Spirited debates or personal attacks?

City of Ashland officials are grappling with how to keep an email comment board civil, without taking away the public's ability to send comments to the City Council and to read and respond to each other's posts.

Anyone can sign up to be on the "Comment to the Council" email list. Participants' comments are posted on the city's website and sent to everyone else on the list.

City officials don't know how many people are on the list, but a handful have asked to be removed in recent months because of heated debates that often break out online.

"Lack of respect for others of differing opinions and using the list for this is not what I want to be involved in. Please remove me from the list," former participant Kathleen Meagher posted recently.

"I joined this talk list in order to become better informed about city matters and to add my own suggestions," Linda Gamble posted. "Over the course of the summer I have seen grown people reduced to childish behavior with vitriolic responses to each other."

Gamble urged users who want to insult each other to do so via a private form of communication, not through the public email list.

But frequent poster Rich Kline defended the use of personal attacks, arguing that such tactics help the uninformed understand the debate by understanding the debaters.

"When someone tosses a stick, I toss a stone," he wrote.

Earlier this month, councilors directed city staff to research options for dealing with the email list debates.

Possibilities include still allowing people to send emails to the City Council and making those emails public, but perhaps slowing down how quickly emails are posted to dampen back-and-forth arguing.

At the same time, the city of Ashland could create a public forum where people could debate each other.

City officials have said they are not interested in creating a moderated online forum, in which a city staff person would have to screen comments before they are posted. That option would be labor-intensive and would open the city up to accusations of censorship.

Councilman David Chapman said he has become so frustrated at the flood of bickering emails filling his inbox from the list that he said he plans to send them all to his email junk folder.

During some months, only a few dozen emails are posted. But if several hot topics are debated, participants can get more than 200 emails a month in their inboxes. August saw 238 emails.

Councilman Dennis Slattery said there is value in the emails, even if some can be irritating. He cautioned councilors not to throw the baby out with the bath water in making any changes to how the email list functions.

"An awful lot of people are doing a very good job giving us good information," Slattery said. "There is a robust community conversation going on there."

Recent topics have included the proposed Mt. Ashland Ski Area expansion, whether councilors listen to people during public meetings, homelessness and a plan to reduce car lanes on North Main Street.

Councilor Greg Lemhouse said he favors the creation of a public forum where people can talk to each other, as well as maintaining a method for people to send emails directly to the City Council.

"I don't want people who want to reach out to us in a responsible manner to be thrown into the shark tank," he said.

To sign up for the email list, visit http://list.ashland.or.us/mailman/listinfo/comment_to_the_council.

People who don't want to receive the emails in their inboxes but who still want to read the comments can visit that Web address and click on "Comment to the council Archives."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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