“Why do you think he gave you money? This is not a game of dodgeball, take some responsibility, it comes with the title,” said Commissioner Patrick Doolin to Mayor Anthony Calderone.
“My committee has held many fundraisers and he could have been one of the many who legally contributed,” responded Calderone. “Maybe you too contributed, does that make you bad?”
The topic was a series of campaign donations from Ronan Potts, LLC, a lobbying firm that was indicted for its role in the McPier bid rigging scheme that once did work for the Village of Forest Park (the Mayor said the Village severed ties with the firm because their services proved inadequate).
The conversation took place not in front of the small crowd at Monday night’s council meeting, but in front of the 250 or so registered users and unknown number of browsers at the online message board www.forestpark.com.
The board is a frequent site of debate between residents on both sides of the political fence, though the majority of posters have a critical bend. Doolin participates regularly, under his own name, unlike many who use aliases.
Doolin said the board provides an opportunity for residents to see public officials at work. His recent debates with Calderone, he said, could not have taken place in person under the Open Meetings Act, but are legally permissible on the message board.
“I’m a student of debate ” this gives me an opportunity to debate another elected official that I have a deep philosophical, ideological, ethical and moral divide with,” said Doolin.
In reality, the dialogue between elected officials that occurred last week was not the norm at forestpark.com. Calderone usually refrains from posting on the board, as he often feels he is stepping into hostile territory.
Calderone said, he has several people monitor the board for him and posts himself only when absolutely necessary. The identity of these monitors, referred to as “team Calderone,” is an ongoing mystery among the board’s posters.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and there’s no shortage of opinions there. If something is way out of line, I’ll jump in there,” said Calderone.
The instigator last week was a debate over the role of Deputy Village Clerk Sally Cody, spurred by a letter by Doolin that was published in the Review. The letter suggested that the position exists only in the absence of the regular Village Clerk and that Cody should not use the title.
“After I picked myself off the floor from laughing, I needed to set the record straight,” said Calderone, who argued that once appointed, the Deputy Clerk retains the title for good.
The web site’s founder, Fred Broker, said that his original intention was not to create an outlet for users to debate politics while enjoying anonymity. The board, he said, began as a place for “people online in town to get to know each other,” or to find out about local services, stores and restaurants.
He said that soon after the board first appeared in 2000, the discourse began moving toward politics. Currently, there are 25 posts in the section of the board devoted to jobs and services, compared to over 3,400 on the “main discussion board,” which is almost exclusively political.
The changes on the board, Broker said, are reflective of changes in town. “We’re getting people moving into town that seem to care a lot more about what’s going on politically,” he said.
A handful of other suburbs, including Berwyn, have similar community message board’s, though Berwyn’s board, unlike Forest Park’s is a part of the village’s official web site.
Though the discussion in Berwyn at times touches on political matters, heated debates are few and far between and elected officials rarely join the discussion.
Broker disagreed with the perception that the board is generally anti-administration. He said that while the board used to be starkly divided between those who support and those who oppose the village’s current direction, posters seem to be finding a middle ground as of late, agreeing with some village actions and disagreeing with others.
“We don’t censor anybody’s opinions, it doesn’t matter what political arena they’re from,” he said. And while debates used to often cross the lines of civility, new software added to the site in 2003 allows Broker and his crew of moderators to control inappropriate comments by requiring that posters register before accessing the board.
Broker said he understands why the Mayor no longer posts as often as he does when the site first came online. “He felt like he was being ganged up on, like people weren’t checking their facts before accusing him. He just felt like why get in there and get a black eye everyday.”
He said he hopes Calderone’s recent return to the board means that he has realized the board had changed and that the posters are now ready to listen to him with open minds.
Calderone said that though he encourages fact-based public discourse, he sees more bad than good coming out of forestpark.com.
“It confuses people,” he said. “We’d have to end up hiring a person or two to discount rumors that fly on a daily basis (on the site),” he said.
Doolin agreed that some posters abuse the board. “It’s one of the Achilles’ heels of an anonymous forum…. Some people use it to get personal and embarrass people, others use it as proper public forum.”
Though he acknowledged that the message board’s content lacks the checks and balances of a traditional newspaper, he said that posters are usually quick to point out inaccuracies. He said that the constant availability of new information gives the board an advantage over a weekly paper like the Review.
“Everyday you can turn on your computer and the coliseum is open and the gladiators are ready to do battle,” he said.
Broker said he sees the site and others like it as complimenting, rather than competing with traditional media outlets. “You get down to what the average John Doe thinks, not what a reporter thinks. The news media gives people the main story and then after that they have the opportunity to start digging deeper,” he said.