Fri, Feb. 28

Commentary: Social media the new arena for Town Hall debate

City council chambers and the best bar in town used to be the primary arenas for public discourse on community issues.

A good bartender was as skilled as a veteran mayor in guiding, moderating and controlling such debates.

Today, though, the primary arena for such discussion is the netherworld of social media. There, keyboard warriors by the hundreds will put in their two-cents’ worth on issues. Some reveal keen insight. Others show themselves to be totally clueless

For the folks elected to decide our communities’ most crucial issues, the big challenge is weighing the sentiment expressed in official public meetings vs. those hotly debated on social media.

Two recent examples of this involve the annual report on Cottonwood’s Thunder Valley Rally and a well-orchestrated public outcry about the Cottonwood Airport.

Following our Sunday story on the TVR annual report coming before the city council Tuesday, The Verde Independent Facebook page, which has 17,000-plus followers, was littered with comments about the event. Many questioned how and why Thunder Valley Rally could have a $13,000 swing to the red side of the financial ledger between 2017 and 2018?

Good questions. Thoughtful debate. Excellent food for thought.

By Tuesday, though, when the City Council actually heard the report, not one person from the community showed up to express their concerns. In turn, the council was equally silent on the issue and rubber-stamped the annual report.

Similarly, on March 12, six well-spoken and obviously well-prepared citizens addressed the council on how noise from planes taking off and landing at the Cottonwood Airport is ruining the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

In Cottonwood, having six citizens singularly address one issue is practically an uprising. It seldom happens.

But again, the sentiment expressed in council chambers was viewed completely opposite on social media. A story on the issue in our Friday paper and online news service saw more than 8,000 people reached online with more than 1,700 engagements. Those keyboard warriors largely expressed the opinion that anti-airport sentiment is the work of a handful of whiners. They see the conflict of having an airport near residential areas as a fact of life that you learn to live with or move someplace else.

So who plays a bigger role in shaping public outcomes, those who actually show up to city council and school board meetings, or those who share their opinions on social media?

The answer to that question varies by demographic profile in the Verde Valley.

The Verde Valley’s senior statesman, Camp Verde Mayor Charlie German, prefers to be on the stump vs. in front of a computer screen to gauge community sentiment on issues.

“Those who directly communicate with me I give more attention and time to,” the mayor said. “I find a lot of misinformation and high emotion on social media and I avoid getting embroiled in that.”

A similar sentiment comes from veteran Clarkdale Town Council Member Bill Regner: “People who show up at our meetings get much greater consideration from me,” said Regner.

At the same time, though, Regner does not ignore the debates on social media. “I find some of the comments helpful as indicators of public opinion.  Most often my primary take away is that somehow we need to be better at informing our citizens on issues because the comments often indicate a lack of understanding of the financial, legal, and ethical issues that we must consider in our decisions … I think that social media has a long way to go to measure up to the kind of face-to-face feedback that we get while living, working, and playing in an active close-knit community like Clarkdale.”  

At the younger end of the elective scale in the Verde Valley, Cottonwood Vice Mayor Tosca Henry said, “Social media allows constituents to express opinions, who might otherwise not contact their elected official. Although my preference is to hear from my constituents in person, or via telephone or email, I do take reasonable, well-thought social media comments, from social media users who are verified community members, into significant consideration. Some examples right now are the airport discussion and the Verde Connect project, and the comments on the Independent’s Facebook page.”

Another youngster in the Verde Valley’s elective ranks, Mayor Tim Elinski doesn’t totally discount social media discourse, but he’s hardly trusting of it. “I have found that is too easy to be reactionary on social media outlets, and it can never be a replacement for fact finding and balancing pros and cons to come to a reasoned, well-though out decision.”

At the same time, the mayor does find value in social media to help shape opinions. “I do consider social media to get a pulse on how people are reacting to a specific issue, either positive or negative.”

Finally, there are also those elected officials, or those seeking public office, who take to social media to drive opinion on community issues. Cottonwood City Council Member Michael Mathews frequently did it while campaigning for election to city council last year. Ditto for current Mingus Union School Board President Lori Drake during last year’s firestorm otherwise known as school district consolidation.

Mathews views it as a tool for shaping public policy … to a degree. “You must get through all the knee-jerk uninformed comments to get the very few thoughtful, useful comments,” said Mathews.

Even at the highest levels of elective service, social media seems to have the edge over traditional debate processes. Past presidents of our country relied on State of the Union addresses to push their political agendas. President Trump now does it daily via Twitter.

Just as the online marketplace has largely taken the place of brick-and-mortar retail in this country, social media is now the go-to forum for what used to be a good old-fashioned Town Hall debate.

The jury is out on how much influence it has.

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