Digital Democracy

Eau Claire locals to launch online town hall forum

Eric Larson, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

In September, Eau Claire will be able to log in to and participate in an “online town hall.” Above: An informational booth for the forum at Phoenix Park.
In September, Eau Claire will be able to log in to and participate in an “online town hall.” Above: An informational booth for the forum at Phoenix Park.

In 17th century New England, town hall meetings served as America’s earliest forms of direct democracy. Community members would assemble to throw their two cents in about local issues, whether they were political, land-related, or legal – anything flew.

Thoreau, during his 1854 speech “Slavery in Massachusetts,” even referred to the democratic meetings as “true Congress” – and the concept of using constructive conversation to aid in collective decision making has since stuck.

The typical American lifestyle has certainly changed. Powdered wigs don’t have nearly as much respect, and – more relevantly – finding a meeting time to match busy schedules has proved an increasing hassle. But thanks to the Internet, town hall meetings are no longer restricted to Tuesday night gatherings in the church basement after soccer practice.

Starting in September, the Eau Claire community will now be able to log in to, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization, and participate in an “online town hall” from any location, at any time.

“This is really a great way to promote civic engagement,” says City Manager Mike Huggins. “There’s been a lot of discussion here in the past four or five years, and this will be a good way to network discussions on what’s happening in the community.”

Since its origin in Minneapolis in 1994, E-Democracy has spread across the nation and globe. The concept is easy: Community members can register through the site (for free) and must provide their own name. Once the forum opens, it becomes an ongoing thread for members to post topics, ideas, or issues. Then, discussion kicks in.

Huggins says the official forum for Eau Claire will launch in September. At the moment, he says, upwards of 80 members are already registered. “An online venue for people to chat and share information is just what this community needs,” he says. “You can think of it like Racy’s online.”

THis is what E-Democracy looks like.
This is what E-Democracy looks like.

Civically active resident Ken Fulgione, who has been responsible for the forum’s word-of-mouth marketing thus far, will serve as the moderator of the discussions. “(The job) is to basically make sure conversations don’t get out of hand,” Fulgione says. “If those things occur, it’s my job to get a hold of the party and remind them of the civility we’re attempting to do here. ... It’s really just to remind people that this is a civil conversation about local events.”

Fulgione says he admires that participants must share their real names. In comparison to mainstream news sites where users can comment in anonymity, Fulgione believes being able to identify those involved will create a better sense of community.

“It’s important to put your name behind what you say. If you’re behind a curtain, insults can come out, and that forces people to back out of the conversation. We don’t want that,” he says.     
Fulgione says the forum has fared well in other communities, and views the already-large number of registers as a sign that people are interested – and, hopefully, stay interested. 

“Any kind of issue that’s brought up, we’re hoping to keep it local. We’re hoping to get board members or council people present so they can see these conversations,” he says. “And if it’s political, then that’s a chance for the people to voice their opinions and really be heard, right then and there.
“There’s also hope that organizational things will spin off of that – that people will find a commonality and form groups,” he continues. “Or, they could find out that groups are out there that they may want to join, and this will give them the chance to join something they didn’t know was already out there.”

The forum is scheduled to launch after Labor Day. If you’re interested in participating, or would like more info, visit