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Washington County delegation splits from chamber for after-session forum

April 15, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY — For the first time in years, Washington County’s state delegation is declining an invitation to headline a chamber of commerce breakfast forum recapping the legislative session.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, the delegation chairman, said lawmakers will stick with another approach this year: a free event held in the evening.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce annually holds morning forums with the delegation before and after each Maryland General Assembly session.

Last year, the delegation tried to reach a broader audience and spoke publicly at two post-legislative wrap-up events in the same day — a morning forum with the chamber, then an evening forum on its own.

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About 20 people went to the evening forum, about one-third of the attendance the chamber had for its event. Tickets for the breakfast forum cost $15 for chamber members and $20 for nonmembers.

Serafini said lawmakers want to reach as many people as possible; a morning chamber event requiring an admission fee doesn’t do that.

“It should be free and open to the public,” he said.

After many years in which the delegation took part in chamber forums, “it just wasn’t working anymore, quite frankly,” Sen. Christopher B. Shank said.

The delegation has scheduled an April 24 forum at 6:30 p.m. at Hagerstown Community College.

The chamber of commerce still expects to hold a post-legislative forum, President Brien J. Poffenberger said, but, as of last week, hadn’t decided who will be involved.

Previously, assuming the delegation would participate again, the chamber set May 9 for the event.

Poffenberger said Friday that that day might change.

Asked if the chamber was disappointed the delegation has declined to participate this year, Poffenberger said, “They’re our first choice. Who better to give a rundown of what’s going on?”

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., the delegation chairman before Serafini took over, investigated holding a different event last year. At the time, he said some business people can’t get to a breakfast event on a weekday morning.

The chamber considered other options after hearing Myers’ concern, but found that the breakfast forum was the most economical choice, Poffenberger said last year.

The delegation has continued to work with the chamber on prelegislative forums, even though the cost and access factors are the same.

The chamber has held a breakfast program with the delegation each year. Separately, the delegation holds an annual free public meeting for people to ask questions or make comments.

In a March 30 email to Poffenberger, Serafini hints that the pre- and post-legislative events with the chamber will end.

Serafini wrote: “As chair of the Washington County delegation, I wanted to make you aware of some upcoming changes the delegation plans to make concerning post-legislative forums this spring and prelegislative meetings in the fall.

“First, the delegation members have chosen to conduct a post-legislative forum that will be free and open to the public during the evening hours of a date in late April yet to be determined. Secondly, any previous prelegislative session meetings conducted with various constituencies throughout the county will now be held during a one-day meeting in the early fall. These changes are being made in order to reach out to the public in an open manner; and in order to avoid scheduling conflicts with delegation members.”

Although Serafini didn’t explicitly write that the delegation would no longer take part in chamber forums, Poffenberger said the message was clear to him when he read it. As of Friday, he and Serafini had not spoken directly.

Myers said Thursday that one problem with the chamber’s breakfast forums is that they’re not convenient for Sen. George C. Edwards, who has a long early-morning drive from Garrett County but still attends the 7:30 a.m. events.

Also, Myers said, the chamber forum questions usually are limited to narrow topics and the program is “too staged.”

Shank said his concern is deeper. He thinks the local chamber hasn’t been an active advocate in Annapolis for small businesses, lagging behind chambers elsewhere in Maryland.

Poffenberger replied that Shank has specific ideas on what the chamber’s role should be, but “we are in 100 percent alignment with the feedback that we get from our members.”

The mostly Republican delegation actually has tentative plans to do one other post-legislative forum: on April 21 at Next Dimensions near Funkstown.

That will be a breakfast event sponsored by the Washington County Republican Central Committee. Tickets cost $25 each.

Shank said the fact that there’s a fee doesn’t contradict the delegation’s stance on having a free public forum.

“If we aren’t having our own event, you could make that argument,” he said.

If you go ...

What: Washington County delegation forum looking back at the Maryland General Assembly session

When: April 24 at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Hagerstown Community College, Career Programs Building, room 212

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