The debate over Wal-Mart is back in the news this week as the Ontario Municipal Board began the pre-hearing to determine if the objections to the Strathy Road store should go ahead.
Already letters to the editor have appeared in local newspapers and a columnist found it necessary to take a swipe at the process. No doubt there will be plenty of coverage and lots of news out of this important story. So far any public debate has been limited to a few familiar voices making the same points repeatedly. One crucial meeting last summer tried to take the debate over Wal-Mart in a different direction. Close to 200 people packed into a planning meeting held in Victoria Hall concert hall to express their opinions. Until then, the debate had never been so diverse or so important.
There are times when it is frustrating to see our inability as a community to debate critical issues. But there is something very interesting taking place on the Internet that deserves attention from the public and civic leaders.
One of the objectors, Ben Burd, runs a web site called Ben’s Page that includes a mish-mash of writing, musings and rants. It is a local version of Matt Drudge’s web site, the famous gonzo journalist who broke so much news around Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky on the Internet.
It is not traditional journalism, since there is no attempt to provide objective, balanced coverage. With a staff of only one, Burd does everything himself. He is trying to create an alternative on the Internet to the regular news coverage in our community.
Burd intends to post his “coverage” of the Ontario Municipal Board hearing on his web site. He has started with some correspondence and a legal document. He also is allowing some of his friends to post material. The site is crude, not well designed, but it has reams of content.
The idea regarding posting a public hearing is not revolutionary, just look at the Walkerton inquiry. It has its own web site replete with daily transcripts, lists of evidence, lists of witnesses and a lot more. Burd will not be able to compete, but he has the right idea. And it is a web site that should give civic leaders across the county something to think about.
Most municipalities in the county have a web presence. But the local civic sites are about marketing, tourism and economic development. Yes, there are the email addresses of councillors. There is some documentation that is going up regarding the business of politicians, but no where is there a chance for us to see below the surface. Nor is there any attempt to explore how the Internet might assist us as a community in making politicians or the political process more democratic.
It should be possible to post online all kinds of things including council minutes, public deputations, reports, decisions, how politicians vote, budgets, and monthly expense reports. Yes, there are several feeble attempts on local municipal web sites, but nothing beyond superficial offerings. If all this information really did go online, the community would get public accountability unlike anything before.
Next, there needs to be a forum (Here’s an idea for Burd’s site or maybe someone else might like to host this). Nobody is doing this at all. Someone needs to create an online commons using a listserv so people can discuss things. A listserv is like a virtual talking stick, where people sit around and listened to others talk. Nobody interrupts. Unlike a chat where the ideas often flow helter-skelter, a list is slower and more thoughtful. A properly moderated (not censored) list would keep the rift-raft out while those interested could debate the issues, like Wal-Mart.
If done properly, the result would be an important step in the development of our community. We might see how others think. We might be surprise at the diversity of thinking and where we share common values. It would not be the constrained, often intimidating atmosphere of a public meeting where time is limited and the agenda is controlled. Instead, we all just might have a say.
Although not everyone in the county has a computer, every library does. And if you don’t know how to use one, someone on staff will help you
These are not necessarily new ideas. There is a lot of talk about building communities online. E-democracy is a buzzword. Rarely has anyone taken major steps toward putting it into practice. Burd has opened a door. So have others in the community with their online projects. But now it is time for civic leaders to take the next bold step by using the Internet as a tool to enhance democracy.
First published: Wednesday March 28, 2001