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Online Transparency: What Homewood Can Learn from Censor-Town, USA

When 1% of a small town population legislates against the free speech of the other 99%, lessons in the value of online transparency are abound for Homewood residents.

The small town of Middleborough, MA recently passed legislation that makes any use of profane language a fineable offense. So, should you happen to have a one-word outburst at a bird taking a dump on your head as you walk down the street, prepare to pay for it with that last $20 in your wallet.

Officials claim that this example will not garner a ticket, but being that the discretion is entirely up to the officer on the scene, the potential for abuse is plain.

Whether or not you’re agreeable to local legislation prohibiting the freedom of speech in public areas, an important fact should stand out about this move: In a town of 20,000, a mere 183 people made it illegal to utter certain words on the street. Less than 1% of the population is now censoring the everyday casual speech of the other 99%, right there in LocalTown, USA.

The extraordinary lack of information online about this, as well as the fact that only 233 people voted on this referendum, is telling of a disconnect between government and people. In fact, we only know about the vote tally because investigative reporters called up the Clerk’s office to find out.  Here’s how the process works in Middleborough (AKA LocalTown, USA):

  1. Legislators write up a document saying that they are going to hold a vote on certain vaguely described issues.
  2. They tell the Sheriff to notify all residents who are qualified voters.
  3. The Sheriff posts about the vote in the local gazette, and then writes a letter back confirming he did as bade.
  4. Exactly 14 days later after the gazette publication, the vote is held; laws are enacted.

Perusing the official Middleborough website is exquisitely non-informational. The same thing can be said for the Homewood website.

Have you heard the argument that moving all town business documentation online leaves out those who do not have internet access? The colloquial term is The Digital Divide.  I recently heard a speaker talking about the little known but much larger brother to The Digital Divide: The Free-Time Divide. Have you been to a Town Council meeting? Approximately only 1% of town residents ever show up to such meetings (notably about the same number of citizens who made it a misdemeanor to utter free speech that they don't like), and they do so for business purposes, or because they have the free time.

We, the 99% are on the wrong side of the Free-Time Divide. We go to work, we get home, we take care of kids, we handle bills, we deal with crazy exes, we think about the mind-numbing stuff we need to get done sometime in the week, and we go to bed. We don’t read the local gazette, nor do we stop by the Village bulletin board, nor do we pop in to the clerk’s office to find out what’s going on in town. We don’t go to meetings, and generally, we don’t even know when they are.

Tradition and an irrational fear of (a now decades-old) technology are cutting citizens off from their local government. Imagine what it would be like if we could not only see all agendas online, but we could see the minutes of every meeting, too. Imagine if, like in the Village of Lombard, we could search through agendas and minutes and see all the documents that have everything to do with the agenda items. Imagine if the painful FOIA was virtually unnecessary because all of Homewood’s legislative business is available online. Imagine if, through the miracle of this crazy thing called the Internet, we could sit down in our homes and watch meetings streamed live to our laptops and iPads. What if, like the City of Austin, we had a way for all our citizens to come up with ideas, vote and comment on them, and then bring those ideas to life. That’s the world we live in now, and it’s what we expect. It should be what we demand of our government; we owe it to ourselves.

Ask our Homewood representatives to put all Legislative business online.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

SouthSide June 27, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Nicely written.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (Editor) June 27, 2012 at 01:43 AM
I'm not sure if the village has any intention to do anything with this, but I am aware that Trustee Anne Colton has been pushing for the digitization and streaming of village board meetings on the Homewood website.
Tobias Cichon June 27, 2012 at 09:32 PM
Thanks for the tip, Ryan. I emailed Trustee Colton and she responded very favorably, but feels she's been going it alone. She recommended making the points raised here at a meeting... which I'll do the first chance I get to hop that Free-Time Fence.

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