Mayor Ted Winterer never expected to receive an angry email about closing the often congested Interstate 10 Fourth Street off-ramp. There were a number of reasons public outcry seemed unlikely: he didn’t intend to do it, he had no authority to do it, and he had no idea why he would want to.
Nonetheless, there it was on Nextdoor: an impassioned warning from a resident that the City Council was imminently poised to close the off-ramp that connects the Sunset Freeway with downtown Santa Monica.
“We might do a lot of dumb things on City Council but that’s not even our freeway off-ramp. It’s Caltrans,” Winterer recalled Saturday during a wide-ranging discussion on city policy and government in the 21st Century. The crowd laughed at the story, but multiple Councilmembers lamented they are often frustrated by inaccurate posts and comments on social media.
“Somehow, we have to get through the noise out there that breeds the distrust that we have to overcome,” Winterer said. “The idea that we…don’t have the public’s best interest at heart.”
Without uttering the phrase with all its current political baggage, the discussion turned to the problem of fake news. Several Councilmembers said misinformation online has been carefully crafted to cause public outrage in the city by the sea.
“Public mistrust is all too easy to create with false information,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown. “One of the externalities we face going forward is the fragmentation of the public dialogue.”
As the 2018 race for City Council gains steam, most elected leaders have tried to stay away from impassioned threads on Facebook and Nextdoor. While some Councilmembers including Mayor Pro-Tempore Gleam Davis and Sue Himmelrich share stories and “like” posts on Facebook, others are completely removed from the conversation.
“Quite frankly I have a tough enough time just answering emails,” Councilmember Tony Vazquez said. “I don’t need to be on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.”
Elected officials in California are restricted by outdated laws like the 1953 Brown Act, which governs public meetings. In the electronic age, the Act effectively bans email chains, group texts and Facebook comments that involve more than one City Councilmember. The public must be notified in advance anytime a quorum of members discuss policy.
“This Council is very good and very well trained on the Brown Act,” City Attorney Lane Dilg told the Daily Press. “They are right that on Nextdoor and Facebook there are complications with the Brown Act because of the potential for it to be called a ‘serial meeting’ if it looks like they are somehow making a decision.”
Ten years after the launch of Facebook, the Act has not been updated to address online communication on public social media websites. City Manager Rick Cole — who has a public blog and a weekly electronic newsletter — admits elected leaders have been slow to adapt old laws to new technology.
“I think people are really skittish about venturing into an area that’s so fraught with inherent challenges,” Cole told the Daily Press. “We haven’t figured out how to make democracy work online.”
At Saturday’s meeting, Cole said communication between the Council, city staff and the public is often hostile, antagonistic and obsolete. He said the city should seek new ways to “lower the temperature” of public discourse.
“I have a thick skin after 36 years in public service but when residents are overtly hostile toward (city) staff on a continuing basis it’s just human nature some of that is going to seep back…when they’re routinely castigated as corrupt and evil they begin to write people off and I think that’s a loss for all of us,” Cole said.
In an interview Monday, Winterer said there was some discussion to whether someone from the City’s communication’s department should fact check claims on social media. He says at the moment, they simply don’t have the time.
Winterer, who says he rarely logs onto Facebook anymore because of the vitriol and privacy concerns, said there may not be much benefit to a city fact checker anyway.
“We live in an era where people don’t let facts get in the way of their opinions,” Winterer said. “It could be potentially futile to correct some of this information out there. Tough call.”