In Cottage Grove, resident Leon Moe created a website because he was dissatisfied with city spending for a $15 million City Hall and public safety building. His action touched off a wave of change in the city as a petition grew and a charter commission formed, all with the help of the Internet.

Moe drew support from residents such as Kathy Lewandoski, a frequent critic of the City Council. They and a handful of other residents, upset that there was no public vote on the spending for the new building, collected more than 1,800 signatures on a petition calling for a local charter commission with the power to recall elected officials.

Construction of the City Hall and public safety building is well under way, but unhappiness over the lack of a referendum has split the City Council.

The rifts have slid from City Hall into cyberspace, where Moe uses his website to blast council decisions and Mayor Myron Bailey uses Facebook to rail against some of the project opponents, whom he says recently called his wife nasty names.

The political power of social media was realized by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, and it's trickling down to elected officials at local levels, said Hamline University Prof. David Schultz, a nationally known political scientist and author. The emerging use of social media brings benefits but hazards, too, such as blurring the line between political and personal life, Schultz said.

"I see this as the next area where not only can local public governments and officials reach out to people for good reason but also create tremendous missteps in terms of venting private matters that probably shouldn't be out there," he said.

That's apparently what happened in Cottage Grove, he said.

An incensed Bailey complained on Facebook after a March 21 meeting that his wife was insulted by opponents to the Cottage Grove City Hall project.

Two opponents seated behind his wife, Cindy Boggess Bailey, kept insulting her as they spoke between themselves during the meeting, he said.

"Long City Council Meeting Wednesday night," Bailey wrote on his Facebook page. "2 members of the Citizens Voice group in the audience decided to verbally abuse my wife during the meeting as my wife quietly sat there trying to listen to the meeting. One is related to a current council member. Very classy. With groupies like that, people wonder why more and more people decide not to get into serving their City/State/Nation."

Bailey said he was referring to Lewandoski and Linda Lehrke, mother of Council Member Derrick Lehrke, all of whom insist that the City Hall project should have been put to a public vote.

"Kathy and Derrick Lehrke's mom were commenting back and forth that this is the mayor's old bag sitting in front of us, and they just kept going back and forth from the beginning to the end of the meeting, like that," Myron Bailey said.

After the meeting, Cindy Boggess Bailey turned and told the women that they were rude, the mayor said.

Lewandoski said they didn't call the mayor's wife names and didn't even know it was her sitting in front of them until after the meeting, when she "jumped up" and yelled at them.

"This was a setup," Lewandoski said in an interview.

The mayor said separately that he expects detractors will take potshots at him because of his office, "but when they start taking it out on my kids or my wife, that's when they've crossed the line."

Legal rights are tricky

Citizens have the right to criticize local government and officials on social media, but once someone takes public office, private use of social media enters a new realm, with new considerations, Schultz said.

"What becomes more difficult now, and more problematic, is when you start to use the social media for venting your own private views," he said. "That may be in conflict with your roles as mayor, may be inappropriate and could very well be disloyal to the city in terms of doing it damage."

Moe's website -- www.cgcitizensvoice.com  -- seeks supporters. When asked how many members he had in his group, Moe said he doesn't have any. He said he and a few others knocked on doors, gathering more than 1,800 signatures for the petition calling for the charter commission, which was recently appointed by a judge.

Using social media for activism can create false impressions, such as suggesting that more people are involved than really are, Schultz said.

It's difficult to truly measure online activism, he said, noting that someone can click "like" to a comment but never engage beyond that, and certainly not show up to vote. So using such measures to indicate activism can be misleading, Schultz said.

"It's possible," he said, "that social media can create illusions of engagement, or illusions of movement, that might not exist."

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038