Taking political fights online
Campaign against Petaluma asphalt plant finds the Web an effective organizing tool in organizing opposition
Published: Monday, March 23, 2009 at 7:23 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 23, 2009 at 7:26 a.m.
Until a few months ago, Ryan Moore didn't know about plans to build an asphalt plant along the Petaluma River.
He became outraged, however, when opponents expressed their views to him that the proposal by San Rafael-based Dutra Materials would ruin nearby Shollenberger Park, choking it with emissions and noise from an operation that could run around the clock.
He was even more astounded that he hadn't heard about the project on one of the many Web sites or chat rooms he frequents online.
So the tech savvy 35-year-old got busy. He put up a Web site for the group, Save Shollenberger Park, posted videos of meetings on YouTube and opened Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep people informed.
Two months later, anti-asphalt plant sentiment has gone viral.
"We're making a little noise, definitely," said Moore, a 35-year-old winery worker. "That's the beauty of the Internet."
Traffic on the Web site is up to hundreds of unique hits a day, and the Facebook account now claims more than 1,200 "friends." An online petition has nearly 2,000 signatures, and dozens of Twitter users hash over strategy in mini-messages that zing back and forth through cyberspace.
About 300 people packed a February hearing on the project before the Board of Supervisors. Many more are expected to mobilize next month for a planning commission hearing and on May 12 for supervisors' final vote.
Joan Cooper, spokeswoman for Save Shollenberger Park, said the group also will use the contacts for future fund raising to mount any legal challenges and to cover expenses.
"The Web is the great equalizer," said Cooper, who manages the group's storefront headquarters on Western Avenue where opponents gathered for a potluck Sunday. "For relatively no money, you can reach thousands of people."
Online campaigns are proving effective particularly among conservation-minded people who already use it for other things like e-mail and online shopping, said Andy Merrifield, Sonoma State University political science professor.
Organizers can turn quickly to lists of like-minded people who could be mobilized for meetings or be asked to make donations, Merrifield said.
Groups countywide are recognizing the potential. In Santa Rosa, opponents of a proposed Lowe's home improvement store have posted materials online and launched e-mail campaigns, as have critics of Healdsburg's Saggio Hills residential development.
"It's a very effective tool for stirring up the troops," Merrifield said. "In the old days if you wanted 50 people to turn out at a supervisors' meeting, you'd have to make 150 calls. Now it takes about 30 seconds."
In Petaluma, Moore's online effort has spawned a half-dozen spin-off sites from groups like Moms for Clean Air and Nopetalumaasphaltplant.com.
"It's really brought us together as a community," said Ilka Degast, a member of the moms' group who was at the Sunday potluck with her daughter.
Of course, Dutra Materials has a Web site of its own. Company spokeswoman Aimi Dutra said it is largely devoted to debunking critics' claims and encouraging support.
The site, Dutrapetaluma.com, was opened about a month ago and has generated a fair amount of traffic, she said.
It lists benefits of the plant, which include reducing the cost of road repair by having a close supply of material and the use of river barges, which will reduce emissions from trucks.
"It's an opportunity for Dutra to get out there and correct misinformation," she said. "Dutra is doing its best to provide the community with good information using the same tools as our opposition."
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 762-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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