Facilitators have stepped into the void. The NCL, for instance, is currently being paid more than $54,000 to help the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment design a new HIV-prevention program. It doesn't matter that NCL staff members have no special knowledge about HIV or AIDS. The group has been brought in only to design the process by which the program will be put together.

Working with state health officials, the NCL recommended the creation of a 100-person task force of interested parties--"stakeholders" in facilitator lingo--to hash out the program's details. The group is a potentially volatile mix of urban blacks, rural whites, Hispanics, public-health workers, militant gays and members of the Christian right. It has been getting together regularly since a kickoff meeting in July and will continue to meet every month between now and the end of the year, trying to design a program that will qualify Colorado to receive federal AIDS-prevention funds.

The NCL's job, according to state documents, is to help the task force "set realistic goals that incorporate the common visions of all participants." NCL staff members will use "facilitation philosophy and strategies" to create a meeting environment that "recognizes, respects and values differences among group members." The league's contract requires frequent "consensus checks" to make sure members are in agreement--and a guarantee that all members have "equal opportunity and capacity for input," regardless of their educational and cultural backgrounds. There are more mundane chores for the facilitators as well: drafting meeting agendas, taking minutes, preparing charts and posters and writing monthly reports detailing the progress of the task force.

Couldn't the state do all of that itself? No, according to Amy Benjamin, who coordinates the program for the health department. AIDS prevention is a highly charged topic, she says, and the group's work will naturally include discussions of controversial measures like needle-exchange programs for drug addicts, promotional campaigns encouraging the use of condoms, and sex education in schools. Because it has a point of view on many of the issues, Benjamin says, the health department could never moderate the meetings in an objective way.

"We felt it was absolutely essential to have neutral and professional facilitators," Benjamin says. "We're bringing together people who have very different agendas. And this is a life-or-death issue for people, so it's very loaded." The NCL's Norris agrees. If the health department were running the show, he says, "others might not feel like they had a voice at the table. You can't wear two hats at once. You can't have an opinion and run a meeting at the same time."

Before joining the NCL four years ago, Norris worked as a regional manager for a New York-based pilot-training company. But most facilitators, he says, come out of government or academia. Maggie Sperling, for instance, worked in the Denver planning department under former mayor Federico Pena. Michael Hughes was a planner for Douglas County and the City of Aurora before moving to CDR. Another local facilitation expert, Ken Torp, was once chief of staff for former Colorado governor Dick Lamm and now heads the Center for Public-Private Sector Cooperation at the University of Colorado-Denver.

Torp is probably Denver's best-known facilitator, but not because of his work in helping people resolve their differences. Instead, Torp made headlines as the leader of a pack of cross-country skiers who got lost in a blizzard near Aspen in February 1993. All of the group's members eventually were rescued or found their way back to civilization, but as Hollywood movie producers began vying for rights to the saga, the skiers publicly turned on each other. Torp, who couldn't be reached for comment, was blasted for his leadership skills, primarily because he and another man allegedly left a group of weaker skiers behind and hiked out to safety.

But the embarrassing episode didn't appear to do much damage to UCD's reputation for problem-solving. Shortly after the skiing incident, Mayor Wellington Webb hired Torp's center to coordinate meetings of his "Safe City Summit," convened in the wake of last year's violence-plagued summer.

Webb asked more than 100 people to participate in the summit, including police officers, business leaders, politicians, neighborhood activists, ministers, social workers and members of street gangs. The task force, which met regularly from October 1993 through April 1994, was charged with coming up with a list of things the city could do to combat youth crime.

A team of consultants from the center staffed meetings of the task force as well as its various committees, each of which tackled thorny issues like education, family, law enforcement and economic policy. At the end of the process, the task force published its findings in a 44-page booklet. Some of its recommendations were specific and concrete: the creation of an "incubator" for youth-run businesses; re-establishing an anti-graffiti program; using city rec centers as holding pens for curfew violators. Others were vague. The group found, for instance, that "adequate health care for families is essential" and that people should be encouraged to "get involved and not stand around and watch people come to harm."

Beth McCann, the city's Safe City coordinator, says there was no way the city could have run the meetings on its own. McCann's job had not yet been created, she notes, and no in-house staff professionals were available for the project. "They were absolutely critical," McCann says of the UCD facilitators. "It wouldn't have gotten done" without them.

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