E-mails on city list-serve turn extremely rude

Mayor John Stromberg called for monitoring of e-mail comments to the Ashland City Council's public list-serve Tuesday after personal attacks and derogatory language were included in a thread about Ashland's homeless.

"We shouldn't be having that kind of stuff on the Comments to Council list-serve," he said. "However, it's all sprinkled in with stuff that's also relevant, so we're probably going to have to post some standards, or repost them, and then do some moderating."

The council inbox, which anyone can view online or send an e-mail to after registering, does not have any content guidelines, said Ann Seltzer, the city's management analyst.

"It's completely un-moderated," she said. "People can subscribe and then they have to sign up in order to post — and post away, they do."

Comments on the homeless issue exploded this week, and, in addition to being a place for substantive discussions, the online forum became a place to throw virtual punches. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, there were about 35 e-mails about the homeless situation in the January inbox, with a handful of them containing name-calling and back-and-forth spats between posters.

Typically the council inbox receives fewer than a dozen e-mails all month.

"I just read the posts since late this morning," Stromberg said Tuesday afternoon. "I don't support personal attacks and derogatory language toward other posters."

A poster who signed his messages with the name Rich Kline had written about 15 e-mails to the list-serve by Tuesday afternoon.

"But back to the topic at hand: what to do about the homeless," he wrote Monday evening. "You'd better have a plan for next summer, because even Berkeley and San Francisco have finally had enough and are cracking down on the street refuse. Wait till the word goes out over the grapevine: 'Free stuff in Ashland, and a groovy woods to camp in, too!'"

Ashland Transportation Commissioner Steve Ryan responded to Kline's posts Tuesday morning.

"But don't worry, most citizens with any critical reasoning ability will see through Kline's arguments, like most put forward by the Palin-ites (Palindrones?), because they're built on either half the facts, or authority that is questionable," Ryan wrote.

Kline responded to Ryan, saying it is "always nice to hear from the public sector and arrested development college-town types." Then, he asked, "Is that all you got, Steve?"

Ryan wrote back, saying Kline's e-mail contained "simple name calling" and that the discussion had turned "childish."

The e-mail threads can be viewed through links on the city's website, or by visiting http://list.ashland.or.us/pipermail/comment_to_the_council. People can also subscribe to receive the comments through e-mail, as the council members and other officials do, Seltzer said.

Posters' e-mail addresses are shown in all messages, and, although the authors don't have to sign their names at the bottom of their e-mails, most do.

"Almost everybody's signed their names, so we now know quite a bit about some of the posters on there and how they look at the world and communicate with other people," Stromberg said.

Still, Stromberg said he believes the virtual aspect of e-mails can lead some people to make remarks they might not make face-to-face.

"One of the problems of new digital communication is, I think, some people feel liberated by it, and they can be extremely nasty to each other," he said.

"If we had a group of 100 citizens sitting together in some kind of meeting and we called up each person to speak, I think the fact that 100 people would be hearing you say the things you were saying and the tone you were saying them in would change your behavior," he said. "The electronic forum kind of strips that away."

Stromberg said he is researching the issue and plans to talk with other city leaders this week about how best to moderate the comments.

Last month there were about 25 comments to the council about the homeless issue.

In early December, about two dozen homeless people converged on Ashland's plaza to protest the illegal camping tickets they had received.

The protest lasted for more than a week and led Councilman Eric Navickas to propose that the city lift its camping ban.

On Dec. 21, the council voted 5-1 against lifting the ban. All council members except Navickas, whose term has since expired, voted against his proposal.

The hot-button issue appears to have generated more comments to the council's inbox than any other topic, Stromberg said.

The list-serve was created in August 2006 at the direction of the council, so people could easily send in comments, Seltzer said.

The council could direct city officials to monitor the list-serve comments and to post content guidelines, but that might take up a lot of staff time, she said.

"We could do something like that," Seltzer said. "Of course, administratively, it would be just another task for someone to do."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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