Santa Monica invited its residents to ride the information superhighway into City Hall. The resulting electronic traffic jam has officials scratching their heads.
It all started five years ago when the city set up the pioneering Public Electronic Network, known as PEN, which allowed electronic communication between residents and their government.
From a home computer or 20 public terminals, residents could scan city staff reports, apply for business licenses or review electronic town hall postings. The system was so user-friendly that homeless residents tapped onto a public terminal and outlined their most pressing needs, leading to the establishment of a program that provides them with lockers, showers and a place to wash their clothes.
The trouble is that some overzealous users, known as "flamers," have monopolized debate on its most popular feature, conferences, a community bulletin board that invites users to vent on a range of topics such as homelessness, crime and development. Through vitriolic language and personal attacks on other users and city officials, the hard-core users have driven away many moderates.
Flamers' messages can be rambling, incoherent missives.
Nevertheless, nobody is suggesting that the city pull the switch. Some "flaming" subsided after the city instituted a moderator who edits messages on city government topics for length and can block users who send them too frequently on the same subject.
"It's been a great success, but it sure ain't what the founders intended," said Joe Schmitz, an assistant professor at the USC School of Business and an early consultant on the project. "These systems are creatures of the people who use them and PEN represents the rowdy, participatory, enfranchised nature of the Santa Monica community."
Other cities are following Santa Monica's lead. Diamond Bar recently implemented a system modeled after it and Glendale will go on-line by mid-June. West Hollywood is also considering such a system.
Within the first two or three years of PEN's start-up, the system peaked at about 7,000 log-ons a month. Log-ons are recorded each time someone taps into the system using a password provided by the city. In the initial months, up to 1,000 people a month plied the system.
But activity has dropped off since then, with many users disenchanted by the vitriol. City officials say the system averages 5,000 log-ons a month, with about 500 users.
Still, many experts agree that the system has made local government more inclusive. Formerly passive residents from all classes and backgrounds have found it easy to participate in local government, and it has helped others keep better track of activities at City Hall.
Mike Hill, a Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member, keeps abreast of city reports, public notices and the events calendar on his home computer.
"It's created a whole culture in the community that didn't exist before. You can contact people that you wouldn't ordinarily talk to," Hill said. "It's also made people more government literate. You can get facts and participate in the discussion in an informed way--and that's empowering."
At Olympic High School, an alternative school, students use PEN to exchange electronic messages with city officials and with one another.
Teacher Jack Casey says the system improves student's computer literacy skills while providing a motivation to write.
"It's hard to get most students to use a dictionary," Casey said. "But when they post a message electronically, it's out in public and then they look the word up."
When the city attorney received an electronic complaint about a misleading Radio Shack battery advertisement, a local retailer was forced to honor a customer commitment.
The system has helped streamline some sectors of government as people deal with City Hall from home: There have been shorter lines for applications at City Hall, fewer cars in the parking lot, and users say it seems city officials provide more thoughtful answers to E-mail queries than to letters.
But as the unruly juggernaut has expanded, so too have the project's problems.
"Some think they can get on the system and say anything, any time, as often as they want--that it's like a soapbox in Pershing Square or Hyde Park," said Ken Phillips, the originator of the program and former director of the city's Information Systems Department. "One or two people can log on, and by abusing free speech, can literally run the system into the ground."
Phillips says his staff might have "missed the boat" in imposing control over the new arena.
But there is some control now.
By February, 1993, the city threatened to shut down some of PEN's conferencing bulletin board features. But the community uproar was so great that city staff members agreed to a compromise: Conference topic sections such as education, ideas and science were left free of control, but moderators were added to keep order on the electronic debate over more incendiary subjects, including homelessness, rent control, development and Santa Monica Airport.
Messages on these topics go directly to the moderators, who scan for length and frequency limits before posting them. If a user repeatedly sends messages on the same item or refuses to trim it, the moderator simply returns the messages.
Some critics of the compromise say the new rules are an imposition on free speech rights, a curb on Santa Monica's unique form of electronic expression.
But Keith Kurtz, director of the information systems department, says messages are only edited for length--about a 400-word limit. And people who have logged-on repeatedly on the same topic are asked to curb their input to two messages per item per day. "There's no real content censorship," he said.
So far the city's efforts have spawned an uneasy peace. City officials and residents who had been turned off by the wild commentary have been more encouraged to partake in the moderated forums. And some "flamers" have moved on to other areas of discourse, such as as youth, vegetarian restaurants, space, religion, recipes and science fiction.
Roslyn Wythe, a moderator, said she recently had to curb a group of students who were sending messages threatening to beat each other up.
The new rules, Kurtz said, are as far as a local government can go in constraining a public forum such as PEN. Analysts say private on-line services have more latitude in booting "flamers" and restricting message use and content.
With Santa Monica's system, Schmitz said, "the conflict between free speech and social responsibility is amplified. There's a paradox in that more participants are wanted, but if you give all these folks air time, you might not like what you see or hear."
Other legal conundrums have arisen. Experts wonder whether government should be providing free electronic mail and if so, what rights the government should have to those messages. Should city residents, moreover, have access to private communications on the public network through the Freedom of Information Act?
"No one seems to know," Phillips said.
Mayor Judy Abdo says the system only functions as well as the people on it.
"Even though its more work for everyone, it's still worth it," she said. "Better to have more people involved--that's what democracy is all about."