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Some council members question secrecy of group

April 19, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN

For months, more than 80 local residents have been meeting to discuss "race and tolerance and inclusion," Hagerstown City Councilwoman Alesia D. Parson-McBean said Tuesday.

She said the group, in a "powerful" partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, is examining social issues.

While Parson-McBean described the program as a community effort outside the purview of city government, two of her council colleagues challenged aspects of the arrangement, such as:

· Why did the city spend money on a program that it didn't explain to taxpayers?

· Why have city employees been paid to be there?

· Why are some people being excluded from participating?

"Had this been approached and done properly, I don't think I would have had a problem with it," Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer said. Instead, she said, there's been a "shroud of secrecy."

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Tuesday's council meeting was the third straight meeting during which Cromer and Parson-McBean clashed on the project, which is called "Building Community."

At first, details were sketchy, but the picture became clearer Tuesday.

Parson-McBean said she was contacted by a Department of Justice representative who asked if Hagerstown wanted to have a community discussion of problematic issues and possible solutions.

This came as Parson-McBean and other local residents were receiving racist, homophobic and other hateful and threatening anonymous letters and phone calls.

A former Hagerstown police officer has been charged in the incidents.

The Building Community group's first meeting was in September, Parson-McBean said.

She told The Herald-Mail on Tuesday that the Building Community group intentionally has limited who may take part, at least for now. She said the group wants to gather momentum before publicizing itself, so it will "be able to present this to our city as something that makes us better."

Other council members have been invited to meetings. The Herald-Mail has not been invited, but will be later on, Parson-McBean said.

Parson-McBean, Cromer and Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh - three of the city's five council members - attended a Building Community meeting Monday.

Under Maryland's Open Meetings Act, if a majority of a public body meets to discuss or conduct public business, it must notify the public. However, gatherings unconnected to public business might not be considered meetings.

Cromer said Tuesday that "a lot of things (at Monday's meeting) were more exclusive than inclusive." She also said the group appears to lack direction.

For the third straight council meeting, Cromer criticized the fact that the city spent money on what she has called "a secret society."

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman confirmed that the city spent $367.21 on refreshments, flip charts and markers for the group when it first met.

However, the group has reimbursed the city, so that criticism was "taken off the table completely," Parson-McBean said.

Nigh said the group appears to be overstating racial problems in Hagerstown.

She also questioned why on-duty police officers have been at the meetings if the city is not involved.

"As far as the tax dollars, I've got a problem with that," she said.

Parson-McBean said no one on the council objected to the program when it came up during an executive session Aug. 2, 2005.

After that, the program "was never brought out in public because it was never supposed to be brought out in public prematurely," she said.

City Clerk Donna K. Spickler confirmed that the Building Community program was brought up during an executive session last year.

Under Maryland's Open Meetings Act, public bodies may privately discuss topics in certain categories, such as pending litigation and collective bargaining negotiations. It wasn't clear Tuesday what exemption would have covered the Building Community discussion.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said Tuesday that he also attended Monday's Building Community meeting. He said part of the discussion centered on how media coverage affects public perception.

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