Complaining online doesn’t solve anything

Published 12:59 pm Thursday, February 15, 2007

By Staff
For the last month, the proposal to officially designate the Main Street Bridge in Niles as the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bridge has been on the minds of Niles residents – a fact made all too clear by the numerous postings about the issue on the Leader Publications online forum.
The postings have largely been in opposition to the idea, and the debate has primarily centered on the premise that the bridge instead should bear the name of someone who has made significant contributions to the region, such as Muhammad Ali.
This posting, contributed by a person identified as 'Annie,' sums up much of the sentiment seen on our forum:
"While naming the bridge after MLK Jr. is a nice gesture, it's a little baffling. Had he ever been to Niles? Had he walked across that bridge, leading a march or protest? If the bridge has to be named, it should be named after someone who has had a more localized impact on the community. Muhammed (sic) Ali, Ring Lardner, ect."
Another poster, 'Bela,' took a similar stance, although objecting to Ali as a substitute:
"I agree that the bridge should not be named to honor MLK. I also do not believe it should be named after a draft dodger (Ali). It would do better service named after a native of Niles, someone that had an impact on the towns beginnings."
Some contributors support the proposal, and others even questioned why the bridge needs to be named after someone in the first place.
For the record, I do not care one way or the other. I will always remember Dr. King for the words he said, not because of a bridge named to stand as a monument to him.
Nonetheless, I find the debate interesting.
As I was researching for this column on Wednesday, I took a peek at the results of our weekly poll question on This week, we asked whether the bridge should be named for Dr. King, and I must say I was surprised by what I saw.
As of Wednesday, more than 400 people had responded, and nine out of 10 of them opposed the change.
Normally, our polls will draw 100 to 150 respondents during an entire week, so it is obvious this issue is a hot-button topic to many people out there.
I do have one question, however, for the people who answered the poll: Where were you Monday evening?
On Monday, Feb. 12, the Niles City Council passed a resolution in support of the name change, and not one person from the public spoke out on the issue one way or the other. Now, I suspect a few of the pollees may have contacted their city council official to express their opinion, but I also suspect it was only a few. In fact, Robert Durm, the only council member to oppose the city's resolution, said he had received only a handful of calls from people against the proposal.
While the Internet has given millions a venue to debate issues and vent frustrations, it does not serve as an effective medium to change public opinion, let alone public policy. Filling in a checkbox on a computer screen may make someone feel better, but it doesn't count for anything.
Influencing public policy can only be done the old-fashioned way – by participating in local government.
While Durm was the only dissenting vote, a couple others hesitated before saying "Yes" to the resolution. Had the public been out in force and made their feelings known, those 'yes' votes may have instead been 'no' – or that 'no' vote may have been a 'yes.'
Given the anonymous nature of the Internet, I find it unlikely public officials would use it as a definitive source to gauge the pulse of the public on a given issue, and therefore, the public shouldn't rely on it to express their views.
The digital water cooler may be a great place to share gripes, but it should not serve as a substitute for the public soapbox.