Four Polish officials left Annapolis Sunday armed with knowledge they hope will help nurture democracy in their country.
The officials -- Tomasz Pajor, Jolanta Socha, Andrzej Majer and Teresa Romanowska -- came to Annapolis to learn about local government. After 50 years of communism and centralized government, their country has taken a head-long plunge into local democracy, and thousands of local officials need training.
The four, all faculty members at the University of Lodz, are members of a training center set up to bring local government to Lodz, Poland's second-largest city. They are among nine Lodz officials who spent six weeks in Maryland living with local families and learning about local government.
The effort, the first of its kind in the United States, was led by Jon Arason, deputy director of the Annapolis planning and zoning department.
Arason is chairman of a state effort to train Lodz officials called the State of Maryland Polish Regional Training Center Team.
"It's been hard, because we're the first in the country, and no one's had any experience doing this," Arason said. "But I don't know anyone who's come away from this feeling it wasn't rewarding."
Indeed, the visitors from Lodz said they found much to take back with them. "It was very profitable and fruitful," said Majer, who studied planning while in Maryland. "It was for me a great opportunity to be acquainted with aspects of planning. Now I have to bring this knowledge into other hands."
The changes sweeping through Eastern Europe have occurred nowhere more dramatically than in Poland, where voters elected 52,000 untrained local officials in May. Poland has tried to change rapidly from a centralized economy and government to local government and a free-market economy. Majer and Pajor said the changes have been nothing short of "peaceful revolution."
"After almost 50 years of a centralized economy, we are now in an economic crisis," said Pajor, who studied finances and economic development while in Maryland. "Our first task is to improve the economy. The only way to do it is a transition of our state-run economy to a market economy. At the same time, we have local autonomy in Poland, local elections, local democracy."
To help train newly elected officials, Poland's Foundation in Support of Local Democracy set up 14 regional training centers, each matched with a government jurisdiction in the United States. Maryland was linked with Lodz, an industrial city of 875,000, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer hand-delivered a proposal drafted by Arason's committee during his visit to Poland in May.
The Lodz officials came to Maryland with the help of a $13,700 grant from Sister Cities International, which will use Maryland's program as a model for Polish officials visiting other states.
While in Maryland, Majer spent time at the state Office of Planning, the Annapolis Department of Planning and Zoning and in Prince George's County.
He met with city officials, developers and private design firms.
Until recently, planning in Poland was centralized and most construction firms were state-owned. Polish planners have technical expertise, but little experience dealing with developers and community groups. Majer said his visit taught him much about how planning works in a local democracy.
Pajor studied finances and economic development with the Baltimore Economic Development Co., the Annapolis planning department and Prince George's County. "I am very interested in relations between the local sector and private business," he said. "We are in transition, so we are looking for good models."
Other Polish visitors studied administration, management and environmental protection.
The visit led to understanding between the two sides.
"This cooperation has also let us see the human side," Majer said. "The reception was very warm, and the friendships and living with an American family were good experiences."
For Stefan Klosowski, an Annapolis urban design planner who serves on Arason's committee, the visit touched his Polish roots.
"It's been real eye-opening and rewarding," Klosowski said. "We made some good friendships that I think will carry on, so I think we will be working together in the future. I think we can learn something from them also. It's not just a one-way street."
Arason said he hopes to bring more Polish officials to Maryland in the spring, and send some Maryland officials to Poland to train people first-hand. He hopes to expand the program to include agricultural and medical training.
"This is just the beginning," he said. "We'll work the bugs out and do it again in the spring."