State Rep. Merle Kearns
Wins Consensus Building Award
According to Maria Mone, Executive Director of the Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management, "Kearns has been instrumental in working with state officials to increase knowledge and use of ADR, and in helping to educate her fellow legislators regarding the value of ADR programs and services."
As a leader during her three Senate terms, Kearns said she learned early that the best way to make a bill better was to begin by getting ideas on the table, and hearing from anyone who might be impacted by the legislation.
"Sometimes that can take a year or more," she said. "But sometimes you need that kind of time to get it right."
One such case involved SB77, a bill that made significant changes to sections of the rule making provisions in Ohio, and resulted in a statute that Kearns calls "one of the best in the nation."
As chair of the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (JCARR)—a 10-member legislative committee that reviews all new, amended, and rescinded rules to ensure certain criteria are met—Kearns was growing more and more frustrated with the process.
"We were frequently having public hearings after the rules had gone into affect," she recalled. "People were not working on the time frame to ensure hearings took place in advance of filing, so there was lots of 11th hour filing and confusion about timelines and protocols."
To start, Kearns approached two agencies that already had begun convening stakeholder groups around proposed rules. "EPA was collecting public input as the rules were being written," she said, "and I figured everybody ought to be doing that." So Kearns "pulled everybody together" and embarked on a two-year consensus process to improve Ohio's rulemaking procedures.
"People kept coming in and asking why we were making changes, or bringing in new things they thought ought to be changed," Kearns said. "So we just kept listening and listening, and making the circle bigger."
In addition to the rules amendments, the bill also states "that it is perfectly acceptable for any agency or department to use the services of the Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution," Kearns said. "We wanted to make it very clear in the statute that you are not giving up your authority by turning to the Commission, or working to build consensus."
Kearns concedes that building consensus in the legislative arena can be laborious and time consuming, but the benefits are becoming more evident among her colleagues. "In the legislature, I probably practice consensus building more than most of the others," she said. "But more people are beginning to appreciate my approach. They're encouraged, because they see how it's worked in my committees."
The appreciation reaches beyond Ohio's borders, too. According to Bruce Feustel, Program Manager for Legislative Programs at the National Conference of State Legislatures, "Merle was a tremendous chair for the Legislative Effectiveness Committee. She really opened the committee to looking at a wide variety of consensus building and other legislative institutional issues."
This Spring, Kearns will be campaigning for her third and final term in the House.