Online commentary heating up Cape’s election season
Dueling websites, and political ideologies, have begun to clash as the 2011 election season gets under way, with at least one post becoming a lightning rod of controversy this week.
Community Redevelopment Agency Board member Jim Martin has relaunched a website that previously promoted his Cape Coral City Council campaign and others during the last municipal election cycle. This week two posts took aim at Oasis Middle School teacher Dave Montrose, a frequent critic of those who ran on a similar platform with Martin two years ago.
The most controversial post on “Grass Roots Daily News” featured a photo of Montrose’s then-infant daughter sitting across a table on an adult lap. In the right foreground, an out-of-focus beer bottle is partially in view. The post, which was listed as an editorial, asked whether Montrose -also a political blogger who operates “Spotlight on Cape Coral” – was abusing his now 14-month-old daughter by exposing her alcohol.
The post, entitled “Does Charter School Teacher Give Beer to His Child?,” also asked whether Montrose is a proper example in his classroom at the city operated school, and whether Montrose and his wife, Jessica, should be investigated by the Department of Children and Families.
Martin said Tuesday that he did not write the post. He declined to divulge the name of the person who did.
He said the website was “open” and anyone could create an account and begin writing. He added that the purpose of the site is to counter the efforts of “Spotlight on Cape Coral” and another, “Get Out and Vote … Take Back the Cape”, both of which he says have been critical of the current administration.
Martin said he was not worried about whether statements such as those concerning the Montrose family could be construed as libelous, and that as the site’s publisher and administrator he had vetted the “editorial” in question.
“Anything I put in there I will make doggone sure it can be backed up by facts,” Martin said.
Montrose has posted stories on “Spotlight” that have been critical of Councilmember Bill Deile – “The Daily Deile” – and City Manager Gary King – “The Case for Dethroning the King.”
Shortly after being appointed city manager, King had appointed Martin as one of two consultants to aid his administration. Martin and Deile, who is seeking re-election, have been political allies with Deile providing a link on his re-election site to the new Grassroots site.
Montrose said Wednesday he and his wife Jessica have consulted with an attorney on the post but don’t plan to pursue any legal action at this time.
He also said he plans on halting “The Daily Deile” posts for the time being.
Montrose added that the photograph in question was taken a year ago and the beer bottle belonged to a family friend with whom the Montroses were having dinner. Hannah was only a month old in the photo, which had been posted as a facebook profile picture for a day or two shortly after it was taken.
Montrose said he has talked with Charter School Administrator Lee Bush and Bush informed him his role as a blogger was still within the system’s guidelines as long as he did not defame any member of the school board.
Montrose added he does not feel he is misleading his students as mentioned in the “Grass Roots” post.
“Any parent who has had their kids in my class know its not my way,” he said.
“Grass Roots Daily News” in its original form touted the campaigns of not only Martin, but Mayor John Sullivan, Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz and John Cataldi, who was not elected.
The website lay dormant but has been revived by Martin, who wrote on the site that his efforts are to support the work of City Manager Gary King. Martin was hired by King last year to work as a consultant for three months at $39 an hour. Martin’s work eventually led to three areas of the Public Works department being outsourced by a council majority.
Martin also announced on the site he has launched a “socio-political club” under the same name as the website and procured office space on Country Club Boulevard for those means.
Martin said he does not personally know Dave Montrose or the Montrose family and has only seen him at city council meetings.
He said the writer of the post that was critical of Montrose took exception with “Spotlight on Cape Coral,” particularly those items that have painted the city manager, or members of council, negatively.
He’s simply trying to counter those efforts, Martin said, with the efforts of the new “Grass Roots Daily News.”
“It’s to provide a counter balance,” Martin added. “I’m not attacking anyone. It’s a response type situation.”
The post, which drew more than 100 mostly critical comments on at least two on-line forums, appeared on the site through the week and most of Friday. By early evening on Friday, however, the post, could not be found on the site.
A phone call to Martin was not returned by press time and it could not be determined if the post, and a second one concerning Montrose, had been removed or deleted.
Eileyn Sobeck-Bador, administrator for “Get out and Vote … Take Back the Cape”, defended her efforts on facebook, saying that site is not aimed at attacking any of the elected officials, or, especially, their families.
While posters on that page might go off topic once in a while, she said, as an administrator she always brings the subject back to what the focus should be, which is getting people out to vote.
“We don’t post defaming pictures or comment on people’s family members,” she said. “We check our facts and if we post something in error we take it down immediately.”
On-line sites have no special protection against defamation, if comments posted or vetted by administrators cross the line.
Tampa based attorney Jim McGuire, who acts as outside council for the Florida Press Association and works on First Amendment Law, thought an attorney who focused on defamation cases wouldn’t have too much difficulty proving in court that the post featuring the baby’s photo and related commentary concerning the Montrose family was defamatory.
While participating in local politics often opens individuals to scrutiny, the post questioning Montrose’s efforts as a teacher and parent was beyond the bounds of the political arena.
“When you participate in politics you open yourself up but to me this doesn’t have much to do with politics,” McGuire said. “It’s a personal attack and a trumped up personal attack at that.”
The manner in which the post was written, McGuire said, was an attempt to couch the comments by using a series of rhetorical questions. And while a libel lawsuit is both lengthy and costly, McGuire said the Montroses would likely defeat any motion to dismiss.
“If I was an attorney that dealt with libel and defamation cases, I don’t think I would have a hard time proving this was defamatory,” McGuire said.
Meanwhile, Charter School Administrator Dr. Lee Bush said he has consulted with the city attorney’s office and they concurred that Montrose has been working within the boundaries of the Charter School policies in his role as a political blogger.
Since the publication of the post on “Grass Roots Daily News,” Bush said he’s received only support for Montrose. Bush said he has received two calls from local elected officials, whom he declined to name. One was in support of Montrose, and the other was critical of Bush’s judgement.
Bush also said he has seen no evidence to conclude that Montrose is a bad influence in his classroom.
“We have not received one complaint from parents of his students or his students,” Bush said.
Cape Coral City Councilmember Kevin McGrail said the post on “Grassroots” was “despicable”, but he also hoped that the political jabs would not play themselves out in city council chambers and be kept on blog and in letters to the editor.
“I’m sincerely hoping this doesn’t spiral out of control,” McGrail said. “I don’t want anyone campaigning from the dais or from the podium during public comment.”