The social-media City Council?

I’ve been loosely tracking what appears to be at least a budding trend — the use of social media by local elected officials. Asheville City Council is a good case in point: At least some current members are using new-media tools to spread their political gospel and rally allies in, well, new ways. Others, granted, don’t seem too jazzed about digital-era governance.

In years past, local activists/politicians like Cecil Bothwell and Carl Mumpower became masters of the e-mail blast, using it to mitigate campaign costs and pump up their political volume. But it’s newish Council member Gordon Smith who appears to taking the use of social media from Council chambers to new heights.

For example, on the blog he created, Scrutiny Hooligans, Smith has made it a weekly practice to post an installment called “All Ears,” wherein he invites comment on city government. As he puts it on the blog:

“In an effort to create ease of access to government, I’m opening this thread for all of your Asheville concerns. Whether it’s Eagle Street or the transit fleet, leave your observations, visions, rants, and gushy love letters here. Tell your friends that there’s a new way to interact with your City Council.” (See how that dialog has gone here.)

And the site also hosts (sometimes raucous) live online chats during Council meetings, providing another forum for local politicos to sound off and interact.

So that’s part of the very public face of Smith’s use of social media. And he’s comfortable enough with the tools that he’s employed them in efforts to advance his policy agenda. An example: City Council e-mails obtained and published by the Asheville Citizen-Times show that, before the Council vote on same-sex domestic-partner benefits, Smith wrote to the folks on his cc list:

“You’re the people I knew I could count on, so I’m contacting you first. Are you ready to help make Domestic Partnership Benefits (DPB) for City Employees a reality in Asheville? If so, I need your help making it happen. On Feb. 9th, I will present the case for DPB and move that the city adopt it as official policy.

In order to make the strongest push possible, I need your help building public support.

Please share this with your email/Facebook/Twitter contacts, write to City Council members, write letters to the editors, and attend the Feb. 9th [Council meeting] to voice your support.” [emphasis added]

And while Mayor Terry Bellamy has made relatively limited forays into social media, it’s clearly on her radar. At the March 18 Google “town hall” meeting, she implored attendees to mount the push for Google fiber through Facebook and other social media.

Interestingly, the city of Asheville is hiring social-media specialists for new positions — incurring an expense that Bellamy, citing the city’s mounting deficit, questioned during budget discussions at the March 23 Council work session.

“Do we really need someone to tweet right here?” she said. (Ironically enough, moments later, Xpress reporter David Forbes tweeted the mayor’s comment.)

Jon Elliston, managing editor

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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