To our readers: On anonymity and civility

Well, this is what happens when I try to take a whole day away from All heck breaks loose, and, according to Google Maps, I’m 776 miles away from the storm. That’s a better position to run away and hide than to play diplomat, but with the help of you, the readers, I’ll give it a try.

The issue for the court of public opinion today is how to balance anonymity for posters, allowing many people who would otherwise stay silent to speak out freely, against the well-known tendency of anonymity to encourage people to go too far and get personal, just because they can get away with it.

We have allowed people to post freely under pseudonyms. Some people use the same fake name every time. Some people use their real name every time. Some people post as themselves when they can but resort to false identities when they feel they need protection. Some people pick a pseudonym to fit the subject (such as the one-time appearance of Oscar the Grouch in relation to the backdoor garbage debate). Some people even poach pseudonyms used by others (a rare occurrence that we strongly discourage).

We have encouraged this freewheeling system because it maximizes the opportunity for people to take advantage of one of the great strengths of this medium: You can respond to an article or another comment or comments at any hour of the day or night with as many words as you think you need. We want this site to be a virtual water cooler, where people can check on what’s going on, see what others are saying and share their own views, all without fear of being censored or censured (look it up if you don’t know the difference).

We have always reserved the right to edit or remove comments that cross the line in terms of taste, language or legality, but we lean toward a lot of leeway when the comments involve the conduct of public figures in their public lives. For instance, a couple of our regular posters came up with a pretty clever satirical take on our fast-food economy and like to refer to Sam Watkins as the burgermeister. They’ve probably pushed the joke too far, at least beyond the point where it’s all that funny. But Watkins is a public figure, and the comments so far have remained within the extended bounds of political satire.

All of which brings us to the crisis of the day, an increasingly nasty exchange of comments between the anonymous Citizen X (no relation to Speed Racer’s brother, Rex, the notorious Racer X) and Mayor Clem Seifert. In case you missed the comments when the article involved, Wednesday morning’s “Revised city budget boosts sanitation fee, staff pay,” scrolled off our front page, here are all the comments for that article, as of this writing (in case you were wondering, the times are all Central Daylight Time because that’s where the server hosting the site is):

1. Hey, here’s an idea for personnel consolidation: Why not have the City Clerk perform the same duties she did for many years (and quite well, I might add), thus eliminating the need for a “Vice-Mayor” (aka the Assistant to the Mayor)? Chick Young managed without an assistant for his entire tenure. Perhaps that’s because Mayor Young was actually performing the duties of a mayor and not attempting to be the ninth Council member AND the City Manager, while micro-managing each and every department in City Hall!

As for tax increases verus sanitation rate hikes, why shouldn’t everyone share the burden of operating the local government? Is it fair to ask those who aspire to homeownership to foot the bill, while renters reap the benefits (i.e. backyard trash pickup)? Yes, we’ll surely see a tax increase this year, but it should be coupled with the sanitation increase, so that everyone is invested.

It seems to me that Vance County has entered into a “welfare state of mind” with many of our citizens expecting something for nothing – and getting mad if you bring it late!

Comment by Citizen X, posted on 2005-6-22 @ 8:06:34 am

2. I cannnot believe the city is contemplating giving a raise to the employees. They are already making too much. They are already making more money than Norlina. If this keeps up they might be making as much as Warrenton. This is ridiculous. Why would the city divert funds from more important items like the Boondoggle Performing Arts Center and Metropolitan Library to fund the few employees they have left with a raise. How could they?

Comment by Mr. Mojo Risen, posted on 2005-6-22 @ 12:06:25 pm

3. Citizen X is a coward for not publishing their real name. If you knew 1/100th of what you thought you knew, you might be upgraded to the definition of an idiot. If you live in the City of Henderson, I wish that you would move to another city. I hope and pray that you did not vote for me because if you did I would be embarrased. Your lack of knowledge about what goes on in this city is unbelievable.

Comment by Clem Seifert, posted on 2005-6-23 @ 9:06:11 am

4. To the “Honorable” Mayor Seifert (I use the word “honorable” loosely here): I did vote for you and trust me, of the two of us, I promise I am far more embarrassed by that fact. Please do yourself and the City of Henderson the greatest service possible and stay out of this year’s election! Leave the office of Mayor to someone with more tact and wisdom than yourself. As for my decision to omit my real name, that sir is because despite your declaration to the contrary, I know quite a bit about how things work in this city. I am simply not willing to have my family made subject to the black-listing that would certainly result from my comments. Oh, and no more thing, I thought one of the duties of a mayor was to serve as a statesman in the community. Would a true statesman, with the community’s best interest at heart, encourage a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen to move to another city? In case you haven’t noticed, sir, there aren’t many of us left in Henderson. Nevertheless, I will continue to pray for you (and all our local leaders), asking the God of Heaven to grant you wisdom for the governing of this community. Please, sir, when He presents the truth to you, do not be so quick to insult Him, as you have me.

To the editor: I respectfully challenge you to move this article (and associated comments) back to the front page of your site (much like you did with the Rev. Dale article). I certainly would hate for the citizens of this fair city to miss the opportunity to see our mayor in his true light.

Comment by Citizen X, posted on 2005-6-23 @ 11:06:44 am

5. Come on Mayor, I’m awaiting round 2.

Comment by Mr. Mojo Risin, posted on 2005-6-23 @ 12:06:55 pm

6. To the editor: I respectfully request that you move this back to the front page as well; however, only if you publish comments when the true identity of the writer is revealed. Do not let these people hide behind fictitious names in order to attack me and then when I fight back, accuse ME of insulting THEM! I was highly insulted by what Citizen X wrote, that is why I responded. If your writers want to play the way Citizen X chooses to play, then they need to learn to take it as well as they dish it out. I operate on facts, and I have the facts to back up anything and everything that I have advocated as Mayor. Anytime anyone wants to see them or discuss them, please feel free to contact me directly. I am not hard to find.

Comment by Clem Seifert, posted on 2005-6-23 @ 1:06:20 pm

7. You go Clem, I think you are doing a good job as Mayor and are willing to do more than cut ribbons at the opening of burger joints. Keep up the good work and do realize that any and all public officials will be attacked on their work and standings. Its all part of the job. Trust me I know.

Comment by Mr. Mojo Risin, posted on 2005-6-23 @ 2:06:42 pm

Not exactly the level of discourse I’d like to see on this site, and now I’m in the awkward position of playing ombudsman for two of my readers, my customers. But, hey, that’s why I pay me the big bucks!

Obviously, I have, in my own way, granted the request to push these comments back to the front page — without any violation of Citizen X’s (or more-or-less-innocent bystander Mojo Risin’s) anonymity, and I am leaving all of the comments online.

Citizen X’s original post was highly critical of the mayor. The mayor is probably right that Citizen X lacks or is ignoring many facts about how Henderson’s government operated under Chick Young compared with how it runs under Seifert. But Citizen X expressed opinions only about Seifert’s job performance, not about him personally.

Dianne White’s shift in responsibilities as city clerk seems to be working well, and former city budget analyst Sandra Wilkerson is working nonstop as Seifert’s assistant. But there’s nothing out of bounds in questioning whether the city is getting the best bang for its bucks with those women in their current positions and job descriptions. For what it’s worth, I think White needed the change to keep up with her duties for the City Council. And although I was skeptical of Wilkerson’s move and thought the creation of her position and her selection were handled too abruptly in December 2003, the city is getting a lot of work out of her, and that allows the city to get a lot of work out of Seifert.

And that leads to another of the issues raised by Citizen X: What kind of mayor do we want? Seifert’s leadership and activities are certainly different from Young’s, and such a change after a quarter-century is bound to make some people second-guess their votes in 2003. The way Seifert serves as mayor could be a campaign issue this fall, so I can’t fault Citizen X for making his feelings known in that regard. The unmentioned flip side to that question is the issue of how well the city manager runs Henderson’s departments. If you don’t like the job Eric Williams is doing, you might be more supportive of a management role for the mayor.

That’s a long way of saying Seifert was right to respond to Citizen X’s initial post, but the mayor was wrong to attack Citizen X personally instead of responding to his/her opinions. It just so happened that Citizen X hit a recent sore spot with the call for Wilkerson’s job to be eliminated, and the mayor in part was acting to defend an employee. The anonymity of the attack further inflamed things. You could argue that Seifert’s initial response should have been deleted as being too personal; we kept it because the author made it newsworthy and because it raised an issue for us regarding anonymous posters.

Many of our best comments — for insight, entertainment or both — come from people using fake names. We would regret the loss of those comments, and we suspect many if not most of you are more interested in those comments than in anything we write.

I settled the issue for the current set of comments, but I leave it to all of you readers, almost 1,500 different people over the course of a month, to decide what you want to see on this site in the future. Do you read comments posted under aliases? Do you want them to remain a vital part of this, or would you prefer a rule requiring posters to provide their real names? Where would you draw the line between acceptable and not acceptable comments?

Post your thoughts on this issue here, or you can send e-mail out of the public eye to

— Written by Michael Jacobs