In his city manager’s blog, Cole is fond of opening with an anecdote, which becomes a platform to leap (sometimes from the high board) into a seminar on civics.
“There’s a value in giving the background that is often missing from daily accounts that are dominated by the political discourse of advocacy,” said the six-year city manager, who has worked in both community journalism and city government.
“Often there’s just reporting and arguing,” he added. “Not that my view would be utterly without opinion, but I would try to deal with conflicting opinions and share that there’s almost always more than one perspective.”
The list of California municipalities with manager blogs is growing. It includes the town of Fairfax, and the cities of Belvedere, Fontana, Manteca, Monterey, Sonoma, Willits and Yreka. (See “Cities Use Blogs To Reach Public And City Staff” here)
Part of Cole’s job is to support Ventura city staff. He’s not afraid to tug at the heart strings while he’s doing that.
One of his favorite pieces, from Sept. 19, 2009, told the story of police officers called to a city hotel late at night to find a crying infant crying, alone, crawling around the floor. The mother, a 24-year-old Las Vegas woman, had wandered away from the hotel and was later arrested for abandonment by police.
“The next time I hear some loudmouth generalizing about cops and what a lousy job they do,” Cole wrote, “I’ll be thinking about a ten-month-old baby alone in a hotel room at 2 a.m. And thinking about what a lousy job we give to some of the most caring and courageous people I know.”
Other recent posts have examined what role government plays in “creating” local jobs, how Ventura is applying for a Google pilot project to wire a city for “ultra high speed Internet access,” and how to regulate medical marijuana sales outlets.
The pioneer of city manager bloggers was Wally Bobkiewicz in Santa Paula, a dozen miles inland from Ventura. (Bobkiewicz last year took the city manager’s job in Evanston, Ill., and started a blog there.)
The Santa Paula initative inspired Cole. In 2006, he scheduled a lunch to pick Bobkiewicz’s brain.
Bobkiewicz had a successful formula, but Cole realized Ventura’s blog should be different. The Santa Paula blog, Cole said, was “newsier and breezier and shorter.”
Santa Paula got the word out on city events that were neglected by traditional media. In Ventura, Cole felt, the city gets plenty of ink and sound from a weekly, a biweekly and a daily paper and local radio.
“I didn’t feel the need to be called ‘the newspaper of record’ or ‘the blog of record,’” he said.
Cole launched the blog with help from Dominic Clark, an Information Technology staffer with the city.
Clark still assists, including summoning the following stats: the blog page had 1,173 views in September 2009, rising to 1,656 in October, 1,519 in November, 1,466 in December; 1,056 in January 2010 and 1,212 in February.
Cole attributed the late fall spike to interest in council elections and ballot measures, local and statewide.
There’s also a little increase when the city sends out an e-bulletin every two weeks to residents who have signed up to get city news. The e-bulletin contains a link to the city manager’s blog.
Cole corresponds with blog-mate Steve Pinkerton, the Manteca city manager. In their blogs, they occasionally cite each other’s work.
If a city government official is thinking about blogging, Cole’s advice is “to thine own self be true … If you find writing a skill that is something you enjoy doing, I’d certainly recommend it. It’s important to write in your own voice rather than a disembodied third-person voice.”
Cole doesn’t feel the blog spotlight adds risk. As a city manager, he said, “if you are not on your toes 24 hours a day, seven days a week — which no human being is — you’re going to find yourself in some awkward positions. Having a blog is just one more place where you’re going to try to be on your toes.”
Cole occasionally returns to blog posts to correct typographical errors or “things that I realize were either infelicitously phrased or ambiguous, or maybe I was too sharp in my criticism. It’s a living document. I don’t obsess about it but I do try to correct things that deserve correcting.”
The Ventura manager estimates that a third of blog posts originate from a weekly memo that goes to council members and city staff. “Some of the ideas first see the light of day internally and then I’ll adapt that,” he said.
When the blog started, Cole adopted a policy of allowing anonymous response postings but moderating personal attacks. His assistant Anne Simmons does some of the heavy lifting in sifting through the comments.
“I certainly publish criticism, but usually I don’t personally respond because I think it sounds whiny or defensive,” Cole said. “Most often, I respond when I want to acknowledge the legitimacy of criticism.”
For the upcoming 200th post, Cole plans to make some changes to the blog. One would be disallowing anonymous posts.
“Civil discourse appears to be more difficult in the anonymity of cyberspace,” he said. “People say and threaten things that they would almost routinely never do face to face.”
All his life, Cole has been fascinated with civil discourse. He received a degree from the prestigious journalism program at Columbia University, where his thesis focused on a community revitalization agency in the South Bronx ghettos of New York City.
“I’ve always been fascinated in how cities work in journalism and politics and administration,” he said.
He was a co-founder of the Pasadena Weekly and a mayor of Pasadena.
Now, as city manager of Ventura, he has an increasing respect for social media’s role in encouraging volunteerism and civic activism.
“All of these social media offer new tools to work on one of democracy’s oldest challenges: promoting the common good,” Cole wrote in a piece for a national Web site, www.newgeography.com. “What local governments can’t do is fall hopelessly behind. The fate of railroads, automakers, and newspapers shows what happens to the complacent.”
Lance Howland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org