Political Climate with Mark Simon: Facebook group could play role in local elections

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It is, in some ways, the modern equivalent of a town square, except that, as we all have observed, commenting online seems to elicit more boldness or bluntness than might occur in a face-to-face venue.

It is the Facebook membership page Redwood City Residents Say: What?  And with more than 4,500 followers, it is a factor in the more critical discussion of public issues in Redwood City and could be a factor in this year’s election and the content and flavor of the campaign.

While the number of followers is substantial, around 30 people comment regularly with much of the ongoing commentary dominated by a dozen or fewer persons who can be described fairly as unhappy with the changes that have taken place in Redwood City.

The page was founded in mid-2014 by Julie Pardini, a lifelong resident of Redwood City whose personal history includes a father who was a developer of a portion of the city once devoted to open fields. She has held a variety of administrative jobs at local businesses, and she studied piano and classical guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

About three years ago, when the full scope of growth of Redwood City was beginning to be realized, she saw another page that focused on Redwood City’s past and thought there ought to be a place where people can talk about what is going on now.

She started Say: What? — the name reflects a general unease she said many residents feel about how the city is changing — and mentioned it at a City Council meeting. A couple of TV stations featured her, and “after that I was just treading water,” so many people wanted to join and participate.

“There were probably a lot of people feeling uneasy, frustrated that they didn’t know how to react to the changes taking place,” she told Political Climate.

She said the page is “like a neighborhood,” and even though most posters have never met in person, “we feel like we know each other.” The page even has a mascot, Zaheer, a dog that pops up occasionally.

Reflecting a community still sorting out all that has happened in it over the past several years, Pardini acknowledged that “those who are posting are unhappy.  I don’t think all are unhappy. I think some like the changes that are happening, with reservations.” Many, even the critics, are hopeful that the city will find a way to manage all the issues it faces, such as traffic and housing needs.

“People have been thrown off-balance,” Pardini said. “There have been some things lost in Redwood City. We don’t know what the replacement will be.  It may be we will make up for them with something better or more carefully” planned and executed.

Pardini admitted she struggles to find a balance between a page that is a free and open exchange of views and one that crosses the line — a line drawn by the standards of conduct she posted early on and prohibits personal attacks and unsubstantiated accusations.

While the page includes benign posts – a search for a babysitter, a lost cat – the most active posters also rail against how the city has changed for the worse. Some harshly dismiss “techies” who have driven up the cost of housing and caused historic traffic congestion. Some accuse the City Council of being “in the pocket” of developers and of mismanaging the city and its growth. Suspicion of motives is a sustaining theme among the regular posters, who often see conspiracy in every action by those with whom they disagree.

On the other hand, a recent post that amounted to a valentine to the city — a resident rode her bike to a vibrant downtown — elicited dozens of positive comments. But the post also drew harsh criticism and even the suspicion that the post was a plant and touched off a lengthy exchange between a few posters that prompted Pardini to delete some comments.

Pardini is an open supporter of council candidate Diana Reddy: “I’m a friend of hers and I believe in her all the way.” She indicated her support for Reddy on the page, where she finds such expressions well within the range of what should be acceptable commentary on Say: What? She also said she respects “the people who work in city government.”

Yet, she admitted  said she is “nervous” about the level of rhetoric leading up to the council election and is concerned it will be contentious.  As the moderator of the Say: What?, she said she will start paying closer attention to the content. “I’m stepping up my deleting,” she said.

She said she doesn’t like a sweeping and unsubstantiated accusations — the council has been bought off by developers, for example. “I don’t like it when there are people who are suspicious of (others) motives,” she said, calling it a “double-bind. … There’s no reason people need to make personal attacks.”

In all, she is proud of creating a forum where people can express their concerns about the city.  “It’s a mix anytime you get a roomful of people,” she said.

Contact Mark Simon at mark@climaterwc.com

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