LWV Observers offering opinions on local issues: I like it. However…

League of Women Voters Northfield-Cannon Falls

In a comment thread discussion last week about the EDA and the City Council, Victor Summa referenced a recent council work session report by League of Women Voters Northfield-Cannon Falls (LWVNCF) Observer Jane McWilliams:

If you’re interested in a point of view on this subject, you might visit the League of Women Voters Observer Reports. Jane McWilliams covers the UN-events of the Council/Clough discussions, the meeting of sorts of the EDA and the Council and in her recent post adds an informed comment on her personal perspective.

Here’s an excerpt of Jane’s comments:

After Tom Cough’s interviews with council and EDA, in April he and City Administrator Tim Madigan recommended a series of steps for the council. Rather than take the radical approach evolving in tonight’s discussion, which will further delay effective attention to economic development during the transition, in this observer’s view, council would have been wise to adopt those recommendations on April 5:

Should the LVW Observers be commenting? Patrick Enders noted in the EDA discussion:

I remember when the LWV used to sponsor Presidential debates, and as a kid, I thought of the League as a neutral arbiter and provider of information. As an adult, I’m not quite clear how the League’s non-partisan “education” role is reconciled with it’s “advocacy” role.

I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that the purpose of the LWV logs of meetings and sessions is primarily dedicated toward the “informed voter” mission. But what about the comments? Are these part of the “advocacy” mission? Are they only the opinions of the observer themselves? Does the presence of these comments imply a position by the League?

It all seems a bit muddied to me.

Their Mission (from the LWVNCF About Page) says:

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.

We don’t support or oppose candidates.

  • We support issues.
  • We support legislation.
  • We focus on the future by tuning in to issues that affect us all.
  • We shape public policy.

I really like it that the Observers are opinionating. (LWVNCF observers have been doing these occasional middle-of-the-report commentaries for many months but I’d forgotten about it.) As citizen volunteers with months (years?) of observing public bodies, they’re well-informed about the issues and the players. They surely have their biases but by being more transparent about their positions, we can all benefit, whether or not we agree.

I think the format for Observers’ commentary is problematic. Yes, their comments are embedded in the reports in bold or italics but without a separate blog post or attached comment with an associated permalink, I can’t easily link to them, subscribe to them, forward them, or tweet them. The format is not social-media friendly.

Moreover, the format presumes that reading the report first is the best way to engage the reader. It’s like school: Class, read this article and then we’ll discuss it. I prefer the salon approach: Let’s have some juicy conversation about this issue first and then some of us might be inspired to do some background reading about it.

Also, the League’s own Observers don’t seem to be getting the hang of the discussion format. Northfield Hospital Board Observer Dave Emery’s May 26 report has a comment by fellow Observer Jane McWilliams attached it to it but there’s no response from Dave. Other examples of a single comment but no reply are here, here, and here.

Looking at the League’s website at the top level where the reports (blog posts) are visible, it’s not evident that there’s A) commentary happening; or B) discussion happening. When viewing the same content with the blog view, one has to look very carefully after each post summary to see if there are comments (e.g., "View comments (1)"). It would help to have a Recent Comments widget in the sidebar of the site to make the discussions more obvious. It would also help to have 1) an RSS feed for the comments; and 2) permalinks for each comment.

My techie quibbles are minor, though.  Again, I’m happy to see the opinions by Observers and will be paying more close attention to them from now on.


  1. kiffi summa said:

    griff: as one of the observers, I very much agree with your comments here,and as the LWV website continues to develop, I hope some of your comments will be evaluated for incorporation.

    To comment on the nature of the observer’s personal observations, at this point it is only agreed to that the observers may make comments that may be considered by some to be editorializing, but the observers’ goal is to provide more understanding of a complex situation than is provided by the basic reporting, or in some instances to raise a question that the observer feels needs to be asked.

    The observers have been granted this privilege after some lengthy discussion by the LWV Board.

    June 23, 2011
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks for the background, Kiffi. Has it been discussed whether the Observers could put their comments in a separate blog post? That alone would help a great deal.

    June 24, 2011
  3. kiffi summa said:

    griff: at this time, my impression from the LWV Board is that there is not the human resource available to maintain a full discussion blog; the observer reports are still purposed to provide info to any public that is interested and to provide a bit more than the newspaper provides, including a bit of analysis.

    June 25, 2011
  4. Jane B McWilliams said:

    Patrick – many people are confused about how the League works. We have 2 functions, education and advocacy. The reports local observers post on our website are intended to report what happened at various public meetings. As the city observer, I try to write comprehensive and accurate accounts. This is information primarily for our members (or for anyone else who happens onto the web site). These aspire to fill the education side.
    Recently, observers were permitted to include commentary on what we observe. I can understand your confusion and admit these may not fulfill either function: education or advocacy. Instead, they are opinion pieces, reflecting not the League’s views, but those of the writer. In my case, my comments reflect my judgment about what I observe at city council meetings. Although there is provision for responses to the reports and comments, we don’t seem to attract any.

    June 29, 2011
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks for chiming in here, Jane.

    FYI, I’ve added the RSS feed of the LWV blog to our left sidebar so that the headlines from the 5 most recent blog posts get automatically aggregated there.

    June 29, 2011
  6. Jane McWilliams said:

    Griff – Thanks for giving the LWV observer reports more visibility.

    Re: the commentary format – How can a reader evaluate and respond to the observer comments without reading the report first? My comments evolve from my observations, in which I hope the reader can see the genesis of my comment. You’re right, no one “gets the hang of the discussion format” in the sense that, with the exception of my loyal colleague Kiffi S, no one comments on my comments, much less tells me that my reports are erroneous. Maybe no one else is reading them! I’m not aware that there have been comments from readers on the other observer’s reports, either. I read and appreciate them, as the school board, hospital board and county commissioners are rarely covered in print.
    The LWV site design has changed this spring, giving the observer reports more visibility, but I called your suggestions to our Prez, Bonnie Jean Flom.
    In any case, I just filed my last report for this spring – Kiffi will take over and I’ll eagerly read her posts from Maine. Who knows, I may even comment on her comments!

    June 29, 2011

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