The Cape Elizabeth Town Council is working on a new town communications strategy. What, you might ask, is a town communications strategy? In Cape Elizabeth, it seems to include making permanent a temporary suspension of the citizen comment portion of the town website and using that website as a propaganda tool for town officials. According to Wikipedia, “[p]ropaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position . . . . [as] opposed to impartially providing information . . . “
Recently, I posted two articles on my blog criticizing the town’s use of the website for articles supporting the council’s decision to charge parking fees at Fort Williams. Cape residents will vote in an “advisory” referendum on this issue on June 8. I have been told my expectation that the town website should convey only neutral, factual information is “childishly unrealistic,” and it has been pointed out to me that the Obama and Bush White House websites are/were not platforms for all points of view.
I have not seen the official website of either president, mostly because of the partisan political spin on websites over which politicians have complete control. I understand senators and representatives also have their own websites. I don’t have high expectations for partisan political figures on the national scene, but I have higher expectations for my local, nonpartisan town government. I don’t think the actions of partisan national politicians should set the standard for local officials and local government; and I don’t think it’s childish or unrealistic to demand a higher standard.
Further, a president’s, or other partisan politician’s, website is just that: a tool of the person temporarily occupying that position, not a method of communication for the U.S. government as a whole. I don’t expect the official Social Security website or the IRS website to advocate for or against bills in Congress. Neither do I expect my town website to advocate for or against referendum issues about to come before the voters. This is especially true when town officials have eliminated the only avenue town residents had to express their own views on the town website. Town councilors or school board members are all free to set up their own websites and explain to residents why they voted the way they did – even to use their websites as campaign tools.
I’m aware of recent court decisions affirming a governmental entity’s constitutional right to advocate for its official position. But what is constitutional is not necessarily what is right. The Constitution and statutory law delineate the outer limits of legally allowable action. At one time, it was constitutional and legal in this country to own slaves and deny women the vote – that did not make it right. Most of us do not order our behavior according to the limit of what is legal. Most of us try to do what we think is right, regardless of whether an alternative action of more benefit to us may still be legal.
The town website is financed by all taxpayers; it is not the personal province of town officials. It is paid for by those opposed to fort fees as well as those in favor. It is not right for town officials to use the website to influence the vote on a referendum issue, especially while denying other residents access to the website to express their own views.
Mary Esposito grew up in South Portland and has lived in Cape Elizabeth for over 25 years. A doting grandmother, graduate of Harvard Law School, and former state legislator, Mary is the author of many boring articles on legal issues. Mary’s writing focus is now her blog about Cape Elizabeth town government, Cape Elizabeth Voice, at www.CapeVoice.WordPress.com. She can be reached at CapeVoice.WordPress@gmail.com.