December 5, 2002

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From Croatia to Yellow Springs—
Mayors receive a lesson in local government

Local officials hosted a group of Croatian mayors who toured Village faclities and met with the staff Monday and Tuesday, Dec.2 and 3. The group included Mato Bilonjic, Milan Dukic, Branko Eremic and Mike Jerosimic, who discussed police matters with cheif Jim Miller Tuesday morning.

Yellow Springs made an appearance on the world stage this week, as four mayors from Croatia visited here, meeting with Village officials and staff as part of a program designed to increase international understanding.

“The program’s purpose is to increase global peace by having one-on-one meetings between individuals,” said Marianne Crotty, director of international programs for the International Visitors Council of Greater Cincinnati, the nonprofit organization that sponsored the group’s visit. This year the Council, with partial funding by the U.S. Department of State, has sponsored visits to the United States by 40 different groups of local officials from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Mideast.

“It’s a wonderful program,” Crotty said. “When different groups come in from around the world, they see what Americans are really about. It helps with distorted perceptions.”

During their visit here, the Croatian mayors said, they have been surprised by how safe they feel in this country and by how warmly they’ve been welcomed.

“Everything we know about the States we learn from TV. We had the impression that as soon as you step outside your house you’ll be murdered or robbed,” Mato Bilonjic said through one of the group’s two interpreters. Bilonjic said the group also didn’t realize “how hospitable people are. Americans have a lot of smiles.”

In Yellow Springs Monday evening and all day Tuesday, the group, which also included Milan Dukic, Branko Eremic and Mile Jerosimic, heard a presentation on local government by Village Council president Tony Arnett, attended part of the Village Council meeting, met with Village Manager Rob Hillard, Police Chief Jim Miller and Clerk of Courts June Allison, and visited the water and wastewater treatment plants and the public works facility.

Most interesting, they said, was attending the Village Council meeting Monday. While their towns also have governing councils, the boards tend to be much larger and to be dominated by party politics, said Bilonjic. He said he also found it useful to meet Chief Miller and see that enforcing laws was only a part of his job. “He’s a person who loves this town and is trying to do what’s best for it,” Bilonjic said.

At home in Croatia, the mayors are working to help their towns rebuild from the war with neighboring Serbia, which took place from 1991 to 1995. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed, said Bilonjic, and many refugees still haven’t returned home. The war intensified problems the country was already experiencing as it shifted from communism to capitalism.

“It’s a big transition, and at the same time we ended up in a war,” he said. “We hope for a better future.”

The trip’s organizers hope that the mayors will return home with some new ideas to help rejuvenate the country’s economy, said Crotty. In the United States for three weeks, the group has already visited Washington, D.C., Columbia, S.C., and Bluefield, W.Va. The mayors will next visit Santa Fe, N.M.

The group visited Dayton, said Crotty, because the Croatians “wanted to come to the city in which the Dayton Accord was signed.” Because the Croatians are all mayors of small towns, organizers wanted them to visit a similar size town and chose Yellow Springs to provide them an opportunity to be in a “unique, multicultural town,” she said.

The Croatians’ visit did appear, in a small way, to have increased understanding between two countries that, not that long ago, saw each other as enemies.

“You can rest assured that we will tell our citizens about the warmth of your people,” said Bilonjic.

—Diane Chiddister