Howard official leaving to be voice for children

December 07, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Hugh James Forton decided Friday to quit serving a bickering County Council and work instead with bickering parents in the throes of divorce.

Leaving his $57,000-a-year job as executive secretary of the council will allow him to return to his first love as an advocate for children whose parents are divorcing. "Helping benefit children is what stirs me inside," says Mr. Forton, 52.

He will continue on the payroll through Feb. 5, 1993, but will leave before Christmas to spend time with his ailing 87-year-old father.

Mr. Forton became interested in child advocacy issues while attending law school at the University of Maryland following a 23-year career as an Air Force intelligence specialist.

Before coming to work as an assistant county solicitor in 1987, he took part in pilot child custody mediation programs involving the Baltimore City and Prince George's County Circuit Courts. He now hopes to work in a similar program in Howard County.

"Helping remind parents of their continuing lives as parents is one of the most personally satisfying things I have ever done," he says. "It's a good feeling."

The work involves some education for parents in conflict -- "how to use a different language rather than the conflict words that are so much a part of the divorce process," he says. "It is difficult and hard to do. Some parents can't get into it at all."

Mr. Forton's background in family systems, group dynamics, and conflict resolution would seem to have been ideal for dealing with a County Council where members of the same party often have difficulty getting along with each other.

Helping solve disputes was not his role, he says. "My role was not to take part in the political process, but to provide the council with the professional staff they need to do their job -- to be there with the bills and the background they need to decide what is in the best interest of the county."

The job also required him to be an expert in minutia. As council parliamentarian, he needed to be intimately familiar with the council rules of procedure and the county code. One of his chief functions was to assure that legislative processes were precisely followed. A bill can be challenged and ruled invalid because of a technical error.

During Mr. Forton's tenure, the council has been on a fast pace, enacting among other things, an 18-month cap on development, the General Plan, and the adequate facilities ordinance. "The amount of work in the last three years has grown tremendously," he says, averaging "a full 65 pieces of legislation a month."

The quantity of work Mr. Forton accomplished in his three and a half years with the council is "impressive," County Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, said in a farewell letter Friday. He commended Mr. Forton for his "willingness to work not only days and evenings but do weekend work as well."

Those things are important, but what set Mr. Forton apart is what Mr. Farragut called his "kindness and genuine concern in helping staff members who were having difficulties." He would go out of the way to help people in need, Mr. Farragut said.

Daily personal contact with the staff and the public is what he will miss most, Mr. Forton says.

"The County Council is one of the places people are nearest to government -- one of the first places they call with a complaint or when in trouble," he says. "Their view of government is based on how their problem was addressed."

Mr. Forton sought to make that experience a positive one. "In many ways, I am an altruist," he says. "I'm a non-political kind of person. I'm not happy unless the business or company I work for is providing a service."

One of the ironies of Mr. Forton's work with the council is that so much of it was filled with the dull, boring, routine assembly-line type work that he hoped to escape by joining the Air Force in 1959. He had seen firsthand what the Detroit assembly line was doing to his blue collar parents and did not want to follow them there.

"I enlisted under the impression that I was going into electronics," he says. "But after basic training, they told me I could go to language school and learn Russian or become a cook. I chose language school.

He had nine months of "total immersion" in basic Russian at the University of Indiana and nine more months of intermediate Russian at Syracuse University. He earned a bachelor's degree in Russian there in 1968.

He was given a regular Air Force commission 1969 after becoming an honor graduate at officer training school. He retired as a major 13 years later.

Now that Mr. Forton is leaving the council, his eldest daughter has a project she wants him to do in addition to public service work. She wants him to write a book -- "a sort of teen-agers' guide to the real world."

The book would extol his essential philosophy -- a philosophy that works equally well whether you're caught between divided council members or embittered spouses.

"Many people believe that the enemy is chaos and we must have order at whatever the cost," he says. "That's looking backward ++ to the past.

"The other view is to look to the present and to the future and see that chaos is a condition of the universe and can be lived with. Uncertainty is a boulevard, not a tight rope."

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