Monday, March 2, 2015

A Bully Blog, the Appeal that Wasn't, and the Blocked by Betsy Club


Photo from jokideo.com

Last weekend, the tempest in a teapot known as the Orth House reached a boiling point.  Again.  For those who have no context, "The Orth House" was a home built by famed local architect TP Healy.  It was recently demolished in favor of higher density, although local preservationists, aided by TV show host Nicole Curtis, made a spirited effort to save it from the landfill.  Curtis, by the way, is a resident of the ward in Minneapolis where the Orth House once sat.

During this campaign, Curtis has publicly called out the council member, Lisa Bender, for her role in the demolition.  Now I don't know exactly how those two feel about each other, but I have heard that if they were in close proximity to one another, any object placed between them would immediately burst into flames.  So yeah, things are not so good.

Into that fray, we add a self-described "amateur journalist"  (My emphasis on amateur) who runs a blog known as either "Wedge Live" or "The Wedge Times Picayune."  This blog fabricated a thread of Curtis's Facebook page members' comments, but only the really bad ones.  The "worst of" list was done in such a way that to the untrained eye--mine and at least a few Minneapolis council members included--this appeared to be one long profanity-laced rant that escalated rather quickly.

And THAT, in turn, led to our esteemed mayor calling on Nicole Curtis to apologize to Council Member Bender and to the city of Minneapolis as a whole.  Curtis issued a plea for civility while admitting it is virtually impossible to monitor 700,000 commenters.  Then only after it was pointed out that this was not in fact one Facebook thread did the Wedge Live blog issue an update informing us that it was a compilation.

Which is where we stand today.  I'm reminded of what my pragmatic brain sometimes wanders to when watching action-packed movies like "The Avengers."  Iron Man and the Hulk are duking it out, knocking over buildings and throwing around cars, and you just KNOW there's a janitor somewhere yelling, "Maaaaan, who's going to clean this UP???"

Well, that's what this blog is for, to wade through the wreckage and make some sense of it all.  We start with...

...The Wedge Live blog.

Which is not quite as awful as I expected it to be, certainly in comparison to the @wedgelive twitter feed.  The Twitter account is dedicated at least recently to almost exclusively skewering Orth House advocates.  The blog has some actually funny content, mixed with other historic and factual elements.  But it's seen as a forum with its own agenda and not above dirty tactics.

And I can see why.  It's not neutral at all, it's full of snark, and it derides pretty much anyone who disagrees with its viewpoints.  Which makes it not unique at all on the internet.  What does stand out to me, however, are some of the posts, I don't want to link to more than one, where specific Lowry Hills neighborhood board actions (and members) are dragged into the fray.  By mocking those folks, the blogger is essentially making grassroots neighborhood participation more difficult.

As a board chair myself, I shudder to think of what would happen if just about every move I made, or that of my fellow board members, were picked apart in the blogosphere.  I can confidently say it would make my job of getting people to board and committee meetings a hell of a lot harder.

In fact, I don't have to look too far to know what that's like.  A few years ago, while I and other northsiders were working to take down Paul Koenig's rental empire, a smear blog called "The Jordan Hawkman" sprung up.  It's defunct now, but the site targeted me, my friends, the Hawthorne and Jordan neighborhoods, and fellow board and staff members.  The  site did things like posting the neighborhood fax number, then stating that no one would answer the phone when dialed, and insinuated this meant staff weren't accessible to the community.  By essentially stalking board members, the site did cause people to question whether neighborhood activism was worth the added stress.

So when the Mayor of Minneapolis links to this site, she should understand that for many folks in the Wedge area, it's like opening a still-raw wound.

That, however, is subjective.  What cannot be disputed is that with the post that started this recent spat, it was originally presented in a disingenuous manner.  It was only AFTER this was pointed out that the Wedge Live blog clarified that with an update.  I believe such misdirection was intentional, and would have been left to stand if it had not been discovered.

The Wedge Live blog works just fine as a place where the hipper-than-thou crowd can pat themselves on the back for being so much cooler than those stodgy old preservationists.  But our mayor and other leaders would do well to see the site for what it is; one person's attempt at implementing his vision for a community (at best), with a willingness to engage in bullying behavior that borders on slander (at its worst).  If nothing else Hodges should realize that referencing this site in particular does not engender community goodwill.

Regardless of whether you're on Team Edward or Team Jacob here (do the Millenials still reference Twilight?), there are two facets of the Orth House drama that shouldn't be lost to the dustbin of history.  Because the next time you're on the side that isn't prevailing, you wouldn't want these obstacles in your way.

Part II:  When is an Appeal not an Appeal?  When it's an Orth.

The Healy Project Blog puts it more succinctly than I can (emphasis in the original):

The Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) in 2014 denied the application for the demolition of an Historic Resource. They also ordered a designation study. City planner John Smoley argued for approval of the demolition permit. Owner Michael Crow filed an appeal to demolish an Historic Resource.
At the appeal hearing chaired by CM Bender, both Michael Crow and John Smoley were allowed presentations in favor of demolition. The HPC’s position was reported but not presented; reporting is not a substitute for a persuasive presentation earnestly defending the HPC’s position. It seems appropriate that some provision be made in cases which staff’s professional opinion differs from the decision-making making body.
Something is amiss when the recommendations of both presentations are in agreement with one another. By nature and definition, an appeal is a scenario when there is one opinion that is not in agreement with another.
To those who think this is something the preservationists should just let go, ponder this.  The underlying principle of a fair, honest, and open debate was not upheld here.  Would it be a fair trial if a defense lawyer approached the bench and said, "Your honor, my client proclaims his innocence, but between you and me, I agree with the prosecution"?

Or the next time we have to decide on something like a greenway, or landlord's rental license revocation, or the sale of city property, or property taxes, or any number of decisions before the city council, would't you want the ability to present your side of the issue?

The city has yet to respond to the Healy Project's concerns over transparency in this matter.  To not address these concern undermines public trust.

Part III:  The Blocked by Betsy Club

The final disconcerting piece of this puzzle is our esteemed mayor's behavior through the episode.  "Blocked" in this context is used for alliterative purposes, since blocking someone on Facebook is a specific action that I don't think Hodges actually did.

What she did do, however, was post a highly-charged statement (using a questionable source) calling for a national celebrity to issue a citywide blanket apology, as well as a personal one, over one of the more contentious debates in her short tenure in office.   She posted this on her mayoral site.  If her intent were something other than political grandstanding, she could have just as easily sent it as a private message.  At the time of publication, there are 327 comments, roughly ten times that of the highest count on other threads on that page.

A few comments used some Bad Words.  There was quite a bit of disagreement, but most of that was both civil and substantive.  Even the Bad Word People were at least participating and not directing profanities at others.  At least six people, all of whom disagreed with the mayor and were posting extensive information about their positions, can no longer comment or participate in that dialogue.  Why?

As to the mechanics of HOW, it would appear that since this is Hodges' personal page, one has to be "friends" with her in order to post content--a common Facebook setting and a reasonable one for a mayor of a metropolitan city.  Reasonable, that is, until possibly the largest conversation to take place on such a forum results in people saying things the mayor isn't comfortable with.  And then they pay the price for their lack of conformity, and are banished to the un-friend zone.

Non-public people do this all the time.  But there's a different, almost draconian feeling when this happens from the mayor, and it happens in the midst of such a high-profile discussion.  One would think she'd have thicker skin.

Again, why should this matter?  The next time you're on the opposing side of an issue, do you want the mayor to foster a political discussion, knowing she has the ability to remove you from that discussion the instant you happen to contest her position?  Shouldn't you be allowed to disagree with the mayor, and doesn't that dissent become even more important when done civilly and with substance?

The mayor and other city leaders should check the source more diligently before deciding that the sky is falling over a set of internet comments.  Citywide, appeals processes should ensure that both sides can be vigorously presented and discussed, regardless of the topic.  And public officials, especially our mayor, shouldn't penalize disagreement on social media topics they themselves started.  These are some pretty basic tenets that we should all agree on.

ADDENDUM:  A first draft stated that the mayor posted the comment on her personal page, but I have been informed that it was on her mayoral page.  Which, if true, makes the exclusion of dissent even more problematic.

15 comments:

  1. "The HPC’s position was reported but not presented."

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/257421159/2320-Colfax-Ave-S-Findings-of-Fact-and-Recommendation

    Multiple times in the meeting, the HPC's position was reported: "On May 24, 2013, the City Council affirmed the HPC and concluded that the Property is a historic resource. The historic resource determination is not a final judgement on the historic merit of the Property; rather, it dictates the process required to consider a demolition request."

    Later, it makes reference to the "commencement of a historic designation study."

    Was such a study ever done? The only study in favor of preservation I can find is the Andersen/Busch research, which was dismissed by the courts as nonexpert: "In testifying that all Healy homes in Minneapolis should be designated as historic, Plaintiff’s witnesses, Christensen and Roscoe, lack neutrality, objectivity, and credibility, and cannot qualify as experts."

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/228902337/Order-Denying-Injunction

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    1. It is hard to understand how Amy Lucas, who was being paid by those wishing to demolish could be considered to be objective and have "neutrality".

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  2. By "reported but not presented" refers to the in person presentations at an appeal hearing. Only two presentations are allowed and the rest is tightly time limited comment. In the Orth house appeal, both presentations given were in favor of demolition. An appeal by nature is when one opinion is not in agreement with the other. The Healy Project has asked for review of protocol for future scenarios where staff's professional opinion differs from the decision making body he is there to represent (in this case the HPC). It could be as simple as choosing another presenter or allowing three presentations under that scenario. The Healy project has conceded that the demolition is a settled matter and have asked that these process and protocol concerns be addressed separate from feelings and opinions about the house itself or this outcome. Those very legitimate concerns on official letterhead of a non profit organization have not been responded to in any way, yet the mayor flips out about a post she sees on a "bully blog" which turns out to be a fabricated compilation. This is our leadership.

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  3. I know it doesn't fit in with your perpetual victim mentality, but Betsy's post is closed to all comments, she didn't ban specific users like you claim.

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    1. Au contraire mon frere. The post may be closed to all comments now. But I have text messages regarding at least two people who were "un-friended" and were therefore unable to leave comments while the thread was still open. There were others commenting on Facebook with the same set of circumstances. The exclusion of people who were substantively disagreeing with the mayor is real and can be fully documented, should the need arise.

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    2. That's not true. I was banned from further commenting and now cannot see Betsy's page at all--meaning I have been blocked.

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  4. I don't believe it was closed to all comments. I noticed it was closed over a day ago, and since I noticed it was closed, at least one additional comment was posted (in support of the mayor.) I believe it is closed to everyone but "friends only" to the Mayor's Facebook account.

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  5. Well I can't comment, but I'm also not friends with her. If it's the case that she's closed it to friends only then I still don't see the difference. I don't think she's been carefully curating her Facebook friends since she became mayor to make sure that she'd only be friends with people who supported the demolition of 2320 Colfax.

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  6. Minneapolis politics is rotten to the core. This isn't the first time that the HPC or other public agencies duties, responsibilities, and opinions were circumvented by leadership minions who are promoted on their willingness to buckle. HPC is essentially an arm of CPED who are openly anti-preservation. Time for a change! Smoley can go first.

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  7. Follow the money...the people who made money on the destruction of the Orth house were campaign contributors and provided volunteer time to the campaign. Lisa Bender's tactics are divisive; she is not a leader and is wrong for Minneapolis.

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  8. The development processes in Minneapolis are deeply flawed and borderline corrupt. Keep in mind that public records show those who made big money in the demolition of the Orth house were also Bender campaign contributors and provided volunteer time to the campaign. Lisa Bender's tactics are divisive; she is not a leader and is wrong for Minneapolis.

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  9. Three other comments of note: First, I do not agree with the allegations of outright corruption. However, they meet the criteria for civil (enough) and substantive (enough) comments that I am willing to publish on this blog.

    Second, the link to the Wedge Live blog post where the author claims to have given out demeaning mock awards to neighborhood board members appears to be broken. I am attempting to fix it, but the post itself is still visible at the Wedge Live blog if one searches for "The Wedgies."

    And third, there is some behind-the-scenes debate over whether the Facebook page in question is the mayor's personal page or the official political page of the mayor. My blog initially called it her personal page, but then received credible information to the contrary and I added an addendum but did not have a chance to rephrase a key paragraph. I have since looked much more closely at the page and there is nothing there that definitively answers that question. Until I know for sure, the somewhat muddled language will remain as close to my original draft as possible.

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  10. Do you feel dumb now that Nicole Curtis has skipped town and left a home in North decaying?

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    1. The short answer: No.

      The long answer: I am incredibly unhappy with how she has handled 1522 Hillside. I expect her to either finish it or sell or transfer the property to a party who can do the job. I support the city taking appropriate action to make that happen, but I also expect the city to be reasonable in coming to a mutual solution here.

      And as bungled as this particular house rehab has been, I remain confident that it will ultimately end with a fully rehabbed, owner-occupied property. No matter how bad it gets now, that end result will STILL be better than the city's plan to demolish. Does that excuse the delays on this and future projects? No, but it does put things in the proper perspective.

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  11. My bloods still boiling a year later. -A Proud Member of The Blocked by Betty Club.

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