NORTH SMITHFIELD – Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton is admitting this week that she pretended to be 15 different people commenting on an online Valley Breeze story last week about a proposed wind turbine in effort to advance a positive conversation about the idea.
The Breeze discovered her personal e-mail address was used during a routine review of comments.
In a frank discussion with the town administrator Friday morning, Hamilton freely admitted she took on nickname after nickname – “Quincy” to “Karen” to “Thinking Ahead” – as she returned to the Web page story each time with new thoughts about the project.
Last week’s article, “Surprise! Winds may change course for Phase IV of Dowling Village with turbine,” garnered 41 comments about Bucci Development’s plan to replace 76 condominium units with a 427-foot wind turbine. Hamilton did not use her name on any of the posts she made to the comments forum.
“People do not always have to put their names on the comments blog, and they shouldn’t have to, especially because the people I’m responding to may not be ‘real people’ themselves,” she said.
Hamilton said she was attempting to “keep discussion in play” to see how people “really felt about the topic.”
The Breeze picked up her repeated personal e-mail address during a review of all comments last week.
“People would respond differently to things if they had to use their name,” she said. “They may be reluctant to respond on certain issues, they may be seen as having an ulterior motive, or something else.”
The administrator admitted it could be seen as deceitful, but she said her intentions were to keep discussion of the wind turbine continuing so she could gauge how people reacted to the issue.
“I wanted to see how the conversation would follow through,” she said.
That conversation followed through in the form of her handle, “Roger T.,” when in response to a comment listed under another handle, “Do your part before you complain,” she wrote, “If we let the process unfold and attend some of the meetings, we will see that the land is better used for a first-of-its-kind partnership where all parties benefit. When is the next meeting? Now, I want to go.”
On July 16, Hamilton, under “G.M.” responded to a comment from “Anon1,” who wrote: “76 condo units will equal more children in the schools (if there are any special needs students, each costs about $55K), more congestion of vehicles, more use of sewer/septic, garbage disposal, possibly snow removal, police/fire/rescue services … take the windmill, it contributes rather than takes.”
“G.M.” responds, “Anon, Could not have explained it better. Mixed use is not only for buildings; this is a PERFECT way to get energy, keep revenue coming and not impact the bottom line. Take the windmill!”
Hamilton then responds to her own comment under the name “Martie W.”: “There is grant money all ready for that open space. The town got it before and did not use it yet, I think. Let’s at least explore it so we don’t get hit with more condos!”
The town administrator responded once more to her own comment under the name “Jimmy,” asking the public: “If the Town is the lease owner, doesn’t the town get the $40,000 or more per year?”
It was when the topic jumped to the School Committee that Hamilton said she felt the need to steer conversation back to the subject of the article.
But according to the comment archives, her response under the name “Jeff H.” to the referenced School Committee comment was: “School Committee? I have heard they are going to cut sports, AP and music no matter what! It’s unbelievable that they would punish the kids because they are unwilling to look at where they can cut from their budget first. Raises for them and not the kids? What a political game and a shame!”
The Breeze attempted to contact the others who participated in the discussion concerning the wind turbine. Six of those attempts bounced back under a “mail system error” message, noting several of the e-mail addresses were “invalid recipients,” or fake.
Town Planner Robert Ericson said The Valley Breeze comments forum, in some ways, leads to abuse of the anonymity privilege and “the spread of misinformation” in the way that it’s structured. He said there were times when he felt like commenting on the Web site to correct others when it comes to town issues, but said he stays out of the comment boxes.
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