The new county deputy director of planning and zoning says that faith in the system must be restored

Renewing the public trust

October 24, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,sun reporter

Kimberly Flowers knows what she's up against, and she's still excited about her new job.

As deputy director for planning and zoning for Howard County, Flowers sees her greatest challenge as overcoming public distrust of the system.

"I don't think they believe we have the citizens' best interests in mind," said Flowers, 35. "I think they believe that we are encouraging too much development and at too rapid of a pace. I've heard word on the street of cutting backroom deals with developers."

But it is Flowers' intention to vanquish the mystery in favor of a more transparent policy.

She said part of the problem is that people don't always understand the timing of the public's opportunity to offer input. And such misunderstandings fuel mistrust once people realize that the door for public debate has slammed behind them.

Flowers is a former Baltimore English teacher who was director of parks and recreation in Washington and, more recently, in Baltimore.

Her nearly three-year tenure as head of Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks is credited with improving maintenance of the city's 6,000 acres of parkland and 250 playgrounds. Flowers' department opened the first new recreation center in nearly 30 years and renovated and constructed 96 playgrounds during her stay.

She now has walked into one of the hottest debates in Howard County. Flowers will play a role in the evolution of downtown Columbia as county planners and General Growth Properties Inc. work to bring energy back to the aging Town Center.

Flowers will help with public meetings to discuss the framework report, called "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," which was released last month by County Executive Ken Ulman.

Those meetings take a look at amenities, such as interconnected sidewalks, public art and attractive streetscapes; development, both residential and commercial; and transportation improvements.

The traffic study that accompanies the report already has raised citizen concerns because it doesn't factor in growth in the numbers of people who will travel to Columbia in the future.

"I think the traffic engineers need to do a better job of addressing that," she said. "An explanation needs to be provided."

Flowers experienced an unexpected challenge while serving as moderator this month at the very first of the county's six meetings.

"The objective was for everyone to be able to say something," she said.

But when time got tight with lots more to cover before the group needed to give up its meeting space at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills, Flowers told members of the focus group that they needed to be brief.

Cynthia Coyle, a focus group member and also a member of the Columbia Association board representing Harper's Choice, balked at the idea, saying that Flowers had asked for specific suggestions and that she intended to provide them.

Flowers was in a tough spot, in front of about 100 people.

"This could clearly get out of control," she said later. "I didn't know that group. It was new. It could have been a nightmare."

But, Flowers, who has a passion for problem-solving, thought fast. She could turn Coyle's microphone off, exploit her personal space by standing right on top of her or simply let her colleagues police her.

"I could have taken that lady on and said, `You've got to stop talking now,'" Flowers said. "I felt like there was pressure for me to get control, but then I had to step back and say, `Maybe it isn't out of control.' I decided not to react."

Although other members of the audience didn't specifically say anything to Coyle, they kept their comments brief and covered the range of remaining topics, so that the meeting ended on time.

"I knew that the audience was sensing the position I was in," Flowers said. "It was a good lesson."

Flowers is comfortable talking about it all.

"I do a lot of living and learning," she said. "I have all kinds of drama."

The daughter of former Baltimore City School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and the granddaughter of two World War II veterans, Flowers is a Randallstown native with a strong work ethic.

"That transfer of expectation from the black community was, do your best for us, because if you don't, the next person might not get a chance," said her husband, Willie Flowers, a lobbyist for LifeBridge Health. "She'll try until she gets everything right. It's just part of her character."

Those who know Kimberly Flowers describe her as smart, creative, driven and a quick study. She has said she draws inspiration from her father, who taught her to handle high expectations even when there were few resources to support them.

Her current job dealing with the public combines her academic training in urban planning with skills learned through her undergraduate degree in speech communication.

Every few minutes, Flowers' BlackBerry alerts her to new calls and messages. Some of them she takes, but most she ignores for the moment.

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