No Crap, Sherlock

In seemingly perfect Weston, an unofficial Website stirs up trouble

Weston shows the bucolic benefits of corporate-sponsored communality. The presence of Arvida, the city's main developer, is evident everywhere: the muted luxury of the homes, the carefully trimmed hedges, and the tidy appearance of nearly every street corner. The very welcome signs planted at the main entrances bear the logo "An Arvida Community" in three-inch-tall metal letters. Designers obviously mulled every detail before bricks were laid or the town voted to incorporate on September 3, 1996.

Along with Arvida's meticulous planning of the physical site in West Broward came a virtual Weston: an electronic town hall and discussion board called TownTalk.com, which the city shares with three other Arvida-planned communities in Florida: Southwood near Tallahassee, St. Johns Golf & Country Club near Jacksonville, and Victoria Park near Deland. It would appear a tribute to Arvida's pacifying influence that on TownTalk, there's hardly a whisper of dissent.

But a different Weston bubbles up on NotCrap.com, the freewheeling alternative to TownTalk set up by attorney Michael Klein. In NotCrap's Weston, kids poop in the public pools, politicians hog the spotlight, and residents bitterly debate Florida's schools.

Then there are complaints about the cops.

"Is our police chief insane? Has he lost his marbles? Does he have any management skills?

"At this present time 10 officers are hiding behind the barricades at Weston Hills Boulevard and Arvida Parkway sandbagging a portable "No left turn' sign they placed in the roadway prohibiting ANYONE from entering Weston Hills from Arvida Parkway. They have violators' cars lined up for two blocks waiting to receive citations. ARE THEY CRAZY!!!!! Ten friggin' officers!!!! Morons!!!!!! Instead of hiding behind the barricades like COWARDS all they need to do would be assign one officer to direct traffic so that the dozens of confused motorists would not fall into their TRAP!!!! BSO YOU ARE COWARDS AND CADS!!!! BSO needs to cram those pavers up their butts sideways. Why is our chief allowing this hick-town tactic? TEN COWARDLY OFFICERS pouncing on confused motorists, when BSO is causing the confusion."

So wrote "Michele" on the evening of October 16. Complaints quickly followed from a dozen other screen names, saying that police were hiding in the bushes and jumping out to ambush unwary motorists. Police brought water jugs and sandwiches to make a day of it, tying up traffic for hours, people wrote in to say.

Among the readers was Weston Commissioner Barbara Herrera-Hill. "As soon as I read that thread, I immediately contacted the city manager, who contacted the Broward Sheriff's Office, who contacted the chief of police here in Weston," she says. Deputies were there because drivers had ignored a flashing message board and signs, according to BSO spokeswoman Cheryl Stopnick. "Aside from a couple of apparently disgruntled people on the Website, we've had no complaints," Stopnick says.

By the time the police chief heard Herrera-Hill's complaint, the trap was gone. But people had their say, and Herrera-Hill listened. Elected to the Weston City Commission in March, Herrera-Hill credits NotCrap.com with spreading her name and views and giving her a peek inside voters' heads. In fact, she says the notoriety she gained from posting on NotCrap with playing a big role in her election.

Complaints aren't the only fare on NotCrap. Among the 5000 or so postings are discussion threads on the Taliban and lists of items for sale. Most of the 364 registered users have pseudonyms: Yogamom, Jungle Jim, Got milk?, ears of corn. Klein is sure that many NotCrap users have more than one screen name. "It could be 200 people. Some people think it's four," he laughs. And he's sure that lurkers -- who read others' notes but never post their own -- far outnumber registered users. On NotCrap, anyone can post anonymously, and not even Klein knows who they are.

That's just what Klein wanted when he set up the site. The 37-year-old got his inspiration from hardocp.com, a technology Website that started a technical discussion board that branched out into computer hardware reviews, political rants, and personal messages. Half a million posts later, "it's turned into a community of people who really care about each other," Klein says.

Klein was looking for a similar community when he; his wife, Karen; and their two daughters found a $200,000 house on a cul-de-sac in a gated community in Weston. In June 1998, they moved in and settled into a life that Klein loves. "I really never found anything wrong in Weston that I felt I needed to start a bulletin board for," he says. "But I wanted to find out more about what was going on in Weston." So he logged on to TownTalk and was quickly disappointed by what he considered to be an intrusive registration process. TownTalk requires its users to give Arvida their full names and addresses, home and work phones, and e-mail addresses. Klein figured that lack of privacy cut down on open debate.

Indeed, TownTalk doesn't have many users; fewer than two dozen posts have appeared on Weston's part of the site in the past two months, and the view counter shows that not many others have read them. Shirley Wilson, who oversees TownTalk.com for Arvida's marketing department, says the registration policy shouldn't be blamed for a lack of discussion. "I think that people are very comfortable with that," she says. As a marketing tool, she asserts, the purpose of TownTalk is to promote Arvida.

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