E-maelstrom

How citizen outrage stormed the electronic barricades at City Hall.

THE SCUTTLING OF Seattle's bid to host the 2012 Olympics may have been the first establishment initiative to be killed by electronic citizen outrage. Seattle City Council members who tabled a resolution in support of the bid say a flurry of anti-Olympics e-mail played a major factor in their decision.

The Olympics debate, in fact, was played out largely in cyberspace. Council member Nick Licata, the most vocal critic of the Olympics proposal, used his e-mail newsletter to disseminate arguments against continuing the bid process. Various council offices estimate that they received from 300 to 800 e-mail messages each regarding the Olympics bid. "The e-mail's running about 20 to 1 against the Olympics," notes Barbara Clemons, legislative aide to council member Jan Drago.

The flurry from Olympics opponents brought home an important message to City Hall: E-mail is here to stay. "I've been doing constituent correspondence in one form or another since 1981," says Peter Steinbrueck aide Andy Grow, "and e-mail has just changed that whole world."

Peter Clarke, legislative assistant to Margaret Pageler, says e-mail is now the most common medium for citizen comment. "It certainly has replaced letters and probably is even with phone calls," he says. "But the Olympics thing has gone to new heights."

There are advantages for both sender and recipient in using e-mail. The messages arrive more quickly than letters, provide more direct access than a phone call, and they allow for instant replies. "I find it particularly useful because there's only so many hours in the day," says council member Tina Podlodowski. "I can reply to a hundred e-mails a heck of a lot more quickly than I can respond to a hundred phone calls." E-mail provides an electronic record of the letter, and messages can be quickly forwarded to city departments or other officials, she adds. Electronic messages also have aided greatly in improving internal city communication.

The instant access of e-mail can lead to increased citizen participation on issues. When Licata polled the 1,400 readers of his Urban Politics e-mail newsletter on the Olympics proposal, he received an impressive 850 responses. Several of the citizens sending e-mail about the Olympic games cited Licata's newsletter in their messages. (Urban Politics includes the e-mail addresses of all council members at the end of each issue.)

E-MAIL HAS DRAWN notice from political activists on the national level. Austin, Texas­based E-The People offers to transmit free e-mail to elected officials through its Web site (www.e-thepeople.com).

The instantaneous nature of the medium has its downside. Constituents writing letters to politicians once considered two or three weeks a reasonable response time. "Now," says Andy Grow, "people who send e-mail are pretty upset if they don't get something back right away." Managing the heavier flow of information also places new burdens on council offices. Licata had 96 e-mails waiting for him when he arrived at work one morning last week; Drago was absent one day and attended a lengthy meeting the following morning, then arrived at her office to find 140 messages on her computer. "The messages arrive in quick time," notes Drago aide Barbara Clemons. "But we're still working in real time here."

The rise of e-mail in City Hall has coincided with the city's growing technological prowess. When Clarke arrived with Pageler at the start of 1992, "computers were no more than a word-processing system." He remembers having to copy a file onto a floppy disk and walk down the hall to a different terminal to print documents. Two years later, when Clemons and fellow Drago aide Dan McGrady arrived from their former jobs with the state Legislature, they were shocked to discover that the council hadn't yet installed an e-mail system.

Two years later, when Podlodowski was sworn in, e-mail was in common use among city employees, but only about half the council members personally used it. Now, as council ranks are swollen by new members and aides who take e-mail as a given, some wonder if the medium has become too prevalent. Interviewed about his first six months on the council, Steinbrueck lamented that too many of his exchanges with colleagues were taking place via computer, rather than face-to-face. Fears that controversial issues are being settled over e-mail are probably unfounded; since messages have been ruled to be fully subject to public disclosure requests, council members are resorting more to face-to-face exchanges. "We've had more than one training session [on that topic]," notes Clemons. "There is nothing personal or private about the city's e-mail system."

The council's adoption of the e-mail standard hasn't gone unnoticed elsewhere in City Hall. Partly in response to the success of Licata's Urban Politics, Mayor Paul Schell is distributing his own e-mail newsletter to about 600 readers. Says Licata: "I think it's just opened another door into government."

 
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