Monday, March 17, 2008

The Candidate Posts - Part V

Here on South Padre Island, there is core of smart, like-minded people who are interested in the issues facing our town, who keep themselves informed of developments and are articulate enough to persuade others that they know what they are talking about. I would call this group the island “Brain Trust” and while the individual members don’t always agree on everything, I do believe they can -- with spirited discussion -- come to something close to agreement about what is annoying and what is pleasant and how we should prioritize methods for decreasing the former and increasing the later. I know this because I encounter it day after day - in email, on the SPI Forum, at an end-of-the-road beach party, in the check out line at the Blue Marlin or sitting around the table at a CPAC meeting. The Brain Trust draws on the individual strengths of its members, reasonable people can be expected to listen to reason and eventually - in even the most diverse of groups - consensus can be reached. And that’s when things get done.

An effective alderman needs to pay close attention to the Brain Trust. S/he needs to initiate discussions and explain how and why s/he’s voting and not just allow the voters to see the decision-making process but encourage them to take an active part in it by participating in the Brain Trust Forum.

What would this forum look like? Well, it would bear more than a passing resemblance to spiforum.org. This forum and I have enjoyed a love/hate relationship, but Jason has come closer to getting it right than anyone -- a thankless job to be sure -- and some good things have come from it. As I see it, the main problem is the bullying. Some posters have a nasty tendency to ridicule, gang up on and shout down anyone who doesn’t agree with them. The result is that a lot of people who read the forum refuse to post anything, and that is unfortunate.

If I were an alderman, I would set up a new forum (or work with Jason to create a new “room” in his existing forum) that would be much like what he already has done -- with the following important differences:

1. While the forum would be open to everyone to read, I would not allow anyone to post who is not signed in with his/her real name and a fully-developed profile identifying the poster’s relationship to the island (i.e. full-time resident; business owner; 3-times yearly visitor; property owner; P&Z member, etc.) This would help make the forum more like an actual meeting where flesh & blood people talk face to face and know exactly who they are dealing with. I believe such a system would encourage and reward civil discourse - because expressing contempt for your opponent is not a terribly effective way to win him over to your way of thinking.
2. But if/when discussion does get too heated, posters who cannot disagree amicably would be bounced out (i.e. banned from posting) for a “time-out” period of a week or two. I know this puts a lot of pressure on the moderator(s) who must decide when someone has crossed the line, but there is no way around it. Respect and courtesy for opposing viewpoints is the only way you are gong to get the participation of everyone who has an opinion.

To take this idea even further, I think it is absolutely essential that we no longer allow candidates for office the luxury of public silence. You don’t like SPIRIT? Can’t stand the SPI Forum? Then brother you better get busy and set up a forum that you _do like because an office-holder who cannot or will not explain and defend his/her stances on the issues in a public forum is disrespecting the people who voted him/her in. I don’t agree with Mayor Bob on everything, but I am impressed that he takes the time to address the public at large using his real name, and that is why he will likely get my vote. (JoAnn Evans has participated on the forum as well as her opponent Mary Phillips -- who did not deserve the reception she got there and I don’t blame her for not coming back.)

A candidate for office who wants my vote would agree to let me in on his/her thought processes and s/he would be willing to do so in a totally public place (i.e. online forum) so that I know s/he is saying the same thing to me as to everyone else.

Next: Am I that Candidate?

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