What happens when a prominent blogger is elected to public office and writes about the meetings he attends, warts and all? Tom Coale is finding out.
Coale was elected in April to the Dorsey’s Search Village Board as its representative to the Columbia Association Board of Directors. He is also the voice behind local blog HoCo Rising.
He posted his first recap of a CA board meeting May 13, giving the rundown of how the board’s new chairman was elected.
The candidates were Michael Cornell of River Hill and incumbent Cynthia Coyle of Harper’s Choice. During the meeting, Gregg Schwind of Hickory Ridge criticized the length of board meetings under Coyle, the blog post reported.
“Gregg’s concerns certainly took on the color of accusations, and it was clear that [Coyle] took offense,” Coale wrote. “While he was speaking, she whispered, ‘He hates me,’ and leaned over to Mike to say ‘This is your supporter,’ suggesting that Mike should disassociate himself from such comments.”
Cornell was elected chairman.
Coale wrote again about CA the following day, describing a meeting he and another member attended, but fallout lingered from his post the preceding day.
A board member emailed Coale about it. “They said they appreciated what I was trying to do but thought I had breached the board’s trust in posting what other board members had said at the meeting,” Coale said. He declined to say which board member contacted him.
The email mentioned the posting of Coyle’s comment, “but my impression was that they just did not like the idea that I was posting about what was going on at the meetings,” Coale said.
Coale said that he doesn’t regret the post. He said it met his standard of only writing about open meetings, being fair and posting facts rather than interpretations.
“I think it’s very important for people who are not familiar with the board to not only know the hard facts on the ground, but to also understand what the meetings are like,” Coale said. “That was what the meeting was like.”
Coyle said that she read Coale’s post after being told about it.
“I don’t think he had ill intentions; I think he’s trying to be transparent,” she said. “His intentions are probably quite honorable, but I don’t think that it’s healthy for the board.”
She noted that the comment Coale reported was not meant for public consumption.
“When people say things in private or are not intending to be public in their discussion, I think that the board needs to respect that with each other, because I think there is a feeling of lack of trust if you don’t do that,” she said. “I just think that if you lose trust in your fellow board members, that’s not a good thing.”
She said her whispering to another board member is “not a board decision” and “is not something that needs to be in the public eye.”
Still, Coyle said, the board has a responsibility to speak openly and honestly with community members. Coale’s blog is one way to make people aware of what’s happening with CA and its board, she said.
“The more communication we have, the better,” she said.
Other board members said they were supportive of Coale’s blogging.
“To the extent that he’s reporting on his observations of public meetings, our meetings are fair game for that,” said Schwind, of Hickory Ridge. “He could be you sitting in the audience writing what you think of our meeting. He happens to be on the board. As long as he’s reporting only on open meetings, I don’t think that’s a problem.”
Schwind said he was also okay with conversations between colleagues during meetings being reported.
“What if the microphone was particularly sensitive and you heard it in the audience? It’s an open meeting,” he said. “Everything we say and do there is open to public scrutiny and public reporting.”
Cornell, the new board chairman, said he has run into a similar issue while writing a column for the River Hill village newsletter.
“There have been one or two [village] board members who’ve expressed concerns over the content of my columns and were trying to create very strict guidelines about what I could or couldn’t write,” Cornell said. “That, to me, is censorship.”
Andrew Stack of Owen Brown said Coale’s blog reaches a different audience and in a different manner than press releases, CA-produced video segments and other methods of telling residents about board business.
“We print minutes, but they’re not necessarily the most exciting things to read,” Stack said. “We put our agenda online, but not everybody reads that.”
Coale said he considered the CA board to be “foreign to most people” despite the number of documents available online.
“My effort and my interest is to make it relatable and accessible to people that are interested in what the CA board does,” he said, “and, more importantly, to bring a little bit more attention to the manner in which CA goes about its business.”