That's what Darden Copeland, the man behind the fury over the fairgrounds, told me when I asked him — during a recent and wide-ranging interview — what he thought of being Public Enemy No. 1 of Mayor Karl Dean's office. It's hard to argue that he didn't knock said hat off. But handing it back to them?
It's difficult to tell a complex and contentious story like the fairgrounds debacle in full relief while it's happening. You can follow the players and the votes, but the whole picture rarely emerges until both sides have had some time to step off.
That's what we did with this piece, which provides a new context in which to consider what happened with the fairgrounds: Who wanted what, why did it explode the way it did, and who was getting paid to make it so?
As you'll read, one of the major lessons from the fairgrounds — both for elected officials and the public in general — is that we seem to be in a new era of public relations (some would say manipulation) where "grassroots" support and/or opposition is not the pure imposed will of the citizenry but a highly advanced and calculated political movement arranged for a specific purpose and — perhaps this is the kicker — paid for by a single, powerful and monied interest. Here's Copeland's take:
“I think the days of hiring the lobbyist to go meet with the mayor and the city council, while it can be effective, it sometimes doesn’t carry the day. I think you need to add an additional layer there to engage the local citizens. Same thing with PR: There’s always going to be a place for the PR firm that writes the press release about the new bank opening, and the mayor’s going to be there for the ribbon-cutting, and that’s helpful. But typical PR, just straight PR, doesn’t work on an issue like the fairgrounds issue. You’ve got to have active citizen engagement.”
And here's how we characterize the counter-argument in today's story:
But the power of social media is supposed to be with the user, not someone who is paid to manipulate the user. Regardless of whether a user would naturally find himself sympathetic to Copeland's client, the fact remains that Copeland has created a channel for that user's opinion — perhaps with a simple follow-up request to attend a community meeting, say, or to show up at the Courthouse for the final vote on the future of the fairgrounds property. It's like labeling chickens "free range" after you've herded them onto a farm, kept them in a warehouse of small cages and then run them down a chute.
At most, the story is a weird Robert Ludlum kind of mystery tour through the backchannels of a local campaign nobody fully understood until now. At least, maybe it's a conversation starter for what it really means to be an active citizen.