Monday, December 14, 2009

Richardson: Dialog or Pitchforks - An Update

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about a disturbing development in Richardson politics. The title was "Richardson at the Crossroads: Dialog or Pitchforks?" This is an update. The good news is that the ranks of the pitchfork-wielding villagers is still limited to a handful of bloggers and commenters on Internet forums. The bad news is that there's no evidence of outreach on the part of the city council to engage the moderate members of the public. After the jump, what you are not missing by steering clear of the blogs.

The vitriol of the extremists continues. The critics see malevolence, corruption, criminal activity behind all government activity. The chief targets are the Richardson City Council and City staff, but contempt extends to the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD), the Texas Association of Counties (TAC), the Texas Municipal League (TML), the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), the Richardson Chamber of Commerce, the Richardson Coalition PAC, residents of Richardson's Canyon Creek neighborhood, "octogenarians", almost anyone who dares utter a favorable word toward the city in the public forums, and even the city-produced Christmas parade (one blogger objects to it being described as a "grassroots effort"). (Update: that criticism of the Christmas parade is not vitriolic, merely grouchy.) One anonymous comment on an Internet forum sums up the attitude:

"From City level all the way up the now slimy White House (that will need a good scrubbing and fumigating when that sewer rat is removed); we have government entities who have become so emboldened by all the corruption and enabling that they spend as much time challenging their employers' rights as they do mis-spending our money. ... They are long past caring about or following any laws other than the ones they make up for themselves as they go along."
The level of dialog has sunk so low on The Dallas Morning News Richardson blog that it's led editor Erik Rodriguez to delete particularly egregious comments.
"Alright folks, that's enough. We're going to do something we should have done long ago and delete comments that are in violation of our terms of service. If you need a primer on what our terms of service are, the link is at the bottom of the page. No name-calling, no insulting, no profanity, no calling people liars ... in other words, use some common sense. Thanks."
If you thought that might actually lead to the commenters changing their behavior, you haven't watched these Internet mud slinging contests much. Instead, it led one conspiracy theorist to lump The Dallas Morning News in with the purported conspiracy:
"Well, now, from all the deletions going on here at the DMN blog, it looks like [Mayor Gary] slagel and his band of (Insert Description of Cohorts Here) have put enough pressure on the DMN to get comments deleted."

The sad consequence of demagoguery is that it drives rational dialog out of the community. Rather than a marketplace of ideas, we're left with an echo chamber of the disaffected. Ironically, the rants are counter-productive. Instead of winning converts, they drive people away. An anonymous commenter on one blog who signed his name "HW" is one example:

"I choose not to identify myself because of the culture of personal destruction that exists here. ... I stay out of politics because I don't have the requisite thick skin. ... You all trash the older folks that hold office or hold sway in this community. Have you looked around to see what the demographics of this town are? You talk about the need to get rid of the 'octogenarians' and all the seniors in town think, 'I don't want these new folks running things because they have no sensitivity to my interests.'"

Richardson faces a challenge keeping residents like "HW" engaged. Failure will lead to failure on other fronts, like urban redevelopment, that require cooperative effort from all segments of Richardson. The city must find ways to involve more residents so that the malcontents don't monopolize the conversation and drive moderates from public involvement. And Richardson residents must resist the efforts of uncompromising critics to poison public dialog. Ignoring a problem seldom makes it go away. And right now, the coarse level of public discourse is becoming a problem.

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