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Controversial election Web site hosts revealed

NORTH BEND - The authors of an anonymous Web site that stirred emotions for a two-week period prior to the general election last year and elicited potential legal action from a City Council member have come forward months after initially denying involvement.

Dale and Susan Sherman, Fall City residents who have vested business interests in North Bend, came forward on Feb. 14 via a posting on the Web site www.valleyghost.com.

"On Halloween, a few days before the election, we gave up the Ghost and went on to other things," the statement read. "In fact, since then we have been perfectly willing to let things die and calm down, and had no intention of bringing back the Ghost, even though many e-mails have asked the Ghost not to vaporize."

The Shermans, who denied involvement in the site when asked by the Valley Record in October, said their decision to come forward was prompted by possible litigation on behalf of North Bend City Councilman Chris Garcia. Running unopposed in the election, Garcia was the target of an Oct. 27 post on the Web site that contained two allegedly racist comments that prompted him to contact an attorney.

The Valley Ghost Web site first appeared on Oct. 17 during the home stretch of one of the most highly contested city campaign seasons in recent history.

In daily postings the "ghost" commented on the political situation, quickly labeling four of the candidates seeking office - including Mayor Ken Hearing and Councilman David Cook - "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

The ghost site maintained the comments were political satire and stood behind the work. Numerous posting reiterated the fact that the site was trying to present the Valley with a much needed alternative information outlet.

According to the Shermans the group hit a nerve as in just 15 days of operation the site received 5,445 hits.

"Considering that the Ghost was almost exclusively (due to time constraints) focused on North Bend politics, the frustration level people were feeling was impressive indeed," a post on the Web site stated.

In a guest editorial in the Feb. 11 edition of the Valley Record, Jack Webber, a former North Bend City Councilman, expressed his support for the Valley Ghost Web site.

"It provided an alternative medium (pun intended) for those who also disagreed," wrote Webber. "Some candidates and supporters felt slighted by the ghost, who chose to remain anonymous, even though the entire site was done with tongue-in-cheek humor."

North Bend resident Wanda Boe said she viewed the site as political satire, and not as a hate site. Boe said in addition to the postings done by the Shermans, the inclusion of e-mails from other residents informed voters on other issues, such as the proposed King County Fire District 38 ballot measure.

While supporters of the site hailed its efforts as innovative, others found the postings full of false information that was often hateful and offensive.

Opponents of the site protested its anonymity and use of doctored photos and narratives containing false information and accusations against those residents both running for office and not. Postings claimed that the "Four Horsemen" were essentially puppets for a longtime business owner in town and consistently attacked the four candidates.

Jonathan Rosen, one of the candidates targeted by the site, said he can respect a person's right to free speech, but said the Sherman's crossed an ethical line by publishing lies and hateful content.

"It exceeded [free speech] by quite a bit," said Rosen, who was defeated in his bid for office. "By the end it was just nasty."

David Cook, one of the Four Horsemen who was victorious in his bid for a seat on the North Bend City Council, said in an election where all the candidates were qualified, the site was an unneeded, unfortunate addition.

"The Web site was hateful, untruthful and racist," said Cook.

According to attorney Larry Brown, who represents Garcia, no lawsuit has been filed, but papers were drawn up intended to be given to the courts. Brown said the potential litigation was prompted by an Oct. 27 post that made references to "Zozobra," a beastly devil in Mexican folklore, and a "Cadillac Esplanade" a reference to the Cadillac Escalade that Garcia, who is of Hispanic heritage, drives. According to Brown, esplanade is a sidewalk in the equivalent of a Mexican ghetto.

Brown said the papers were drafted because Garcia, who was running unopposed, wanted to find out who was behind the racist comments to determine if they had been made by mistake or were malicious. Possible litigation had nothing to do with stifling freedom of speech, he added.

Because the Web-hosting company protected the identities of its webmasters, Brown said, the papers were drawn up, but never submitted.

The Shermans said the comments were not racist, but rather misinterpreted.

"To claim that we are racist is an ugly, ugly thing and we take great offense at this accusations, which are pure lies," the Shermans said in an e-mail interview. "Garcia and Brown are now responsible for attempting to besmirch our reputations by their mean-spirited charges. At the very least we demand a pubic apology. Our attorneys have not ruled out a defamation lawsuit of our own.

According to the Shermans, the reference to Garcia's car came from a lack of knowledge regarding automobiles.

"We're not car geeks," the couple said. "We didn't know if Garcia's Cadillac was an Escape, an Escort or an Espadrille," the couple said.

In fact, they added, the term "esplanade" is a French word meaning a level, open stretch of area.

The reference to Zozobra, the couple said, was directed at Garcia's opponent in the writing, Un Op Posed, and they did not intimate that Garcia was a Zozobra.

The Shermans, who are involved in many aspects of the North Bend community including the restoration of a historic building in downtown North Bend, said remaining anonymous served a higher purpose than attaching their names to the site.

"We decided that anonymity would stir everyone's curiosity and increase readership," the Shermans said. "Additionally, we knew that if we wrote the ghost under our own names, that ghost would become about us, and not about the real focus - the issues."

Web site opponents have said they will be filing a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission regarding one council member's possible involvement with the site.

One of the candidates that the "Valley Ghost" endorsed was City Councilman Mark Sollitto. Sollitto, now serving his second term in office after defeating Rosen, posted a link on his election Web site connecting it to the endorsement page of the Valley Ghost.

Susan Sherman was Sollitto's co-campaign manager during the 2003 election, along with former mayor Joan Simpson.

Sollitto said he had no knowledge that the Sherman's were the ghost until the couple approached him the night before the election. Upon which time, Sollitto said, Sherman resigned from the campaign.

"We never took any funds from anyone for anything to do with this Web site," said the Shermans. "The Internet Service Provider was paid for by us personally."

Doug Ellis of the Public Disclosure Commission said that if the site is deemed paid political advertising attributed to Sollitto, the campaign could possibly face a penalty. Paid political advertising must be attributed to a source upon publication, Ellis said.

As of the Valley Record's deadline, no complaint had been filed.

Sollitto said with the election over, it's time for the city to put the events behind them and move forward.

"It's time to attack that mountain of work that the public has elected us to do," Sollitto said.

As far as the future of the Web site, that's still up in the air.

"Because of the extreme hit on our time required to keep the site current, we have not decided which option to pursue," said the Shermans.

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