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Traffic Cops Making Stops on the Info Highway : Computers: 'Flamers' threatened to sink part of Santa Monica's innovative network, so some e-mail message areas are now being monitored.

May 22, 1994|ADRIAN MAHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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