Years back I’d have some fun with River Forest, calling it Sleepy Hollow (no, not a reference to the current FOX television show), because nothing much ever happened. And if something did happen, any dirty business was cleaned up within the Service Club or at the country club. Certainly never was heard a discouraging word from the significant locals in the pages of this newspaper. Would have been untoward.

Now, as potentially we wrap up three years of clawing and scratching related to, of all things, a minor redo of the exterior spaces at Roosevelt Middle School, I think of River Forest as more of a Peyton Place (yes, you could look it up) or, in a more modern reference, Wisteria Lane.

In other words, what was this insane, overtly personal, endless battle about? Couldn’t have simply been about a few parking spaces, an outdoor “classroom” for students, some previously unknown grudge match between the contiguous library and public school. Could it?

About 18 months ago, I had a call from a woman I know a bit in River Forest and she was scolding me for stoking this fight with our ongoing reporting. We must love this, it must be good for web traffic, etc. 

My response was that our reporter was simply assigned to cover public meetings and was writing down what people said. We weren’t making up the quotes, hiring lawyers, FOIAing ancient public documents. 

We were just writing down the things people said and publishing them. I also told her I could not make heads nor tails of why this disagreement about a one-way street and drop-off circles had come to represent something, at least for some people, elemental in their sense of their hometown.

Baffled me then. Baffles me now.

Over four days last week and into the weekend I was in Baltimore at the annual conference of the Parenting Media Association. Wednesday Journal, among other things, publishes Chicago Parent magazine and I’m happy to report that our efforts were honored with the General Excellence award among nearly 20 prizes we received. 

But at that remove I still managed to check in morning and night on the comments at OakPark.com where I am a fairly obsessive observer. So I watched as the thread grew in length and intensity on a simple candidate profile for Patty Henek, a candidate for the village board in next month’s election. 

Since Henek was a player in the Roosevelt School contretemps it is not a shock that her run for the village board is getting more attention than some other folks. 

First came the critical comments about Henek, then the Henek supporters jumped in, then the entire thread shifted gears as a candidate forum intervened and perceived winners and losers were glorified and vilified.

From 703 miles away, this was like watching a 50-car pileup on an icy road. No serious injuries, but no one walks away with their anonymous personas unblemished. 

On Monday morning I asked our IT guy to look at the thread and see how many people actually contributed, in their oh-so-clever disguises, to this conversation. Out of maybe 100 posts, 36 came from a single IP address; a total of about 60 comments came from four IP addresses. 

So our rabid, unkind, largely ill-informed and mostly anonymous conversation was actually more of a screed by a few malcontents with time on their hands.

That’s why we turned off the comments on the thread on Monday and why, between at least now and the election in April, we are switching to a Facebook Verified system of comments for OakPark.com. This is a step I take with regret because I had higher hopes, perhaps naïve hopes, for our ability to have wide open, fair-minded discussions. 

Too often that has not been the case and so we will experiment with this different approach over, at least, the next month.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...

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