Facebook group gives Wauconda residents a voice
Wauconda residents and business owners who are concerned about decisions being made at village hall have turned to social media to vent their frustrations and build a grass-roots political movement.
With more than 400 members, the "Of Wauconda For Wauconda" Facebook group has become a popular way for locals to commiserate about village affairs, particularly the actions of Mayor Frank Bart.
Bart's ouster of Police Chief Douglas Larsson has been a regular subject of conversation there.
But members also are encouraged to chat about the things they love about Wauconda and to talk up public events in town, creating a mix of protest and promotion.
"(It is) sort of an invitation for others to not only stay informed, but to get involved and take more ownership of what is happening in our community," organizer Irene Colson Ducharme explained in an email.
Bart said he supports the members exercising their First Amendment free-speech rights. But he was dismissive of the group, calling it "an extension of the April election campaign."
Although some critics may see political Facebook groups as opportunities for gadflies to complain about politicians they dislike, proponents see the efforts as opportunities to build community involvement.
Facebook groups that focus on local political or community issues have sprung up in Cary, Libertyville and other suburbs, too.
Politicians and candidates have been spreading their messages on the Internet and social media for years. Activists and grass-roots organizers began following suit in the last two or three years, said Collin Corbett, founder of a Palatine-based political consulting firm called Cor Strategies.
"I think we've seen an explosion of (political) Facebook groups and fan pages of all shapes and sizes," said Corbett, a social-media enthusiast whose clients have included Lake County Circuit Court Clerk Keith Brin and Barrington Hills Village President Marty McLaughlin.
Ducharme and some like-minded friends decided to put together the "Of Wauconda" page in early June to keep people informed about events and issues in the village, which has more than 13,000 residents. It can be found online at facebook.com/groups/OfWaucondaForWauconda.
They chose a Facebook group over a traditional Facebook page because the format allows people to more easily add information, craft invitations to meetings or perform other communal activities, Ducharme said.
"This is the modern way to spread news," said Ducharme, 49, a special-education teacher who also leads Wauconda Park District programs and coaches the Wauconda High School Scholastic Bowl team.
A line at the top of the group's page describes the gathering as "a nonpartisan group advocating Wauconda citizen involvement and knowledge." Meeting attendance, volunteering and communication are encouraged.
"We are calling people to positive action," Ducharme said.
Although there are exceptions, the remarks on the Facebook page generally are more civil than those found at many of the online political forums and blogs that have popped up in recent years. Group members must use their Facebook identities, lessening the opportunity for anonymous bad behavior.
That accountability is good for the group, Corbett said. Preventing anonymous politician-bashing should keep the group's message positive and on point.
"They're smart to do that," he said.
Even so, Bart is a primary focus of the group's attention -- and its ire. His move to dump Larsson was particularly odious to the members, some of whom have been involved with a "keep the chief" campaign.
Members also have complained on the page about Bart's approach to public relations and other personnel moves he's made since taking office in May.
Wauconda-area resident and business owner Maria Weisbruch has been a fixture at board meetings since Bart was elected, and she was one of the Facebook group's earliest members. By giving people a forum to speak out and stay informed, she said, "we are assisting his efforts to be a good mayor."
Bart doesn't see it that way.
Calling the group's founders "opposition supporters," he referred to some of the early comments on the page as "extreme and even hateful commentary."
"I believe that utilizing social media can be a good means of communication," Bart said. "However, I think it needs to be done in a productive way that is factual and not based on gossip or speculative information."
Bart's got a point. Group members have speculated about some village issues, including the mysterious departure of ex-Village Administrator Zaida Torres from village hall late last month.
Additionally, some members, including Ducharme, have heckled officials at public meetings. Ducharme regularly films meetings with her smartphone, too, and she can be heard on the videos -- some of which are available on the Facebook group -- making critical comments for viewers.
Ducharme denies she and her allies in the group are trying to be adversarial on the Facebook page.
"Based on some of the actions of the current administration, we have ... a contingent of people who want to watch and be there to ensure accountability," she said. "How can you expect answers if you are not there to ask the questions?"
The group's conversations aren't limited to local politics.
Events like last weekend's Blues, Brew and Burger Fest have been promoted on the page, as have some volunteer efforts, a police department bicycle safety campaign and a Wauconda High fundraiser.
"One day, we invited everyone in the group to post a link to their favorite organization," Ducharme said. "I hope it encourages new members to join up and join in."
Village Trustee Chuck Black is a fan of the "Of Wauconda" group. He joined after a neighbor told him about it.
Although Black hasn't posted anything there, he regularly reads the comments.
"I think it's a great way to read the pulse of what's going on and what people are thinking," he said.
Of other community-driven Facebook groups in the suburbs, one in Cary closely resembles Wauconda's.
There, a group called "District 26 Parents With a Voice!!!!" consists of people who share concerns about their local schools.
Although not an avid social media user, Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz likes the concept of the Wauconda group. Increased public conversation about local government and community involvement "can only be a good thing," he said.
To that end, Mundelein officials are looking to hire a communications and marketing director to oversee social media for the village, Lentz said.
"We want to be at the cutting edge of that," he said.
Lentz isn't concerned that such Facebook pages or groups could be dominated by constant critics, as often is the case in the political blogosphere. Criticism from the public is the price of getting more people involved in politics, he said.
Additionally, people who are overwhelmingly negative in online forums lose credibility after a while, Lentz said.
"People catch on and begin to tune them out," he said.
When asked about her goals for "Of Wauconda For Wauconda," Ducharme said she'd like to see more people become involved in the community and local politics.
"I guess a dream accomplishment for me would be to grow this group so big that everyone in Wauconda joins, (and) that they all get involved and volunteer for things," she said.
Ducharme also hopes the growing community interest leads to greater turnout for elections.
"Wouldn't Wauconda set a great example for other communities?" she said.