Along about a year ago, a curious transformation came over the normally raucous and hostile public hearings of the Maryland state highway administration.
Lines of citizens who waited at microphones to hurl invectives at road engineers gave way to small discussion groups led by "facilitators." Angry residents and state officials worked to get into a "communicational mode," And staff "documenters" kept track of every word.
The reason for the agency's sudden mellowing was simple. Concerned about its reputation as the most hated agency in state government, the highway administration hired a shrink.
Most precisely, it hired the husband-and-wife team of Lewis and Ann Frees, who both have backgrounds in psychology, and their consulting firm Interaction of Bethesda. Their objective: to teach highway officials how to "relate" better to citizens who don't share SHA's enthusiasm for a state highway system and help soothe the frequently hysterical groups that come to highway public meetings.
"He [Lewis Frees] is the Dr. Feel-good of the highways," said state Del. Timothy F. Maloney, who has attended several of the Interaction-run meetings. "They hold these thinky, touchy-feely workshops where people are supposed to feel good about themselves instead of whip-'em-up-and-destroy-this-highway meeting like we used to have."
Under the tutelage of the Freeses, the traditionally confrontational face-offs of the past have given way to workshops of 10 to 15 active and concerned but usually not aggressively hostile citizens guided through discussions of highway technology and proposals by a group leader or facilitator."
Speeches, the focal point of citizen warfare, have been abandoned for slide shows, and the highway officials who used to approach meetings with knots in their stomachs no longer worry about being lynched.
The new era began about a year ago when SHA officials tried to convince Anne Arundel County residents that a mutilane highway was a much needed replacement for the overcrowded Route 3 that wandered past their bucoloc neighborhoods.
At the initial series of public meetings on the SHA proposal "there were people standing up and yelling and accusing [the officials] of lying to them and the officials might have been a little worried about getting lynched," one Anne Arundel legislator recalled.
"Route 3 kind of caught us by surprise," said deputy SHA administrator Fred Gottemoeller. So he contacted Interaction to revamp the agency's citizen participation program, and run public meetings on the agency's most controversial projects.
The Freeses immediately moved the meetings from the previously formal environment to the more relaxed milieu of school cafeterias with round tables that were more conducive to "facilitating" conversation. They trained staff members to keep their talks short and nontechnical and to provide attractive slide shows.
Other officials and interested citizens were taught to act as the facilitator or neutral group leader and lead the small group discussions that take up most of the public meeting time.
The workshop techniques, by almsot all accounts, has reduced the degree of vitrole at SHA meetings. But while most participants say they feel the the new system has helped them be heard, there are some who are less enamored with the new methods and view it as divide-and-conquer tactics.
James Lighthizer, an Anne Arundel county delegate and vehement opponent of Route 3, calls Lewis Frees "the pacify guy. It's sort of like what dealing with the Pentagon must have been like during the Vietnam War -- they put on this big production with charts, flip up overleafs, slide shows and they dazzle you with statistics. They've made the meetings less hostile by splitting you into small groups and then they do what they want to anyway."
The Freeses insist that they were not hired simply to pacify an enraged public and smooth the way for bigger and better highways. The methods, they say, will help ensure greater citizen understanding of, and participation in, highway projects.
"We're opening up channels of information," said Lewis Frees. "We're re-educating people [staff and citizens] to tell them there are subtler ways of getting their messages across," said Ann Frees. "We help people get into a conversational mode. Reeducating people in this process is sometimes very painful. Being the therapist to the public doesn't always feel good."