THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Mayors are posting municipal musings

Officials using blogs to stir up civic activity

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

Mayor Jim Fiorentini of Haverhill has one. So does Bill Manzi in Methuen. Joe Curtatone of Somerville is doing it, and so is Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch.

They're all blogging, trying to target younger constituents and promote civic engagement in a virtual forum. But the posts are, well, kind of boring.

Fiorentini talks about roof inspections, police details, and City Council meetings.

Amid writing about budget proposals and a sewer infrastructure agreement with Dracut, Manzi has blogged about Tony Blair leaving the office of British prime minister, Benazir Bhutto's assassination in Pakistan, and results from presidential primaries.

"Yesterday was another great day in the life of the mayor," Mayor Ken Reeves of Cambridge wrote in an August post, published among photos of him with US Senator John F. Kerry, billionaire Bill Gates, and Harvard's president, Drew Faust. "I had my Senior Citizen's Picnic."

It's not exactly the type of saucy language that blogs typically thrive upon. But the municipal-centric blogs are increasingly being utilized in Massachusetts to stir up more civic activity.

Sometimes not the kind they want.

Curtatone started blogging in June 2006 on space provided though the local newspaper, the Somerville Journal. His first post, which was fairly innocuous and about how excited he was to have a new communications tool, inspired a barrage of negative comments, some of them insinuating wrongdoing by City Hall.

"Joe, your administration is woefully mediocre," wrote one person.

"You're not the white knight you make yourself out to be," wrote another.

"I strongly believe your administration is the worst by most measures. . . . Somerville's repuation [sic], which took almost a generation to restore, has been seriously damaged by you and your administration," wrote Mike C.

Curtatone fired back, writing that the "specific charges are baseless and so is the overall impression you're trying to create."

His next post, two weeks later, was about the budget.

"Blogging is this uncharted territory," Curtatone said in a phone interview yesterday. "You put yourself out there in real time, and you get responses in real time. And it may not always be the response you want. You may talk about how great it was to work at the Special Olympics, and then they say, 'That's great, Mr. Mayor, but what about my pothole?' It's par for the course."

Blogs, short for Web logs, have emerged over the past decade as sort of an online bulletin board, where users post diaries, political commentary, and gossip. The most successful blogs have become must-reads and rake in millions through advertising revenue. There are 112.8 million blogs - and about 175,000 created every day - according to Technorati, a site that monitors the blogosphere.

Members of Congress set up blogs to court voters, and federal agencies use them up to address complaints. Largely in response to political gadflies starting blogs to critique local politicians, municipal officials started establishing blogs.

Mayor Bill Gentes of Round Lake, Ill., was among the first to start, in 2005.

"I once did a three-part series about storm water, and people loved it," Gentes told American City & County, a magazine devoted to government trends, in its January issue. "They were calling to ask what was going to happen, and I had to say, 'You'll have to wait and read tomorrow.' "

Many of the posts read like news releases and are heavy on government jargon.

But they also encourage residents to get involved, find out the views of their elected officials, and, in some cases, criticize those views.

Government trade publications have started issuing tips for municipal officials thinking of starting a blog, among them: write often, use spellcheck, and don't give out too much information.

Oh, and don't blog in the middle of the night and write something you'll regret in the morning. The mayor pro tem of a Dallas suburb last year posted a 2:03 a.m. expletive-laden tirade against the city's police department. The City Council revoked her duties and issued an official apology to the police.

Lynch started his blog in January. He posts several times a week, and he says the site averages about 100 to 150 visitors a day.

"It doesn't have to be controversial, it just has to be interesting," Lynch said. "People aren't reading it for scandal and titillation as much as for information . . . we put some information about taxes up there, we put up some charts and graphs so people could see those."

Fiorentini, mayor of Haverhill, started blogging in January, but hasn't received much of a response to his posts on police details, ladder trucks, and high school construction. He does get feedback on his e-mailed newsletter.

"I get a lot of response to my e-mail," he said. "I have 6,000 to 8,000 on my e-mail list."

Several big-city mayors have attempted to communicate by keyboard. Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco has had a blog since December 2006, but it mostly consists of news releases.

Mayor Tom Potter of Portland, Ore., has a blog, but hasn't posted in nine months. Mayor R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis last posted on his blog on May 17, 2005.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who doesn't have a computer in his office, does not have a blog.

Boston City Councilor John Tobin started his in December 2006 and frequently posts information about snow emergencies, office hours, and photos from community events he attended.

He also posts video commentaries.

"It's a great tool," Tobin said. "Some of the stuff can be really drab, but then again 90 percent of government is drab and boring. Everyone wants to read the salacious stuff, but there are those policy wonks out there, and for those folks it's great."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

'Blogging is this uncharted territory. You put yourself out there in real time,' said Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville.

CYBER CIVICS

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