Community group not 'secret society,' members say

April 24, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

Countering a claim that they're in a "secret society," members of a Hagerstown group examining race and other issues talked about their work during separate interviews Sunday.

Founding member Dan Kennedy said the group has several goals, such as supporting the city's progress, identifying strengths and weaknesses in the area's diversity, and "exploring all issues of prejudice and discrimination, whether perceived or real."

The group, called Building Community, started meeting in September after accepting an offer from the U.S. Department of Justice to examine problems and work on solutions.

Hagerstown was still in the midst of receiving a series of hate letters and phone calls targeting people for their race and sexual orientation. A former city police officer has been charged with sending the letters and making the threats.


After months of meetings that included more than 80 local residents, Building Community drew criticism at the last three Hagerstown City Council meetings, particularly for its low-key work.

Councilwoman Alesia D. Parson-McBean, another founding member, has said the group's ideas can't be disclosed until they're more fully developed. The Herald-Mail purposely has not been invited to cover the group yet, she said.

Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer, who labeled the group a "secret society," said she's bothered that city money was spent on an activity that can't fully be disclosed to the public.

The group has repaid the city for $367.21 in start-up costs, but Cromer said on-duty police officers still are being paid to be at meetings.

Similarly, Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh has criticized the use of tax money and accused the group of being "more exclusive than inclusive" while exaggerating the city's racism problems.

Other Building Community members didn't weigh in until Friday, when Bunny L. Fontrier of Hagerstown sent The Herald-Mail a letter to the editor saying, "No one has been excluded" from the group.

"It was merely suggested to meeting attendees at one point that we may not want to call the paper, TV, radio stations, etc., to 'come over and cover the ... meetings' immediately, until the focus groups we have established had some goals ready to present," she wrote.

Kennedy agreed Sunday, saying the group wanted a solid foundation and specific plans before going public. He said that's about to happen.

The Department of Justice's Community Relations Service contacted Hagers-town community leaders in April 2005 because of the hate letters, said Stephen Thom, the service's deputy director.

The service's Web site describes itself as "the Department's 'peacemaker' for community conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color and national origin."

The group has broken into eight committees, Kennedy said. The topics so far are: media coverage, police/community relations, interreligious interaction, city/community relations, employment, city/race relations, school-based race relations and community awareness.

The Rev. Ed Poling of Hagerstown Church of the Brethren is on a committee looking at interaction between religions. He said the committee probably will work with Interfaith Coalition of Washington County, a community group he coordinates.

Poling and others have said Building Community hopes to organize a diversity celebration next year. Poling said there's been a good discussion of racism so far, but he's not sure how much progress the entire group will make.

"The problem ... is it is not structured in a way with clear lines of authority," he said. "It's kind of nebulous."

Carole Lafferman Fitzwater of Smithsburg said her committee is looking at race relations in schools, but not because of specific problems. She said Building Community participants were told the project would last about two years, from goals to specific plans, so publicity was minimal to start.

Fontrier said Sunday that she'll "fight tooth and nail" to make sure everyone who wants to participate in the group is allowed to.

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