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Revision: The "New" New TT Column:

In early March, I discovered a veritable gold mine of news and information about Central Louisiana, a weblog that calls itself "Cenla Antics." A weblog or "blog" is essentially an online message board, typically constructed around a certain theme. In the case of Cenla Antics, people are encouraged to contribute anonymously. The title page reads, "Welcome to the Central Louisiana political revelations blog! Good or bad, Democrat, Republican, or Independent... all of the information we as concerned citizens need to know. One way to get it off your chest-- Anonymously!"

I recognize the benefits of posting your opinion anonymously. Cenla Antics currently has around 2,700 anonymously contributed entries. In many cases, anonymity allows people to reveal much more information than they normally would or could. Indeed, Cenla Antics is undoubtedly heavily populated with government employees and local government officials, and often, the information they reveal is sensitive. Anonymity allows them to ability to inform the public without jeopardizing their job. However, there are also numerous problems with this anonymous content. Much of it is petty, unsubstantiated, and mean-spirited gossip. There are also several instances of blatant political maneuvering and misinformation spun as fact.

After reading some particularly vicious and patently false statements about a certain local government official, I decided to address the Cenla Antics community. In doing so, I purposely broke the golden rule: I used my real name. Within an hour, responses began pouring in. The first response was from former City Councilman Rick Ranson, who also decided to break the rules and use his real name. Immediately, I realized that this blog is monitored by more people than I thought it was, and no doubt, many people in government use the blog as a legitimate source of information.

Throughout the next few days, I received a number of e-mails encouraging me to continue openly expressing my opinion. I also received an equal number of letters warning me about the perils of public exposure. I needed to consider my family, they said, and my business. People can be ruthless, especially when they're hiding under the cover of anonymity. There is no need to rehash some of the most egregious comments I received, but suffice it to say, Central Louisiana politics can be very volatile. Thankfully, I have learned to develop a thick skin, and I understand that personal attacks are the weapons of the pathetic. But the entire experience taught me something about Central Louisiana politics: It's much more entertaining when the real issue is obscured by gossip, innuendo, and long-winded rants on racism, religion, and morality. We hardly allow ourselves the opportunity to discuss and engage the real issues, because we're either too distracted by personal politics or too hung-up debating issues of which we have very little control.

Last week, in an interview with The Town Talk, Martin Johnson said that our community needs "unity." Unity isn't just an abstraction or a hollow rhetorical device; it's real. Alexandria must look itself in the mirror, because we're currently suffering from an identity crisis.

Many people in our community have a tendency to separate issues along racial lines and political party lines. This, I believe, is a dangerously reductionistic worldview, and it hinders any progress that we could make. Alexandria is not just black and white, Republican and Democrat, Protestant and Catholic. We're quickly becoming a very diverse community, and although some people may not like this concept, it's a foregone conclusion. If you're not comfortable living around people of a different skin color or a different religious faith, you probably shouldn't be living in a city of over 50,000 people. At the same time, if politicians continue to rely on racially-charged rhetoric as a way of "bringing people together," then we're likely to be even more divided in the future.

I have this dream of real leadership in Alexandria. This is what it looks like: An intelligent, thoughtful mayor who understands how to build consensus and set realistic priorities (We may never realize how incredibly fortunate we were to have Mayor Randolph, an Ivy-League educated lawyer, at our city's helm for so many years) and a City Council who is in business for the city, not for themselves. One possible solution to the conflicts of interest that continually plague members of our City Council is to make the position a full-time job. We're currently spending hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring outside consultants to do the research and the work that our City Council could perform if its members weren't beholden to their own personal business interests. Often, these consultants (in whatever form they may take) are business partners, relatives, or friends of Council members, and it's difficult for the public to accept that the Council is always fair with their determination of the best available candidate. Those of us who are paying close attention know that members of our Council, through both official and unofficial channels, have repeatedly appointed and nominated unqualified individuals into positions of importance. It's critical to note that this isn't anything new, and frankly, it has little to do with the individual members of the Council. The problem is with the way our government is organized.

I hope that every reader of The Town Talk will visit the Cenla Antics blog, located at cenlaantics.blogspot.com. Readers should also be aware of another Cenla political blog, Cenla Rambler, located at cenlarambler.blogspot.com . This is an election year, and it must be the responsibility of every citizen to stay informed of the issues. We must pay close attention to the daily news; sometimes the small decisions that are buried in the news end up making a huge impact on our daily lives. We must demand a real, substantive conversation about this election. We must hold our public officials accountable for their mistakes, and we must commend them for their accomplishments. We must recognize and embrace our diversity as a community, and we must reject any suggestion that our city "should" be run by a particular race. We must look forward to our future, and we must learn from the mistakes of our past. Finally, we must realize that Alexandria is not the quaint, small community that it once was and that any attempt to "return" to this era is ultimately futile. Alexandria is growing and expanding, and for this reason, we need intelligent, ethical, and compassionate leadership. We need individuals who are driven to serve because they want to improve their community, not their own bankroll. The best way to bring about unity, I believe, is by discussing our differences in an honest way. Let's take that first step.