group's members wanted to become an independent entity, the city would still work with them.

Debbie Washington, a city employee who works with the Jonathan Street Neighborhoods First group, said she hoped the split wouldn't happen, because the group can potentially do so much good.

Vicki Bodnar isn't buying this, saying that the city is trying to squelch the downtown group because it's pressing for action on items the council doesn't want to address head-on, like crime and the rundown condition of many properties.

City Hall would love a group that builds parking lots and hangs flower boxes, but when it comes to something like pressing for more police patrols or rental-property inspection, their input isn't wanted, she said.

Crime is a concern and will continue to be a concern until the city adds more police, Bodnar said. For those city officials who don't live downtown, she said, "It's not a concern. They can go home at night."

She and her husband will take a role in the new independent group, but after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of their time, it's time for some results, she said.

And if not? "Teddy and I's days are numbered," she said.

Some councilmembers would probably silently welcome the departure of these two squeaky wheels, even though they're doing exactly what the city needs citizens to do - invest and push the city to do things it should have done 20 years ago, like force some of these landlords to fix up their buildings, or better yet, sell out to someone who will.

My recommendation: Start treating people like the Bodnars with the same attitude the city takes with shopping center developers. For those folks, the red carpet - and the tax breaks - always seem to be available. No, folks like the Bodnars are not always easy to work with, but their investment of time and money justify some coddling, and an apology for not asking them to help write these guidelines.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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