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Help for Local Government When Emotions Run High

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By Karen Guin

Marilyn Crotty knew the mood would be tense. She would be leading a meeting of opposing groups - some highly impassioned - about the future of a beloved recreation area in Volusia County. And she had just a few hours to help them reach a consensus.

The focus of the meeting was the Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve, a 2,200-acre parcel located between the cities of New Smyrna Beach and Port Orange. The preserve includes Indian and European archaeological sites and miles of popular hiking and biking trails, some of which run through imperiled scrub habitat, home to the Florida scrub jay and gopher tortoise. This summer, when county officials began state-mandated "roller crushing" to restore the habitat for wildlife, outdoor enthusiasts were outraged.

"Roller crushing refers to the use of big, heavy equipment to mow down all the vegetation that's built up. Even though the results benefit wildlife, they look terrible," explained Crotty, director of the Florida Institute of Government at UCF, housed in the College of Health and Public Affairs. "The plan was to decimate several of the trails, so you can imagine the effect this had on the people who adore the preserve. There were a lot of emotions involved."

To stymie potential court battles, Port Orange officials decided to bring in a facilitator to help the various stakeholders develop a more palatable land plan. Their first choice was Crotty, who worked previously with the city as a facilitator, one of many hats she wears as the institute's director. She gladly accepted the challenge.

To prepare for the Oct. 1 meeting, Crotty gathered background information about land use in the preserve and public policy issues. She also spoke with key people beforehand to learn their viewpoints and concerns.

When the time to meet arrived, Crotty welcomed a dozen stakeholder representatives to the table, each with a strategically assigned seat. The representatives included the Port Orange mayor; a New Smyrna Beach commissioner; a Volusia County Council member; officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; a historical artifacts preservationist; and representatives from the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, Friends of Spruce Creek and user groups, including mountain bikers, horseback riders and kayakers.

Crotty opened the meeting by asking the representatives to refer to each other on a first name basis, an effort to "level the field," she explained. In addition, she had them develop ground rules for how they would conduct themselves during the meeting and suggested a few rules herself, including "no finger pointing or revisiting the past."

Then she summarized the public policy issues involved - preserving the habitat, having recreational areas for citizens, and preserving historical and cultural amenities. "How can we balance these and make it a win-win for everybody," she posed.

Finally, she asked the participants to suspend any assumptions they had and to remain open to other opinions and new, creative ideas.

By carefully setting the stage and gently guiding the discussion, Crotty supported a highly productive meeting. Within a few hours, the representatives had a compromise plan for the preserve.

"The mayor suggested relocating a popular trail that was to be roller crushed to another part of the preserve and to design the new trail with input from all users so it will be even better than the one they have now," Crotty said. "Almost everyone latched onto this idea pretty quickly."

The group also agreed to move forward with the creation of a master plan for trails throughout the preserve -and to include all the stakeholders in the development of the plan.

First steps to relocate the trail are already under way. In mid-November, Volusia County officials, representatives of several user groups and a Sierra Club member met at the preserve to begin mapping the new trail.

Facilitating meetings like this comes naturally to Crotty after spending 30 years working with local government as the director of the Institute of Government. Crotty helped establish the state-funded institute at Valencia College in 1982. She and the institute moved to UCF in 1990.

Today, the Institute of Government at UCF is one of five university-affiliated institutes like it in Florida - down from a high of about 20 such institutes in the 1980s. Its offices are located in the Central Florida Research Park, where Crotty oversees the delivery of nearly 100 training programs for local government employees and elected officials. "We offer everything from e-mail etiquette and grammar brush-up to supervisory training and professional development," she said.

The institute also provides many forms of "technical assistance" to local government and other organizations, such as conference management and other forms of administrative support, citizen surveys, and facilitation of meetings like the Spruce Creek stakeholder gathering in Port Orange.

"Most of the work I do in facilitation is leading councils, commissions and, more recently, nonprofit boards through team building or strategic planning sessions," Crotty shared. "After 30 years, I still get excited about doing it."  

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