Consultant sees a solution for crisis center

Gaining consensus part of 10-step regimen

`The hard work is still ahead'

A more inclusive public process urged

Howard County

October 31, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The puzzle of how to overcome opposition to building a consolidated crisis center in Howard County has at least 10 pieces, according to a report by Marion Cox, a mediation consultant hired to help solve the dilemma.

In the 18-page report, Cox outlined her findings and suggested the 10-step regimen - a plan County Councilman Ken Ulman said likely would take at least another year.

"I think it's a real good framework, but the hard work is still ahead of us. I think there was an acknowledgment that the process just didn't work," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who is the County Council's liaison with Cox. The mediator was hired in March with a grant sponsored by the council and Howard Community College's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center.

"What I see here is a road map to deal with this NIMBY [not in my back yard] issue," said Richard M. Krieg, president and chief executive officer of Horizon Foundation, one of the center's sponsoring groups. Under the right circumstances, the process could work "faster than most think," Krieg said.

It was nearly three years ago that the foundation announced a grant to study consolidating three human-services groups that help people in crisis and placing them in a larger, consolidated building to deal with Howard County's growing needs.

The plan was to combine Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, which operates the county's homeless shelter; Domestic Violence Center; and Sexual Trauma Treatment Advocacy and Recovery Center (STTAR), which helps victims of sexual abuse. But the plan foundered when residents near several proposed sites rallied against them, and residents were aided by candidates in last year's election campaign.

The likely goal now, Ulman said, is to work toward consensus with all parties in time for consideration in early 2005, when county and state governments will consider their fiscal 2006 budgets. "We always thought there was a public funding piece," Ulman said.

Bob Fleishman, president of the Grassroots board, said he likes Cox's conclusions and her process.

"There are immediate needs out there, but for this to be done right, with sufficient support, it's going to take time," he said. "The bottom line is we're not doing this for ourselves, but for many people in Howard County who need these services."

In her report, Cox said she interviewed 22 people representing the full spectrum of those involved in blocking the location of the proposed private center on donated land in east Columbia and Scaggsville.

She noted that some center advocates complained that politicians ran for cover in an election year when residents objected, and the elected officials shot back that they were left out of the planning and forced to react to a volatile situation they did not create. One key to progress, Cox said, is deciding "whether this is a private initiative or a government-sponsored effort" and including those officials early in the planning.

Cox said she found enough interest to recommend that, but only with a deliberate, more inclusive public process that would first update the concept and then design criteria for placement of the center.

STTAR Director Jeannie Meece said her agency was forced to rent larger quarters and signed a five-year lease in an east Columbia office park.

"My board has decided we will still be a part of the center for crisis intervention staff," she said, "but we won't be co-locating."

At the same time, other agencies are mulling over getting involved. Roy Appletree, director of the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), a group that helps immigrants, said he has been approached about joining the center but is not sure.

"Our key issue is transportation for our clients" who often don't have cars. "I like our location," Appletree said about FIRN's offices near Howard Community College and not far from Wilde Lake Village Center.

Cox proposes that the sponsors of the center first "reconfirm need, partners, scope of the project."

Then, she said, they should brief county and state officials and ask them for guidance - and have a consensus on how to proceed.

After that, she suggests gathering information, developing a formal proposal, organizing a sounding board of interested parties and finalizing a "strong proposal, including an implementation strategy and criteria for sites" for review by the sounding board.

A draft proposal should be circulated for review and ways should be devised to get more information about the project to the public.

Finally, after approval by the sounding board, the proposal would be formally presented to elected officials. If they approve, Cox suggests going forward to completion.

In her report, Cox said she will continue working with all interested parties to "seek agreement on and a firm commitment to implement a new project planning process."

"I'm optimistic, but cautiously so," Ulman said. "My sense is to take a step back, get the process, ask all the questions - questions we haven't considered. Then we can look for sites."

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