Herald-Tribune by Barbara Peters Smith
September 23, 2019
Online proliferation of civic discussions keeps local officials busy
The post popped up last month on a local thread of Nextdoor.com, the private social network that neighbors use to communicate with each other about such topics as garage sales, rogue car alarms, kayak outings and lost cats — lots of lost cats.
“I noticed they put a chain link fence around the pavilion,” wrote a resident of Sarasota’s Gillespie Park neighborhood, referring to an open-air shelter that has been a center of controversy for years. “Was this to keep the homeless out? I hope so because I’m sick of it, and finding them passed out in front of my property. Enough with the homeless people already.”
An alternative theory — that the fencing, which appeared at the same time trash cans were removed from the park in preparation for Hurricane Dorian, was to stop people from taking cover there during the storm — was pretty much ignored. What came instead, stretching over days, was a circular conversation that heaped shame on the original poster for a lack of compassion, punctuated with complaints about drugs, alcohol and trash. Others posted information, true and false, about resources available to address the problem of homelessness.
Missing from this back-and-forth was the actual reason for the fencing: concerns about the aging structure’s stability. The pavilion is temporarily off limits while city engineers determine whether to make it more secure or replace it altogether. A gazebo was removed from the park for the same reason, explains city spokesman Jason Bartolone.
With Sarasota’s exceptionally high level of political participation, plenty of citizens still show up at city and county government meetings. But these are often the same familiar faces. More frequently, residents plug in and talk back through email and social media. While all this online access can eliminate confusion, it can also spread it. In the sheer volume of chat, public officials and private citizens sometimes talk past each other.