Sludge dumping in Susquehanna State Park, unsightly commercial sites at the entrance to Fallston Crossing and the off-road vehicle debate are all recent examples of how Harford County residents are using the internet to move the local discourse online. Where we may once have seen folks dragging petitions door to door, now net-savvy activists are publishing webpages, firing e-mails and posting on blogs to drum up support for issues that matter to them. This week, Harford County Council members are getting an online earful from the people behind RideinHarford.org. (A “town hall” meeting with Councilman Jim McMahan is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. tomorrow (Sept. 26) at the McFaul Senior Center.) The group behind the website opposes Harford County Bill No. 07-44, which would restrict the use of ATVs and other off-road vehicles on properties of less than five acres. Violators would be subject to a fine. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Oct. 9, but the internet is already buzzing with the issue. RideinHarford.org’s site includes links to the proposal, links to a petition opposing the proposal and links to the email addresses of each of the Harford County Council members. The site also sponsors a MySpace page devoted to the topic that includes comments from local residents. The site also provides links to a flyer it encourages opponents of the bill to print out and post around town, and it set up a CafePress store to sell t-shirts, caps and bumper stickers opposing the bill. The webmaster of RideinHarford.org even color-coded the pictures of the council members to indicate which ones are for the bill proposed by Councilwoman Roni Chenowith, which are against it and which are undecided. The conversation isn’t limited to the RideinHarford.org site. Folks on the Baltimore Sun’s message boards have been chatting about it. It’s been the subject of a local radio talk show. And comments have been left about it on the HarfordNow.com website. It will be interesting to see what the turnout is like at the public hearing and to gauge how much traction the issue got from the Internet.
I’ve always thought that the Internet is a great equalizer when it comes to local government issues. Everyone can gain access and communicate about issues for little to no cost. (Don’t have a computer? You can get on the internet at the library.) I think it really can serve to shine a little more sun on issues that may have previously been decided in sparsely attended meetings. That’s part of the reason why I started the Bel Air Development Wiki that shows up in a link in a sidebar on this blog. My idea was that folks would contribute their thoughts and information on development issues on that wiki. There’s not a lot of involvement yet, but as issues heat up, perhaps there will be more. The sludge dumping issue in Susquehanna State Park has its own web page devoted to that issue and has devoted residents who emailed each other and officials when they saw dumping taking place. The issue leaped from the internet to the local mainstream media. And the residents’ efforts succeeded in stopping the dumping. According to a WBAL report, Harford County state delegate Barry Glassman is planning to introduce a bill in Annapolis next session that would aim to end such dumping in parks statewide. The condition of the empty commercial properties that flank the entrance to the Fallston Crossings development have also been discussed online as well as in local newspapers. (However, they’re still a mess.) Don’t let that off-roading farm kid image we’ve got fool you. When it comes to getting our point across, Harford County has some pretty savvy communicators.