County promotes online petition

A Florida county's government officials, upset with the environmental and

health toll they claims phosphate mining has on the area, are using the

county Web site to collect signatures from citizens against mining.

While online petitions have been a staple among advocacy groups such

as student and neighborhood associations, a government soliciting online

signatures is notable, according to several experts in electronic democracy.

"U.S. governments are a couple years behind on using the Internet for

citizen participation, with our focus on services and less on democracy,"

said Steve Clift, chairman of Minnesota E-Democracy, a non-profit group

dedicated to promoting democratic action online. He says most similar cases

he's heard about are outside the United States.

Three weeks after the petition went online, more than 1,700 signatures

appeared on the Charlotte County Web site (www.charlottecountyfl.com). The

petitioners are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an environmental

impact study on phosphate mining.

Petitioners must submit their name, e-mail address, home address, city,

state and zip code. Comments are optional. When the petition is signed,

e-mail letters are automatically generated and sent to 14 individuals, including

Gov. Jeb Bush, both U.S senators and two House representatives, as well

as other federal, state, and county officials. "We made it easy for our

citizens to speak out," said Tuleta Copeland, a county community outreach

specialist, who helped develop the online petition. "You've got this technology

right at your hands. Putting it to good use, that's the beauty of it."

She said the county, 70 miles south of Tampa Bay and with a population

of 136,000, has also circulated hard copy petitions in the area's five libraries,

which she then inputs electronically. She said she hasn't heard yet from

any of the officials receiving the e-mailed petitions.

Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said she hasn't heard about the phosphate

issue, but said e-mails sent to the governor are distributed to different

policy units. She said Bush himself answers about 150 to 200 e-mails a day,

but the administration receives hundreds of thousands of them. With an organized

e-mail campaign, the administration does respond after a certain time frame,

she said.

Copeland said county officials hope other counties would join the online

petition.

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