Bloggers take aim at city governments -- and hit home
Some websites are watchdogs, others are just scurrilous, but their influence on the cities they cover is growing.
Fontana Mayor Mark Nuaimi posts to a local website. "I'm not going to sugarcoat things," he says.
By Jonathan Abrams
Times Staff Writer
July 23, 2007
"Grandpa Terrace" didn't mince words. He wanted the mayor of Grand Terrace, a small city wedged between two scenic mountain ridges in San Bernardino County, run out of office.
The anonymous blogger posted documents on his website that, he said, showed that Mayor Maryetta Ferre and Mayor Pro Tem Lee Ann Garcia were beholden to developers putting up big-box stores such as Lowe's.
"We need to recall them now," "Grandpa Terrace" fumed a year ago. "We don't want more traffic, more crime, dayworkers just to bring in some pocket change, when the cost to the city will go up to combat the problems brought by these types of development."
His rants helped fuel a recall effort last year against the two council members. Although the campaign ultimately failed, his blog was another example of the growing influence of citizen journalists roiling communities across Southern California, many of which rarely are covered by newspapers or other traditional media outlets.
These muckraking bloggers say they have stepped in to fill the government watchdog vacuum. Some are anonymous, others are scurrilous and, on occasion, possibly libelous. And to local politicians, most are a royal pain in the tuchis.
Bloggers in the San Gabriel Valley have raised the alarm about a possible budget crisis in Sierra Madre; ones in the Inland Empire have written about the high costs of trimming city trees in Claremont and allegations that killers are getting away with murder in Pomona.
"We realize in today's electronic environment, it's a fact of life," said Grand Terrace City Manager Thomas Schwab. "The thing that's the most disturbing is they can put things on the blog that have no basis in fact, and you really can't refute it."
It may only be a matter of time before bloggers start to have a major influence in local politics and policymaking.
"It's inexpensive, and my guess is there are a lot of people who find it fun," said Matthew Spitzer, former USC Law School dean.
"There have always been citizens who love to go to city council meetings and see what's going on. Putting it on a blog makes it a lot easier and it increases accessibility to 24/7."
In Grand Terrace, the recall effort fell about 500 signatures short of the 1,506 needed to trigger the election. A citizen-driven group, buoyed by the blog, collected signatures at a Stater Bros. market and mailed petitions to residents.
"For years the city of Grand Terrace tried to keep residents in the dark," said resident Jo Springfield, a strong supporter of the recall effort. "The blog enlightened many residents to start asking questions and going to meetings."
Several bloggers interviewed by The Times insisted on anonymity, saying they feared a backlash from city officials.
All said they were residents of the area they report on and got involved because their community did not receive enough coverage from the traditional media.
"We want our words to stand on our own, and with anonymity, the only way someone can judge us is by what we write," said Publius of the Foothill Cities News Blog, who takes his pseudonym from the Roman whose name was used by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison when they wrote the Federalist Papers.
"If we send an e-mail to an elected official, the odds are we won't get a response," he said. "But if enough people read it, they are going to have to respond at some point."
The Foothill Cities Blog, which covers several cities in the San Gabriel Valley, was the first to report that Assemblywoman Nell Soto (D-Pomona) was absent from the Capitol for 25 days because of pneumonia. It was later reported that she still collected more than $20,000 in per diem pay.
The website also has been critical of Pomona's high crime rate, saying that the local press ignores the issue.
"It took a rash of violent crime, or should I say a rash of violent crime that finally received lots of press, but the council's new focus on law enforcement is commendable," said a post in June applauding efforts to hire additional law enforcement officers.
But the praise is mixed with criticism aimed at Pomona officials. The site drew the ire of administrators in May after posting that its city manager was forced to step down — which city officials said was untrue.
"It took me back to high school days when you gossip with girlfriends," said Pomona Mayor Norma Torres, adding that she may start her own blog to communicate directly with constituents. "Some of the information reads like a gossip column."
Pomona City Atty. Arnold M. Alvarez-Glasman sent a cease-and-desist letter to the website, ordering it to remove the post.
"While the City of Pomona strongly supports an individual's First Amendment Rights … it is difficult to respond to anonymous fabrications such as those published by you in your web-site publication," he wrote.
The website took down the post but enlisted free-speech attorney Jean-Paul Jassy to respond.
"In many ways, these kinds of sites are at the cutting edge and more modern vision of commentary," Jassy said. "The Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court placed a high premium on making sure freedom of speech is protected, especially when it comes to commenting on public officials."
It is the anonymity that separates the bloggers from professional journalists, said Michael Parks, director of the journalism program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.
"Journalists need to accept responsibility for their reporting and comments, and that provides for them to be identified," said Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who is a former editor of the Los Angeles Times.
"Anonymous blogs are similar to writing something up, not signing it and putting it on a bulletin. It's more social commentary than anything."
Although blogs are protected under the 1st Amendment, they are vulnerable to libel lawsuits, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University constitutional law professor.
They present unique 1st Amendment challenges.
"They cannot have defamatory speech any more than a traditional media type; however, the difficulty with an anonymous blog is who is actually doing the blogging?" he said. "And if you ask a server to take it down, what happens if they refuse?"
Two years ago, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that an elected official who makes a defamation claim against an anonymous blogger must have substantial evidence to support the claim. Otherwise the lawsuit could not proceed and the blogger would remain masked.
A similar case has yet to be heard in California.
The California Supreme Court, however, ruled last year that Internet service providers and bloggers cannot be held liable for posting defamatory material written by someone else. The case was brought by two doctors who said they were defamed by a San Diego activist for victims of problem breast implants who called one doctor "arrogant and bizarre" and the other "a bully and a Nazi."
In Claremont, former Mayor Diann Ring threatened the Claremont Insider blog with a defamation suit.
The blog has criticized moves by the city's landscaping and lighting district assessments and targeted former city officials, including Ring, for contracting with a water agency outside the city.
"When you turn on your tap, when you pay your water bill, or if your house burned down in 2003, think of Diann Ring; in fact, call her up and thank her personally for her 'vision,' " one April post said.
Claremont Mayor Peter S. Yao said the blog provided a bit of insight but had to be taken with a grain of salt.
"It certainly is one additional input for the City Council on how some of the population feels on certain issues," he said. "Occasionally, it sheds a little light on a situation, but most of the time it is a rumor mill."
For all the furor the blogs create, city officials could take a cue from Fontana Mayor Mark Nuaimi.
Nuaimi routinely posts on a blog in his city and said he welcomed it as a way to communicate with citizens.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat things," he said. "If somebody misses the issue, I'll tell them. I'm sure folks in the future will use whatever I've written and will twist it. Frankly, my job is to do my job, and part of my job is to answer people's questions."