The Coast News Group
Community Commentary

E-Town Hall: Beyond the hype

The response to the discovery of fake names by the head of the company that sold Encinitas the E-Town Hall program was familiar, dismissing objections by asserting his expertise.

When I first watched the video of Michael Alverez Cohen’s presentation to the city council ten months ago, it was disturbing on many levels.

The council had not even been notified before the meeting that this most fundamental function of government, interfacing with city residents, had actually already been contracted out by the city manager.

And when two members were disturbed that the contract had been signed without their approval, the City Manager failed to inform them that it is revocable at any time, which it still is.

I decided to research the company, Peak Democracy, with the advantage of having developed commercial software and extensive use of on-line feedback modalities such as comment threads and polls.

Writing articles for comments made me acutely aware of how minor changes in the text changes degree of support for a concept.

While there is now academic research on this area, it is mostly an art, where the trump hand is always held by the entity that composes the originating essay or question.

Two members of the council shared enough of my doubts that they voted to place a reconsideration of this contract on a future agenda.

I welcomed the challenge, knowing that my allotted nine minutes would allow me to refute some assumptions and answer rebuttals by Peak Democracy.

Even though the reconsideration had been on the list of pending discussions for months, it never took place as the “discussion” had been transformed into a progress report without being placed on the posted agenda. I was miffed, but those on the council who had voted for this reconsideration didn’t have my certainty of just how dangerous a tool this was, how easy it is to disguise a partisan position as a question, a variation of what are known as push-polls.  This is especially disturbing since the writing of descriptions of issues is not an open procedure.

After the first two trivial surveys on dog walk areas and public art preferences E-Town Hall was used to tackle a major issue, which while never stated, could reverse the height restrictions voted into law by a recent citywide referendum.  This public outreach goes under the title of “The Housing Element” that through skillful word-craft by special interests over the years has been falsely presented as providing housing for the poor.  Promotion of such public misconceptions, while not originating with this company, can be facilitated by their methods.

This leads to the deeper aspects of the Peak Democracy approach; the shaping of a technological revolution on the order of the invention of the printing press. This is the confluence of universal wireless access to the Internet and of popularity of social media, that has allowed opinions to congeal at the speed of a flock of seagulls swarming along the beach.  “Trending,” while a meaningless word to those of my generation, indicates a topic that is becoming all the talk on Tweeter and Facebook that leads to a common mindset. This happens without the need to understand the issue in any depth, only what friends were feeling about it. This was the finding of the respected Pew Research Institute when evaluating the effect of this media on political views.

“The Medium is the Message” was a phrase of an earlier mass media era that applies ever more so to the immediacy of internet technology now always at our fingertips.  As a city and as a people, at the very least we should take responsibility for shaping this message that will define our political culture in unknown ways.

Al Rodbell is an Encinitas resident. His commentaries can be read on 


Ralph Wiley January 27, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Al, you know nothing about economy in writing. If you want to learn how to summarize and to improve your communication skills in general, read Jared Whitlock.

Otherwise, you’ll just continue to defeat your own purpose.

Ralph Wiley January 26, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Nothing of the kind, John. If Rodbell had left his over-the-top ego and the superfluous information out of his piece, he could have made his points in half as many words. That would have meant more readers and better understanding.

Al Rodbell January 27, 2015 at 8:00 am


You comments are actually demonstrating one of the few advantages of Peak Democracy, that it moderates comments for relevance. Since this one is on the honor system you have shown how easy it is to highjack a comment thread that is meant to allow expansion, pro or con, with the understanding it is focused on the topic of the essay. Such thoughtful challenging comments are what can make internet dialog valuable. You criticize my use of the first person singular to describe the interaction between the individual — who happened to be me — when I attempted to bring the defects of the product to the public at a council meeting. There was no reason to avoid describing my personal participation.

While I still object to a commercial company controlling either the message or the comments; moderation of comments — while still retaining diverse views — is always a challenge. This Coast News article is a condensation of a years experience that are documented on several article on my personal web site, with extensive links to allow others to check for accuracy.

A monopoly of internet communication by a private corporation should be worthy of citizen’s concern.
As far as this essay being too long, there is a simple solution: stop reading when you’ve had enough.

John January 26, 2015 at 8:16 am

Ralph Wiley is obviously intimidated by an articulate presentation. He is the type of sheep that special interests manipulate by understanding their base motivations for gratification. Peak Democracy is nothing more than an attempt at molding the mass mindset with preconceived notions, all geared for a specific response. Ring the bell and watch Wiley salivate….

Ralph Wiley January 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm

Al, almost everything you write is way too long. The points you want to make are lost in a sea of words, many of which are about you. You defeat your purpose. I suggest you learn reporting. If you want to add your opinion, fine.

Al Rodbell January 25, 2015 at 7:12 am

If any of the words confused you, please contact me and I will give the definitions, and if you request, I will even use shorter simpler language appropriate for those with a short attention span.

Ralph Wiley January 24, 2015 at 11:35 am

As usual, Rodbell’s point is lost in a barrage of words, many of which are about him.

Ted Wilks January 23, 2015 at 4:15 pm

I always thought we jumped into bed with this company without really doing serious research. I know they have their software in many cities, but that doesn’t say much given the gullibility of most of them. Let’s hope the new city council and manager does a review of all of our options.

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