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Letter: Norwalk needs less mud slinging

By Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel

D-District D

NORWALK, Conn. – A few years ago, a local education blog called NorwalkNet was shut down shortly after its founder introduced a policy that allowed her, and only her, to identify the source of comments. The new policy was implemented because of the increasingly nasty nature of the many anonymous postings that appeared each day, as well as the suspicion that a few contributors were posting dozens of comments daily, all under the name “anonymous.”

Her suspicion was on the mark. In the weeks after the new policy was implemented, only three people – all of whom had always used their real names – contributed anything.

Another education blog, Norwalk Speaks, took its place and, unfortunately, another slew of anonymous bloggers has been busy attacking, often in extremely nasty and personal terms, everyone and everything associated with education reform in the city. My guess is that all those anonymous postings are from the same few people who destroyed the earlier blog. (Unlike NorwalkNet, it is not even possible to identify the administrator of Norwalk Speaks.)

If not controlled or at least properly monitored, who knows how far the attacks will go. I recall a story in one of the electronic newspapers that appeared at the end of April. It was about problems associated with NEON. One of the comments was, “Burn it down.” That was it, nothing else. And it was signed, “wcracka.” I contacted the publication and I believe the racist post was removed.

Even though the use of multiple pseudonyms is still a problem, it is now monitored more carefully by some publications. A few weeks ago, it was discovered that much of the over-the-top cheerleading for one of the Democratic mayoral candidates was being written by the same person using different names. The editors immediately warned the person to stop.

I believe that civility is a necessary requirement if broadly based democratic discussion is to prevail. The verbal attacks, especially the anonymous ones, even if only a small percentage of the comments, have a chilling effect on residents who might otherwise comment on this or that issue affecting the city.

Some have argued that public officials and resident-writers should have a thick skin and should expect the worst whenever they write something. Why? Why should a thick skin be deemed a requirement to participate in public debate? Every parent and teacher I know believes it is not OK for children to use name-calling when honest disagreements arise. But nowadays we’re supposed to believe it’s perfectly reasonable to hurl every type of invective imaginable, especially when using a pseudonym?

And others, inexplicably, have created a false equivalent by arguing that disagreement or going negative on issues is basically the same as negativity in personal terms. I had a strange experience a few months ago when a commentator (on Facebook, of all places) accused me of being negative. I replied that my negativity was in fact a difference of opinion on some issues. He said, in return, that he didn’t “buy it,” and then went on to call me rude and a bully, all the while believing, I assume, that what he was writing was legitimate give-and-take.

Name calling and personal insults are not the only problem with our local commentary, though I believe it is the most significant because of its chilling effect. A related problem is the direct and indirect accusations that city officials have no qualifications to make reasonable decisions, that they do not have the professional expertise to weigh in on matters such as budgets, contracts, procurement, etc.

I happen to find this assumption absurd. I have known many elected and appointed city officials, both Democratic and Republican, with a wealth of educational and occupational experience that puts them in a perfect position to evaluate the items that come before them. We are being asked to assume that highly skilled professionals and non-professionals alike, once they are elected or appointed, somehow leave their wealth of knowledge at home when they attend meetings and cast votes.

If we truly want the most competent and knowledgeable residents to participate in public affairs, if we want people to comfortably take part in electronic discussions, we cannot continue to make having a thick skin a major requirement for participation.

Now I suppose the mud-slinging will begin. But my fingers are crossed.

Bruce Kimmel

 

Comments

9 responses to “Letter: Norwalk needs less mud slinging”

  1. Well, like you Bruce, whenever I post something I use my own name (and then get attacked by folks hiding behind their pseudonyms — while declaring their selfless dedication to high principles, of course!). Some of the ongoing blog commentary about the schools superintendent search and the adoption of curricula falls into this category, some of it bordering on hallucinatory.

    One of the new mantras developing in the blog comments on the Board of Ed also makes the claim that “city officials have no qualifications to make reasonable decisions”. For instance, even though State law makes it undeniably clear that the Board of Ed has control over curriculum decisions (so much control, in fact, the case law strikes down as VOID any teachers union contract provisions that attempt to give the union any say over curriculum), voices are now raised essentially saying that the Board MUST defer to the recommendations of teachers about the curriculum because the Board members aren’t “experts”.

    If we buy that “experts” argument, we may as well give up on elective democracy. How can mere elected Council or BoE members question Finance directors or superintendents on budgets? Public Works directors on road paving programs? Fire chiefs on new headquarters buildings, superintendents on personnel recommendations – or elementary school teachers on curricula? Either we retain an independent right and duty to evaluate, question and yes, sometimes reject the recommendations of our hired “experts”, or we become a mass of rubber stamps, who elections are a meaningless exercise in musical chairs, where who the people elect makes no difference – since we all have to defer to the “experts” (who, it turns out, being human, are often wrong).

    I comment here because Nancy does enforce some basic standards of decency and deletes the more vicious personal attacks that are commonplace and uncontrolled on “Norwalk Speaks”. Would that more people who manage content boards were as responsible.

  2. Suzanne

    “,,,the First Amendment is all about protecting the free speech that we hate. We have to allow free speech even if we think it is wrong, even if we think we really hate it.” Floyd Abrams, First Amendment Lawyer, via Oliver Wendell Holmes, on the Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, June 13, 2013

  3. Jlightfield

    I don’t think the “stop it your hurting my feelings” argument framed as a request for civility really gets to the heart of the matter. Too often, elected officials seek to hide behind some lofty idea that they do know what they are doing when it is clear that they do not. The flip side is the righteous taxpayer who thinks he, and I’d wager it is mostly he, thinks they know better. The truth lies between, and perhaps a better appeal would be two way transparency, elect ends could solicit and engage the public and make available all info packets they themselves receive, and the public comments be vetted to real names tied to real people. As it stands now we have a system that fails basic all the way around, but merely calling out the tomato throwers for unruliness ignores the 800lb Gorilla in the room.

  4. Piberman

    Imagine if the legions of critics of Norwalk’s BOE turned their enormous energies towards positive volunteer activities such as mentoring rather than endless advising our elected officials how to do their jobs. Imagine if Common Council members focused their prodigious energies within the Common Council rather than engaging in constant comments outside of Council meetings. In other communities elected officials commonly invest their energies within their assigned functions rather than engaging n constant political commentary. Constant criticism of our elected officials is deplorable as is constant politicking by elected officials. Lets encourage our elective officials to concentrate their energies serving the citizens of Norwalk by doing heir jobs not as running political commentators. Surely this in within their capabilities. Especially if they respect the citizens they have taken an oath to serve.

  5. Tim T

    Bruce Kimmel and Mike Lyons just dont seem to get it ..The ONLY name that matters is taxpayer. They seem to be taking a play out of the Moccia play book.

  6. Bryan Meek

    Does anyone pay attention to Tim T. Too bad Nancy can’t implement an ignore poster feature to add value to her forum are. These types of contributions are the exact kind of drivel that Bruce seems to be talking about.

  7. spanner

    I like facts Bruce they work for me and if I don’t have the correct numbers or facts or it uncovers truth I’m called down on them or insulted or accused of holding a grudge with city departments.I know where some of my facts have come from I listen observe deduct and yes send it out as if it was gospel.

    This long battle we seem to have been in for years for accountability or at least some concrete facts to satisfy some curiosity seems to have taken a new route.

    The council floor is now where the challenge lies.Every day those who havn’t left their minds at home for meetings are asking some tough questions.They are now pointing out poor planning has made it costly to the city under others who the city trusted all these years.

    Handicap parking spots on the streets for those buildings now under consideration seems to have been left out why have a building like the post office and no where to park for a person that needs a spot?I’m sure the new storefronts on Wall st could use some spaces for those who need them those who deserve them.The city doesn’t like to lose money on a handicap spot so people shop and visit elsewhere its simple.We as a country are now experiencing a large number of special plates for cars for those who have served our country where are the new spots that is needed?Has it even been talked about? the Beldon and Sono Post offices lost more 15 minute spots over the last year.Its easier to go to Darien and use those stores over there after your PO needs have been met.

    Constant criticism of our elected officials is deplorable works for me and hats off the Jackie for having an outlet for years to post and uncover things that Norwalkers were surprised to hear for the first time.It may not of been what was designed for but it did get the word out.It was a great site.

    The news today is great more money for the Aquarium and less for the hospitals Bob Duff does have some explaining to do doesn’t he?But we keep hearing the Aquarium owes money to the city can anyone clarify that?

    Not once have I found the diversion rate from the city or city carting without those numbers those big blue bins could of been a mistake for the parts of the city.This subject came up years ago and even back then the numbers were not available.I’m sure you on the council has seen them how else would those educated decisions would of been made.Now can we have them please?

    Our past has come back to haunt us,I never said the council did a poor job it was the lack of facts and smoking mirrors that did most of the council members in.Playing politics is no longer an option.There is very little respect from what most of see going on now,because there are mudslingers it can’t always be they are wrong.

    When it was said in the past the fix is in,most of us laughed it off as someone lashing out on a call they didn’t like but now follow the trail its obvious when the cards are stacked against many taxpayers who are hurting and they are ignored yes there is going to be name calling and so on because the process didn’t work,fair or not.

    I have watched you and others on the screen its uniformed or informed by those who think they are right may be one cause no one has any faith in the process on some issues anymore.

    No one likes to stand in front of the mayor he can be caustic and abrasive and has insulted those who rarely stand up and speak out.So much for the Democratic process.So if you want to see civility introduce it to the council first see if it flies there you stll have those who think its ok to trash others behind closed doors.

    I voted for you Bruce and will again if the opt comes up you seem to be at least reaching out and getting some feedback good or bad its a great process just the same.

    How can mere elected Council or BoE members question Finance directors or superintendents on budgets? Public Works directors on road paving programs? Fire chiefs on new headquarters buildings

    Mike its simple do it front of the council cameras they don’t want to answer or give us red herrings get rid of them I think thats just business no matter what the cost is.

    Bottom line is Norwalks taxes went up,was it for the right reasons and did all the expected expenses get covered,if not it only means more taxes or higher fees for the same level of service which in some minds is not well planned.

    Mike its like asking has all the radon Issues in the schools been taken care of and where was the line item this year showing work on this safety and health issue that will not go away .The school dept itself did some of its own remediation thats fine where are the continued test results since the work has been done Radon cannot be discarded as a closed issue once found.When my kids went to one of the effected schools we were told teachers were told to keep the windows open that was then what is the here and now on this subject? Has the city maintained its resposibility to those kids with small lungs who for the most part spend 1/3 of their day near radon effected areas in some of our schools?

    I saw the system in Rowyaton that the city (BOE)itself put in and was not impressed at all granted I only installed them for about 5 years but learned the basics. .More cracks have surfaced and if you know the drill those cracks are the problems thats how the radon travels and until recent after a quick look I suggest the city does what was suggested and test again,and if it was where are the facts?I did ask and was ignored the norm for opening a can of worms.

    Thank you Mike and Bruce for the time you put in for us.

    Now u all know I like to ramble but now I see why there was so many attacks on the Dollar store on wall st and the call for its removal,it wasn’t part of a plan to develop wall st was it?Shame it was one of the only stores worth going to left on Wall st and parking was free.

  8. Suzanne

    What a civil comment, Mr. Meek. Really contributing to that democratic process.

  9. Tim T

    Bryan
    I know of at least one who pays attention to my posts..That would be you..
    Have a great day

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