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Hall Coalition in the News
(San Francisco Chronicle, 2/5/01)
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
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
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,
www.oaklandnews.com, 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
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
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
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
''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
''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
Among the growing number of Web sites giving citizens a forum
for speaking out about issues in their communities are:
www.oaklandnews.com -- Jeanette Sherwin's feisty newsletter
that goes after Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and other officials
www.townhallcoalition.org -- A site created by Sonoma
County activists looking to build "ecologically and economically
www.sanbrunobart.com -- 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"
www.sjunderbelly.com -- 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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