A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jono Miller's Comments on the Online Petition to restore Ringling Bridge Name

As I write the 250th person is about to "sign" an online petition asking that the recent name change of the bridge that connects downtown Sarasota to Bird Key and St. Armands be reconsidered by the Sarasota City Commission. I'm starting at 248, and this is before 7:30 in the morning on Tuesday July 29th.

And although I can easily tap into my own feelings about the old bridge, the new bridge, the old name and the evidently-not-so-popular new name, I'm blogging about the process, public, and petitions in general.

When I was trained about how to change government, petitions were on paper (and frequently also on a clipboard) and were viewed as the least effective, most disregarded way to ask elected officials for change. 

I think there were several reasons: First, the petition only accurately reflected the position of the originator -- there is not a lot of nuance in a signature. Secondly, it requires very little effort. "Yeah, I'll sign" and a three second scrawl-- the petition promoter and not the signer was doing most of the work.  And third, because it asks so little and most people want to be agreeable, it was assumed that many of the signatures reflected low-grade social coercion, more than rampant social conviction. It's much easier to sign someone's clipboard and have them move on than to challenge their mission and risk an argument. So elected officials could disregard them as low commitment examples of going along to get along herd behavior. 

Just hit 250.

Forget the clipboard -- now we have the online petition, facilitated by GoPetition, with "active petitions in over 75 countries". While it still doesn't take much effort to "sign" the rest of the formula has been reversed.  Many of the signatories (now at 264) do leave comments -- so there is a place for nuance and passion. Simply click on the VIEW wording to see (266) what some of them think about it. 

And rather than the path of least resistance (signing a petition to avoid getting involved), (269) people now have to actively chose to head to GoPetition, so that dynamic has flipped as well. 

Another change is the rapidity of the feedback. Old paper petitions had to circulate and then get collected and then get submitted. That took weeks and depended on more or less random juxtaposition of petition promoters with possible signers. (273) This one started on July 26th, so they will probably be averaging at least a hundred a day and (another new twist) any City Commissioner who is interested can log on and see what's unfolding. (279)

So the role of the petition in government is apparently changing. (286) City and County Commissioners will have to adjust to this new phenomenon. To what extent does it provide valued rapid feedback from the most engaged citizenry and to what extent is it a manifestation of (290) of tar-and-feather, my-way-or the-highway groupthink? 

I'm clearly intrigued, but it will take awhile to see how this re-vamped tool is used and with what effect. (293) But based on the last few minutes, I'm guessing ol' John Ringling may do okay. (297)

I guess that was a fifty signature blog. (298) I'm outta here.  

But I will note that Sarasota County has a fairly elaborate process for naming parks, preserves, etc. that does involve both public input and historic considerations. (301)

Oh, just came back to include a link an earlier Sarasota Herald Tribune editorial on the name change. Its now 8:14 and we're at 336 -- so averaging about 2 signers a minute. Fascinating. 

PS.. One of the most effective features of the online petition is that the most recent signatories are shown at the top -- instead of seeing the first signers names and having to flip forward to get to the end, we see the most recent folks with their increasingly impressive ordinal rank. [ At 10:00 am  the number stands at 581 -- so better than two a minute.] If this keeps up there should be more than 1,000 people on board by 2:00 p.m.

PPS   I checked in and signed the petition myself around 1:20 p.m. and somehow managed to become the one thousandth signer, 40 minutes ahead of my prediction. This viral citizenship doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down and it may be speeding up. 

Personally, I think the City Commission erred and I am optimistic that they can find reverse gear. But the references to the signs already existing are sobering.

From my perspective this re-naming appears to be the intersection of bad public process with a bad idea, but that doesn't explain or excuse the virulence of some of the comments. 

Here's another link to a WWSB article from last night when the total stood at an even 100 signatures. 

PPPS I was away from the computer at 3:50 but that's roughly when the total passed 1250, so figure 500 minutes (8 hours, 20 minutes)  for 1000 signatures -- the two signatures a minute average has held all day. Incredible. 

The sad part of all this is that it has re-opened some old wounds about the bridge fight, wounds that had been healing and, worse yet,  it has created an anti Gil Waters backlash, the exact opposite of the intention to honor him. 

Another check in.... At 5:48 pm on Tuesday the total reached 1,491. Why is that number significant? That's how many votes Dick Clapp got on election day. While point and click is not the same as making your way to a polling place, it does suggest a level of political motivation that is comparable (at least numerically) to the process that puts people in elective office.

From what I'm hearing the City Commission didn't understand that "no, thanks, we'll pass on the signs" was an option -- that the name change proposal that came down from Tallahassee was somehow considered to be a done deal that they were more or less obligated to rubber stamp. 

Final thought for the day: At 8:37 p.m. the number of signers hit 1,748 -- that's One thousand, five hundred signatures in a little more than 13 hours. 

I don't pretend to know the whole story, but apparently the City was angling for a plaque that somehow got bumped up to a bridge naming in the Legislature. The City was well intentioned in suggesting a plaque and our local legislators probably can be forgiven if they were trying to attend to other matters and missed the 'upgrade'. Whoever proffered the upgrade may also have had the best of intentions. This is starting to sound like the road to hell, isn't it? 

Anyway, I don't see a malicious conspiracy to strip John Ringling's name. In fact it is entirely possible that whoever suggested the new name assumed the new bridge was also an unnamed bridge. Here's what the legislation Committee Substitute for Senate Bill 1604 said:

Section 29. Gil Waters Bridge designated; Department of Transportation to erect suitable markers.-- (1) The portion of SR 789/GulfStream Avenue in Sarasota between Sunset Drive and Bird Key Drive is designated as "Gil Waters Bridge."

The law took effect July 1st so if someone wants to hammer our City Commission perhaps they should be taking them to task for not monitoring the legislation as it made its way through Tallahassee, but by late July they were facing a done deal.

 The City Commission apparently did have the option of taking a pass on the road signs however. Check out this language from the Legislative Staff analysis:

Section 334.071, F.S., provides: (1) Legislative designations of transportation facilities are for
honorary or memorial purposes, or to distinguish a particular facility, and
may not be construed
to require any action by local governments
or private parties regarding the changing of any street signs, mailing addresses, or 911 emergency telephone number system listings, unless the legislation specifically provides for such changes; (2) When the Legislature establishes road or
bridge designations, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is required to place
markers only at the termini specified for each highway segment or bridge designated by the law
creating the designation, and to erect any other markers it deems appropriate for the
transportation facility; and (3)
The FDOT may not erect the markers for honorary road or bridge
designations unless the affected city or county commission enacts a resolution supporting the designation.
When the designated road or bridge segment is located in more than one city or
county, resolutions supporting the designations must be passed by each affected local
government prior to the erection of the markers.

Here's more of the Staff analysis. Note that there is no mention of the prior bridge's name-- no acknowledgment that passage of this act would be replacing a name in common and historic usage.

Section 17: That portion of SR 789/Gulf Stream Avenue between Sunset Drive and Bird Key Drive in Sarasota County is designated as the “Gil Waters Bridge.” Gil Waters has been a
resident of Sarasota continually since 1950, and was instrumental in ensuring the building of a
new bridge for Bird key replacing an outdated drawbridge. The Florida Department of
Transportation’s proposed fixed-span bridge aroused some local opposition. However, Waters
published an ad in the Sarasota paper, depicting the type of replacement bridge proposed to be
built, and invited Sarasota area residents to send in their votes to him, which were
overwhelmingly positive. Mr. Waters organized a meeting of the public that resulted in the
formation of the Good Bridge Group, to which 900 members subscribed and sent in
contributions to defend the high bridge proposal by FDOT. His group also intervened in legal
challenges which ultimately denied the challenges to the Bridge. The bridge was built, and
afterwards Mr. Waters worked with the landscape consultant for the bridge approaches and
personally contributed $200,00 for the project.

Hey, its been fun, but I have a campaign to run...

1) Citizens deserve to be heard,
2) Online petitions are a new phenomenon, 
3) Our local elected officials aren't evil, 
4) Its okay to acknowledge Gil Waters, and 
5) People are likely to call the Ringling Bridge the Ringling Bridge regardless of what it is thought to be in Tallahassee.