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With City as Subject, the Class Is Not Just Academic

Frederick Educates Residents About Home

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page C04

The class is Frederick 101. The topic is planning and zoning. The question from one of the students is about the city's code enforcement: How do officials deal with weeds, junked cars, graffiti, blight and -- this being winter -- snow removal?

"Hopefully, some of you got some nasty little reminders about snow removal," instructor Chuck Boyd said last month, sounding just a little smart-alecky before explaining what city officials do to keep wintry sidewalks clear.

Chuck Boyd, director of planning and community development, talks about Frederick's master plan during Frederick 101. (Photos Timothy Jacobsen For The Washington Post)

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The lecturer also toyed with his students for a moment when the subject of gridlock came up: "Unless we can get those George Jetson cars out there" -- referring to the futuristic cartoon -- "we are still going to be driving with rubber on the road."

After all, it's not every day that Boyd, director of Frederick's Department of Planning and Community Development, can take the lectern in a casual setting at City Hall before city residents who are there to learn about, and not necessarily fight over, the kinds of problems he and other city planners face.

Roelkey Myers, who heads the Recreation Department, used his time at the lectern to gush about the city's public golf course, its new skate park, its renovated fitness center and its buggy rides. In keeping with the freewheeling survey course on city lore, Myers also regaled his audience with the tale of a stark-naked vagrant hunting for soap in a busy gym.

Boyd and Myers were teaching an increasingly popular seminar on the workings of City Hall. For a $15 fee, anyone can attend six weeks of night school taught by city department heads.

Interested in trash? Fred Eisenhart, director of public works, walks people through the basics. Taxes? John Leisenring, chief financial officer, talks budgets. Police Chief Kim C. Dine schools the class on crime. The program has become such a hit that the city added another term and recently unveiled "Frederick 101's Saturday Series."

For attendees, many of whom are recent transplants to the growing exurb, the seminars offer a way to learn about the city and get up close and personal with the folks who keep it going.

"It's nice to know these people are running your city," said Jessica Balsam, 33, a real estate agent who attended the course with 16 other students.

During one two-hour class, their questions ranged far: How many parking spaces is a shopping center supposed to have? (Five for every 1,000 square feet, though the ratio is bigger for bigger shopping plazas.) Is there a Web site to find out if a park pavilion has been rented? (No, but picnickers can call the Recreation Department.) How many horse-drawn carriages does the city own? (None. The city uses a vendor for this popular tourist attraction.) What about those blighted properties on Fourth Street? (Long story.)

Sara E. McGill, a community outreach official, estimated that 70 people have taken the course (not that anyone is taking attendance). Most are new residents. A few signed up because they were thinking about moving to the city.

Other municipalities have similar programs, such as "Rockville University." When Frederick began the classes in fall 2002, the course was offered twice a year. To address a growing waiting list, the city last year offered it three times. The new Saturday classes, which began Jan. 8, are free and even more loosely structured than the six-week program.

"It does a great job going from A to Z," said Vincent Hughes, chief operations officer of citizens services. Hughes, by the way, acknowledged that he cribbed the idea from his former employers in Rockville.

"I'm just amazed at all the people who take the class," said Alderman Marcia A. Hall (D). "Some have lived here a long time, but they just have more they want to know."

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