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Town Hall Coalition in the News
Political E-Gadflies
Bill Workman
(San Francisco Chronicle, 2/5/01)

The emerging electronic democracy has a new player: the e-gadfly.

In the age of cyberspace, a growing number of self-appointed civic watchdogs around the Bay Area and elsewhere are no longer limited to passing out flyers and attending interminable local government meetings to vent their displeasure with elected officials and bureaucrats.

Instead, like Jeanette Sherwin of Oakland, they're waging their war of words with city councils, school boards and other public bodies via modem and computer, often with a sting as sharp as that of the biting insect that is a metaphor for the intentionally annoying critic.

The 51-year-old Sherwin, a former rural community organizer, regularly badgers Mayor Jerry Brown and other city officials about their perceived failings and foibles on her Web site,, a feisty newsletter she runs out of a cramped converted bedroom in her modest North Oakland bungalow.

Oakland's ills as a community, according to a recent online volley by Sherwin, are brought on by the "disproportionate number of greedheads" at City Hall. A click away, she proceeds to denounce two council members, one whom she labels a "stone pig" for what she views as abuse of their public trust for the financial benefit of friends.

"I care about goosing Oakland voters into not accepting the status quo," says Sherwin, who prefers to think of herself as a journalist and who spends considerable time scouring city records for material.

"I'm not one of those one-note gadflies -- some are nuts, others are not -- who just go to meetings to harangue city council members," she adds.

That may be so. But like some other community activists now on the Web, Sherwin is no longer a lonely voice in the wilderness of municipal government, whose complaints were once more likely than not to be heard by only a handful of people, and even then often ignored.

Now, thanks to the Internet, she and other watchdogs have an expanded audience of the like-minded who share their anger at what's going on down at City Hall or in the school district office.

Through an increasing use of such online forums as yahoo groups, they are also communicating directly with each other, widely disseminating their opinions, sharing documents and issuing sometimes abrasive calls for action via e-mail.

A classic example of how a few local watchdogs can exploit the Internet to harness citizen discontent and set the stage for what appears to be a widening community movement surfaced a little more than a year ago in Sonoma County.

There, a handful of community activists, including former Sebastopol mayor Lynn Hamilton, took on the powerful grape growers over vineyard expansions with a desktop rebellion that organized a series of community meetings, galvanized by hundreds of e-mail postings to area residents who shared their concerns.

The recently formed Sonoma Town Hall Coalition endorsed the unsuccessful initiative on the county's November ballot to limit rural sprawl, but its Web site is now a major source of environmental news in the region, and it has since spawned other anti-growth groups in neighboring counties.

''It's a wonderful way of organizing citizen action around e-mail addresses, " says Hamilton.

Perhaps more typical of the motives of some converts to online watchdog networks is Mary Carlstead of Palo Alto. Carlstead, a retired Stanford University employee, says she probably would not be as active a city hall critic as she is "if I had to sit down and write individual letters to everyone, lick stamps, stuff envelopes and take them to the mailbox."

"This way, I just hit the button on my e-mail address file, and it goes out to everyone, including all the City Council members," Carlstead says.

She contended in a recent online posting that her upscale city, which she described as "Paradise Lost," was now "driven by money and developers." She wondered whether the City Council was "oblivious to it all, acting willy-nilly in emergencies, or not acting at all?"

It was the kind of loaded question to make city officials grimace.

Palo Alto City Councilman Jim Burch says he averages about 20 to 30 e-mails daily from the citizenry of his Silicon Valley city, most of which he says are from people like Carlstead who seriously want to discuss civic issues.

But when he and his council colleagues are lambasted online by an uncompromising and perhaps ill-informed gadfly after putting in long hours in behalf of the city, "you could get to the point where you say, 'Who needs this?' " he said.

Some observers have noted that while online political discourse offers opportunities for community building and instant interaction between citizens and local government, it also can lead to the spread of damaging gossip, rumors and lies.

However, unlike the plethora of libel and slander suits generated in recent years by online trashing of companies and executives in the corporate world, there have been few legal challenges to unbridled e-gadflies in the Bay Area, or elsewhere in the state.

Terry Francke, general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition, suggests politicians are more likely to think twice before taking an offending online critic to court.

The initial provocation on the Net, he notes, may have been read by only a handful of people, but a lawsuit could bring it to the attention of thousands of voters, if picked up by the local newspaper. Francke says the annoyed official is more likely to conclude: "Let's not give the gadflies any more publicity than they deserve."

So far, few studies have been made of the effect of online watchdogs on the conduct of local politics.

However, Gary Selnow, a communications professor at San Francisco State University, says one possibility is that it could persuade some political gadflies whose views might generally be considered ''way out in left field" to think they now possess a mainstream viewpoint.

''It doesn't take much confirmation to think your position is the dominant one and that you are surrounded by people in complete agreement with you," says Selnow, author of ''Electronic Whistlestop," a 1998 book on political campaigning on the Internet.

''It's going to be tougher for the politicians to govern when 20 or so groups each believe they have a dominant view that should be reflected in legislative or policy change," he says. "As difficult and as messy as it may be, I think the Web is going to contribute to the vigor of democracy.

''But I'm sure I wouldn't be saying that if I were in elected office."

Among the growing number of Web sites giving citizens a forum for speaking out about issues in their communities are: -- Jeanette Sherwin's feisty newsletter that goes after Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and other officials -- A site created by Sonoma County activists looking to build "ecologically and economically healthy communities." -- Web site for San Bruno watchdog Alice Barnes who follows progress of BART station in town, although the "bart" in the address stands for "Belle Air Residents for Truth" -- Eric Carlson, a self-apppointed critic of San Jose architecture and public statuary who occasionally takes on city officials as well, is the keeper of this site

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