An open letter to Lesley Blackner

November 1, 2010

An open letter to Lesley Blackner:

I recently launched a website – – dedicated to fostering honorable democratic discourse. I’ve decided to dedicate it to you and to the voting citizens of Florida. That website is my response to the Hometown Democracy initiative you spearheaded.

Several months ago, when I first heard of Amendment 4, I was intrigued by the idea of voter oversight as a remedy to the epidemic of corruption in Florida politics. I also had some reservations. I doubted that most Florida citizens are as informed and attentive as they would need to be for this level of democracy to succeed. Moreover, government officials and the news media do a woefully poor job of providing the information and access that citizens require.  My initial reaction was that Amendment 4 would only replace one broken system with another, and that a more sensible approach would be to revitalize representative democracy.

Nevertheless, it seemed to me that if Amendment 4 passed, the aftermath would spark urgent demand for better reporting and debate tools at the local level. That motivated the project that I have dedicated to you.


I was  particularly fascinated by the Hometown Democracy campaign because I’ve devoted quite a bit of time to the challenge of “Building better tools for better democracies.” I’m a computer programmer by trade, but I also have a deep grounding in political theory, including a Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Miami.

Nearly four years ago, I decided to apply myself to creating a truly fair and useful online townhall system. A big part of the challenge is simply to show what interactive consensus-building tools might look like. My first project was an online ranked choice/instant runoff straw poll system (here). I was recently preparing to undertake a smart-phone based, interactive crowdsourcing project, but I put it aside in favor of preparing for the aftermath of an Amendment 4 victory.

The initial plan – named Hometown Logic – was to create an online venue in which citizens could find and debate information relevant to comprehensive plan changes.  My enthusiasm for that idea fed an optimistic confidence that I could create an even broader kind of debate site.

The re-conceptualized, re-branded idea wasn’t completed in time to become a factor in the 2010 election, but I’m certain that will always be a need for these kinds of tools. For the long run, my hope is that there will also be a growing, explicit demand for them.

The result – – is “hosted” by a mascot named Homie the Debater Gator. The site is essentially a prototype for a Twitter-based discourse and debate tool. It displays side-by-side “Homestreams” for contenders in a political race. Its key innovation is Gator Grammar… an extension of familiar Twitter tagging conventions. Those extensions are designed to foster productive discussions among supporters of competing propositions or candidates, as well as productive discussions between opponents.

Gator Debater falls far short of its intended purpose, which is not surprising. My resources are limited. Plus, though Twitter is fashionable, its spectrum is narrow and over-constrained. An engaged modern citizenry needs a far richer and more robust venue for democratic discourse. This is simply a sincere step toward that end.

Along the way, you’ll probably be happy to learn, I changed my mind about Amendment 4 and decided to vote for it. After witnessing the shameless lies and the blatant fear mongering of the anti-4 campaign, I concluded that a vote to perpetuate the status quo would be a vote to perpetuate the current culture of boom-and-bust corruption.


During one the debates before this election you said, “In the face of Amendment 4, our opponents offer nothing.” I deeply respect and admire the efforts of you and others to light candles rather than curse the darkness. It’s become all too clear that there are many people who will race to put out those candles because darkness allows them a free hand to do all they wish.

However, please keep in mind that I was once an opponent. began as my attempt to offer a useful response rather than a partisan protest. If it had been up to me, the time and money spent fighting over this amendment would have been put to better use if both sides had pooled their resources and collaborated in an honest effort to fix the current process.

As it turns out, the biggest challenge of building a successful venue for democratic discourse is not the challenge of building gizmos and gadgets. The ultimate challenge is getting people to truly appreciate the extent to which we’re all in this together. Once they get that, I believe, respect for honest collaboration will logically follow.

That, finally, is why I decided to dedicate GatorDebater first of all to you, Lesley Blackner. You clearly had faith that everyday people could rise to the responsibilities of democracy. That is a faith worth honoring.

One Response to “An open letter to Lesley Blackner”

  1. Mr Simon,
    Your ideas about moving debates and issues to a townhall approach is interesting and may well be worthwhile as we move foward with the internet being the primary tool for learning and communicating with the masses.

    I have worked as a volunteer for the Hometown Democracy campaign for quite some time. I have debated and presented to thousands of people in the Tampa Bay region.

    The bottom line is that if Amendment 4 passes, we won’t have many privately initiated plan changes to worry about. The developers will end up following the existing plans instead of running the risk of garnering voter approval.

    If/when they follow the plans we will be so much better off. Remember, you don’t need to change a growth plan to build. The opposition has continued to misinform the public by tying voter approval to stopping the ability to grow, which is absolutely false.

    Some comments about the open letter:
    Some do take issue with involving the average citizen in the decision making process, as well as, question whether the voter will spend the time or have the expertise to make an important land use decision. When that concern is raised I answer by saying that the politicians making the decisions rarely have any technical planning experience. The process today is totally political, so I’d rather trust my neighbors that have different goals (quality of life vs. quid pro quo between politicians & developers) than the elected officials.

    Someday I expect we will be doing real-time voting on critical issues. It only makes sense. And I don’t mean using it for most decisions, but it could be invaluable in specific instances.

    Thanks for exploring this area.
    George Niemann