July 9, 1995 in City

Cyber Streets Too Mean For The City Council Members Shy Away From On-Line Discussion Of City Politics

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It’s supposed to be a thoughtful cyber-space hangout, or at least a place to learn what’s on the minds of Spokane’s political junkies.

Instead, an on-line computer discussion area devoted to city politics is caught in a battle of its own. It is being shunned by almost all city officials and branded as the domain of one long-winded councilman and several whiners.

The group, City Hall Link, offers little debate and lots of City Hall bashing, an on-line version of mean-spirited talk radio.

Even Matthew Wood, who began the service, says comments on City Hall Link get too nasty at times.

“But if it’s hot sometimes,” he says, “what would cool it down would be more participation by people in city government.”

Wood started City Hall Link in March on his free bulletin board. About 30 local bulletin boards also carry it for users equipped with a computer and modem.

In April, Eric Smith, an audiovisual technician, created a World Wide Web version of City Hall Link for those using the Internet.

The service receives no taxpayer money and costs Wood about $15 per week in telephone and fax fees to run.

He and Smith both fear the rants and denigrating remarks will scare off potential users, the way it’s already kept away city officials.

“It’s kind of scary for most people who don’t do this much,” says Stuart Lowe, a county resident who uses City Hall Link.

He says Wood needs to create a tone of civility so that more people, including elected officials, will take part in on-line discussions.

Wood, who has acted as unofficial moderator of the discussion, did send out a general request that participants keep their messages polite and fair.

Councilman Chris Anderson, however, replied in a message that lively debate cannot occur without some name-calling or frank language.

Anderson has been the only Spokane city official to post messages on City Hall Link. Some people say he’s overused the service, discouraging other City Council members from participating.

“As long as Chris Anderson takes on the role of moderator there, it would really surprise me if anybody else on the council takes part,” says a city department head who did not want to be identified.

Wood acknowledges that Anderson sometimes dominates discussions. Anderson, who plans to run for Spokane County commissioner this fall, accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the messages, Wood says.

“I’ve tried to see how we can handle this,” he says. “But this is a delicate matter. It’s not my sense that I should be restricting anyone’s free speech.”

Some city officials, like City Manager Roger Crum, say they might answer general questions posted on City Hall Link.

But the questions most of its users tend to raise - like why the city is paying $45,000 for an outside consultant to identify needed services - take an angry, distrustful tone.

Crum says city employees and managers cannot indulge in that kind of debate. Council members, on the other hand, are free to do what they want.

The other six City Council members, including Mayor Jack Geraghty, show little interest in City Hall Link.

One frequent participant, Dave Laird, has thrown numerous brickbats at city officials, saying they occasionally read City Hall Link but refuse to take part.

He also has criticized officials like Geraghty and Police Chief Terry Mangan, who he says receive faxes from him sent through City Hall Link, which they never answer.

At times, Laird acknowledges his messages carry an aggressive, mocking tone. “But at this point, it’s easier to distrust those in City Hall ‘cause I just haven’t been able to get good answers from them.”

Laird admits that comments on City Hall Link tend to go like this: Chris Anderson sounds off on city affairs, followed by remarks by Laird, followed by more from Anderson.

He also says City Hall Link might be livelier if Wood approached Geraghty and council members early on, assuring them Anderson would not dominate it.

“Of course, hindsight is always the best kind of sight,” Laird says.

The on-line fuss resembles the bashing council members get from several citizens who regularly attend council meetings.

Councilman Joel Crosby says he’s unlikely to dive into City Hall Link because it is so much like City Council meetings.

“Plus, it doesn’t have a broad mass of citizens involved,” says Crosby, next to Anderson the most computer-savvy member of the group.

“I’m busy enough already. It takes a lot of time to talk with maybe five or six people who already have their minds made up,” Crosby says.

Wood and Smith say about 12 to 15 people produce most of the messages on City Hall Link. Because the service goes out on the Internet and local bulletin boards, about 300 or more people read it.

Wood says his computer keeps track of people who log onto the service, and he knows some city officials read messages.

He’s also deleted a handful of messages posted by some city employees. The employees posted messages critical of the city, but realized their message could reveal who they were and cause career problems, Wood says.

Wood, Crum and many others agree that electronic access to government information is efficient, easy to use and responsive to the needs of busy citizens.

In fact, the city has created its own home page - an Internet collection of information - for World Wide Web users. It’s managed by city library staff and offers a copy of the city charter, council meeting minutes, telephone numbers, summaries of recent actions and other information.

What the City Hall service does not provide, however, is a forum for debate.

Both Wood and Smith believe City Hall Link provides that service - or could, if enough people joined in.

But for now, the idea of debating on-line doesn’t appeal to city officials.

“If it was giving answers that people could not get somewhere else, I would do that,” says Councilwoman Bev Numbers. “But for now, what I see there is gossip and lots of opinions. There’s no real dialogue.”

, DataTimes MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. CITY HALL LINK For those with Internet access and access to the World Wide Web, the address of City Hall Link is: http://www.eznet.com/cityhall/cityhall.html. The “official” City of Spokane Web page is at: http://splnet.spokpl.lib.wa.us/city.html. The City Hall Link discussion area is also available as a Usenet discussion group at: spk.cityhall. For those with a modem, the discussion group can be found on several area bulletin boards including: The Mulligan: 489-9233 or 487-8426. The Phoenix: 747-6207. Charon’s Boat: 926-0155. For those with access to Fidonet or Virtual Net bulletin boards, City Hall Link can be found as either “City Hall” or “City Hall Link.”

2. SOME EXCERPTS These are excerpts from messages posted on City Hall Link: From Stuart Lowe to Chris Anderson “By the way, are you (Chris Anderson) the only city official, elected or appointed, to read and write here? Is this City Hall Link, or Chris Anderson Link? Sorry for the sarcasm, but it seems to be a little one sided…” From Matthew Wood to all “If we could do our best to be as respectful as possible in requesting information, and even disagreeing with officials that DO read this group, my feelings are that INTERACTION with more officials is easily possible… “This is by no means a statement of censorship. It is simply to make this tool more effective and more productive for both officials and citizens.” From Chris Anderson to Matthew Wood “No, I too am concerned … that we (none of us) allow this forum to become anything less than what it was designed to be; that is, a forum for the honest, candid, open and UNCENSORED dialogue with the people who represent us in government… “To say ‘we’ll be nice’ (whatever that means) when ‘nice’ may simply not be warranted is nothing short of an appeasement to those who wish to exert influence on this forum and the payment of ransom to those same few. “If they are really concerned about what’s said here, they should stand up, either defend their doings and/or positions, try to change the views expressed through a combination of dialogue and action, or change the things they do that make people angry.”

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. CITY HALL LINK For those with Internet access and access to the World Wide Web, the address of City Hall Link is: http://www.eznet.com/cityhall/cityhall.html. The “official” City of Spokane Web page is at: http://splnet.spokpl.lib.wa.us/city.html. The City Hall Link discussion area is also available as a Usenet discussion group at: spk.cityhall. For those with a modem, the discussion group can be found on several area bulletin boards including: The Mulligan: 489-9233 or 487-8426. The Phoenix: 747-6207. Charon’s Boat: 926-0155. For those with access to Fidonet or Virtual Net bulletin boards, City Hall Link can be found as either “City Hall” or “City Hall Link.”

2. SOME EXCERPTS These are excerpts from messages posted on City Hall Link: From Stuart Lowe to Chris Anderson “By the way, are you (Chris Anderson) the only city official, elected or appointed, to read and write here? Is this City Hall Link, or Chris Anderson Link? Sorry for the sarcasm, but it seems to be a little one sided…” From Matthew Wood to all “If we could do our best to be as respectful as possible in requesting information, and even disagreeing with officials that DO read this group, my feelings are that INTERACTION with more officials is easily possible… “This is by no means a statement of censorship. It is simply to make this tool more effective and more productive for both officials and citizens.” From Chris Anderson to Matthew Wood “No, I too am concerned … that we (none of us) allow this forum to become anything less than what it was designed to be; that is, a forum for the honest, candid, open and UNCENSORED dialogue with the people who represent us in government… “To say ‘we’ll be nice’ (whatever that means) when ‘nice’ may simply not be warranted is nothing short of an appeasement to those who wish to exert influence on this forum and the payment of ransom to those same few. “If they are really concerned about what’s said here, they should stand up, either defend their doings and/or positions, try to change the views expressed through a combination of dialogue and action, or change the things they do that make people angry.”


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