Online Forum Invites Debate

Online forum invites debate
By Robert Burgess
GateHouse News Service
Thu May 31, 2007, 06:19 AM EDT

REPRINTED FROM THE MAY 31, 2007 BEACON.

ACTON — There’s a new forum in town and it’s ready to exchange ideas.

You may have noticed the yellow and black bumper stickers around town, enticing the curious to visit Actonforum.com, "The place for local political discussion.” Four friends and longtime residents had been brainstorming the idea for over a year, and this month, the Web site went live.

Allen Nitschelm, Clint Seward, Charlie Kadlec and Herman Kabakoff wanted to create a place where all points of view are welcome in a non-partisan environment. They were motivated by the lack of debate on Town Meeting floor and the desire to share ideas with like-minded and disagreeing residents.

"We’re all for the town,” Nitschelm said. "We believe we’re all in it together, working for a better Acton.”

Kadlec runs a well-circulated e-mail newsletter on town issues and has been known to offer his fiscally conservative opinions at Town Meeting. Nitschelm and Kabakoff are members of the Finance Committee and have been critics of some town spending over the years, though they feel the town is managed well overall.

In an interview last week, Nitchelm and Seward emphasized that their vision for actonforum.com is to be a place where both sides of arguments can be presented, though the co-founders differed on the lengths they would go to entice alternative points of view.

Nitschelm said his goal is to educate residents who may not be able to attend every municipal board meeting. Local newspapers aren’t fulfilling the need, he said, adding that letters don’t offer the history and context needed for thoughtful debate.

And while the Web site editors will filter content for attacks and profanity, they say they will not edit it once the material accepted. The co-founders want thoughtful essay-format contributions, not blog entries.

The Web site’s home page offers a monthly newsletter, an "Insider’s Guide” for learning about how town government works and links to local and state Web sites. The organizers also offer to answer user questions about municipal government.

Getting voters the information they need to make informed decisions at Town Meeting is a priority to the organizers and even the board level meetings themselves don’t offer a chance for give and take, they said.

"You usually get one side of an issue,” Nitschelm said. "We’re really committed to discussing and deliberating these issues in an open forum where people can get educated.”

Elsewhere on the Web site, some of the co-founders’ ideological leanings are more evident.

A link on the homepage says, "What a waste! Dubious spending by the town.” When a user clicks the link he or she finds two articles, one on the spending of Community Preservation Act funds to restore an old piano donated by President Kennedy’s grandfather to the town and another posting entitled, "River Street Rush,” criticizing the Habitat for Humanity project’s land acquisition there. The Web site’s motto, Echo, shouts in a cartoon bubble, "Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”

The co-founders are split on how such postings will affect readership response, particularly in convincing supporters of such projects to see actonforum.com as a place where all points of view are given fair play. Seward isn’t opposed to offering a link on financial successes to offer balance, but Nitschelm wasn’t fond of the idea.

They acknowledge being fiscal conservatives, but being more liberal in social causes.

"We want people who disagree with us to participate,” said Seward, whose article on the Web site "Are seniors being pushed out?” explores the struggles of an aging population meeting the increased cost of living here.

When a controversial issue comes up, Seward wants residents to be able to read the history of the issue on the Web site to be brought up to speed. He would prefer asking those in town government, including selectmen, to offer their counter views as well.

Nitschelm doesn’t go that far.

"If people participate, it will be fantastic,” he said. "If they don’t it won’t be for a lack of effort. If they’re invited and don’t participate, it’s not our fault. That’s all we’re morally obligated to do.”

Selectmen Chairman Doré Hunter hasn’t had a chance to explore Actonforum.com yet, but he’s familiar with the organizers and the concept. While he was asked to submit an article before Town Meeting, he said he didn’t have time to do so.

On a personal level, Hunter said he would be cautious of submitting to the Web site, largely because of his concerns with potentially violating the Open Meeting Law. But regarding the Web site’s mission and role in town, the chairman was supportive.

"If they engender more interest in town government, it’s a positive thing,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have concerns about fairness of the site if alternative points of view are welcome. "I’m always interested in what people have to say. Debate is good.”

Nitschelm’s unapologetic about the "Dubious spending” link.

"We’ll shine the spotlight on when money is not spent wisely,” he said. "We’re not afraid of debate.”

But isn’t the link itself a political statement, showing some bias toward fiscal restraint in a way that will scare off the policy makers from participating online?

"We’re not obligated to pat people on the back,” Nitschelm said. "Let them show that we haven’t been fair. That will be the judgment.”

For now, Actonforum.com is just getting off the ground, an idea four friends had about a way to improve the community they love. How the Web site evolves from here will be largely up to readers and Acton’s political establishment.

"If it fulfills a need, we feel the people will come,” Seward said.

Robert Burgess can be reached at 978-371-5732 or at rburgess@cnc.com.

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