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Pique, critique -- blogs do it all

Some local websites are serious, others just scurrilous. But their influence is growing, and municipalities are paying attention.

July 23, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

"Grandpa Terrace" didn't mince words. He wanted the mayor of Grand Terrace, a small city wedged between two scenic mountain ridges in San Bernardino County, run out of office.

The anonymous blogger posted documents on his website that, he said, showed that Mayor Maryetta Ferre and Mayor Pro Tem Lee Ann Garcia were beholden to developers putting up big-box stores such as Lowe's.

"We need to recall them now," "Grandpa Terrace" fumed a year ago. "We don't want more traffic, more crime, dayworkers just to bring in some pocket change, when the cost to the city will go up to combat the problems brought by these types of development."

His rants helped fuel a recall effort last year against the two council members. Although the campaign ultimately failed, his blog was another example of the growing influence of citizen journalists roiling communities across Southern California, many of which rarely are covered by newspapers or other traditional media outlets.

These muckraking bloggers say they have stepped in to fill the government watchdog vacuum. Some are anonymous, others are scurrilous and, on occasion, possibly libelous. And to local politicians, most are a royal pain in the tuchis.

Bloggers in the San Gabriel Valley have raised the alarm about a possible budget crisis in Sierra Madre; ones in the Inland Empire have written about the high costs of trimming city trees in Claremont and allegations that killers are getting away with murder in Pomona.

"We realize in today's electronic environment, it's a fact of life," said Grand Terrace City Manager Thomas Schwab. "The thing that's the most disturbing is they can put things on the blog that have no basis in fact, and you really can't refute it."

It may only be a matter of time before bloggers start to have a major influence in local politics and policymaking.

"It's inexpensive, and my guess is there are a lot of people who find it fun," said Matthew Spitzer, former USC Law School dean.

"There have always been citizens who love to go to city council meetings and see what's going on. Putting it on a blog makes it a lot easier and it increases accessibility to 24/7."

In Grand Terrace, the recall effort fell about 500 signatures short of the 1,506 needed to trigger the election. A citizen-driven group, buoyed by the blog, collected signatures at a Stater Bros. market and mailed petitions to residents.

"For years the city of Grand Terrace tried to keep residents in the dark," said resident Jo Springfield, a strong supporter of the recall effort. "The blog enlightened many residents to start asking questions and going to meetings."

Several bloggers interviewed by The Times insisted on anonymity, saying they feared a backlash from city officials.

All said they were residents of the area they report on and got involved because their community did not receive enough coverage from the traditional media.

"We want our words to stand on our own, and with anonymity, the only way someone can judge us is by what we write," said Publius of the Foothill Cities News Blog, who takes his pseudonym from the Roman whose name was used by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison when they wrote the Federalist Papers.

"If we send an e-mail to an elected official, the odds are we won't get a response," he said. "But if enough people read it, they are going to have to respond at some point."

The Foothill Cities Blog, which covers several cities in the San Gabriel Valley, was the first to report that Assemblywoman Nell Soto (D-Pomona) was absent from the Capitol for 25 days because of pneumonia. It was later reported that she still collected more than $20,000 in per diem pay.

The website also has been critical of Pomona's high crime rate, saying that the local press ignores the issue.

"It took a rash of violent crime, or should I say a rash of violent crime that finally received lots of press, but the council's new focus on law enforcement is commendable," said a post in June applauding efforts to hire additional law enforcement officers.

But the praise is mixed with criticism aimed at Pomona officials. The site drew the ire of administrators in May after posting that its city manager was forced to step down -- which city officials said was untrue.

"It took me back to high school days when you gossip with girlfriends," said Pomona Mayor Norma Torres, adding that she may start her own blog to communicate directly with constituents. "Some of the information reads like a gossip column."

Pomona City Atty. Arnold M. Alvarez-Glasman sent a cease-and-desist letter to the website, ordering it to remove the post.

"While the City of Pomona strongly supports an individual's First Amendment Rights ... it is difficult to respond to anonymous fabrications such as those published by you in your web-site publication," he wrote.

The website took down the post but enlisted free-speech attorney Jean-Paul Jassy to respond.

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