Panel on Diversity To Host First Hearing

Charles County Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret), left, proposed a diversity panel in May. Denise Bailey Clark is its chairman.
Charles County Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret), left, proposed a diversity panel in May. Denise Bailey Clark is its chairman. (Courtesy Of Edith-j. Patterson)
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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Eight months after Charles County leaders formed the Blue Ribbon Commission on Diversity and Intergroup Relations in the wake of a series of hate crimes, the group will host its first public hearing this week.

Members of the commission say they hope to draw a varied sampling of county residents to speak about their experiences with what the session's agenda terms "relations among various demographic groups and how the changing population affects long-term residents and newcomers to the county."

The town-hall-style hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the auditorium of the Charles County Government Building in La Plata. Once they gather information from community members, the 25 commissioners -- a mix of long-term and newer residents of varied ethnicities -- will begin strategizing about systematic ways to improve county life.

"It's just a matter of reaching out and asking people for their input," said Denise Bailey Clark, the commission's chairman and the executive director of diversity and equal opportunity at the College of Southern Maryland. "Over the past eight months, we've been laying a lot of foundation, and we want to take that to the next level."

The public hearing is co-sponsored by the Charles commissioners, and a spokesman for the county said all five of the elected commissioners are expected to attend. Three county commissioners are scheduled to return tomorrow from a visit to Charles's sister city in Walldorf, Germany.

County Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret) proposed the formation of a diversity commission in May, shortly after a series of incidents in which people spray-painted racist graffiti around the county. The outbreak of graffiti came two years after the largest arson in state history targeted a new subdivision populated mostly by black families, causing unease among many African Americans in Charles.

The county has been one of the fastest-growing jurisdictions in Maryland over the past several years, as many affluent and middle-class black families have moved south from Prince George's County. The dramatic shift in demographics -- the county school system became majority-black for the first time in the fall -- has caused friction between some long-term white residents and newer black residents.

"New residents sometimes feel they are not being welcomed, while long-term residents feel the new people are not looking to give to the community, just take from it," Clark said. "It sounds like the two just don't know about each other."

Clark said she expects to see people from many official county institutions at the meeting. Representatives from the Sheriff's Office, county government, the school system and local churches are on the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Public schools spokeswoman Katie O'Malley-Simpson said the school system would be officially represented at the hearing by commission members who work in schools, including Board of Education member Pamela A. Pedersen (St. Charles). Charles County NAACP President William Braxton said last week that he was unaware a meeting had been scheduled, but that he planned to attend with several other NAACP members.

"It's important to get people there to tell about their own lives," Braxton said. "And we're hoping to hear what they've found and what the commission is going to recommend to improve the situation."

Braxton said that although Charles has seen a decrease in racist graffiti, he believes the underlying problems have not been sufficiently addressed.

"People are still afraid of judges, there's still too much nepotism, that sort of thing," Braxton said. "We'd really like to hear some solutions."

Wednesday's hearing comes less than a month before the second Unity in Our Community Diversity Forum, a day-long event scheduled Feb. 16 at the College of Southern Maryland's La Plata campus. Although this week's town hall meeting will focus on people's personal experiences, the goal of the diversity forum is to strategize specific ways to improve relations.

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