Peter Helt still remembers the email he got 10 years ago.
He never met the sender, but Helt had made some decision or voted in some way that had upset the Mount Airy resident. And so Helt received an email asking if he could be that arrogant.
“There are people who attack you for ridiculous things,” Helt said in an April interview. “You wouldn’t believe the emails we get.”
After 16 years on Mount Airy’s town council, Helt said he chose not to run for re-election. The negative comments he received during the multiple elections and his years on the council began wearing him down.
Helt is not the only person to speak about the negativity that can crackle through the town during elections or leading up to and, in some cases, after a big decision. The negativity seen on local Facebook groups for the town or in emails to town council members is not unique to Mount Airy, multiple people said, but it is something that does affect the town.
One problem is social media, said Bill Butts, who sits on the planning commission. People will post on Facebook about items discussed by the town council or the commissions, but it often does not allow for discussions.
“Which is one of my concerns because it’s a one-way channel,” Butt said.
Those discussions also raise the “emotional decibel,” he said, with people getting more riled up and upset when they comment back and forth on a Facebook post.
For current candidate Pamela Reed, running to fill one of the two seats vacated by Helt and King or the seat currently held by Councilman Jason Poirier, the election has not been as vicious as others have been.
She is friends with the other candidates, she said, and any negativity tends to come from supporters, not the candidates.
People get emotional, she said, and that can pick up closer to an election.
“I think that’s human nature,” she said.
Social media is a double-edged sword, Mayor Pat Rockinberg said. It can be a great way to disperse information, but it also gives people a platform to say things they would not speak in person.
The town staff, mayor and council can learn from the comments on Facebook, he said, and not all of them are negatives. Some make him think, he said.
One recent topic that people flocked to Facebook to discuss is the downtown vision plan. Residents responded negatively to the plan, which surprised Scott Sirchio, who sits on the planning committee.
The town held multiple sessions to allow public comment, and the Design Collective, the group hired to draw up the vision plan, used resident feedback to create the plan that was recently presented, Sirchio said.
There was limited attendance at the town’s charettes held to discuss the plan. But there were plenty of comments on Facebook, he said.
“It’s very strange,” Sirchio said.
Sirchio is no stranger to social media comments. He ran in the special election after former Councilman Scott Strong vacated his seat. Sirchio said he received both positive and negative comments. The negative ones came from both people he did know and others he never met, he said.
He is not rerunning in the current election, he said, although the decision was not about negativity. Instead, he said his progressive vision for the town does not match what other residents want.
People are protective of what they have, Butts said, and that is an ongoing discussion with the vision plan, as residents and town officials work to look at moving forward and retaining Mount Airy’s charm.
Part of the problem is getting information out to the residents, Butts said. The planning commission tries, he said, but it can be difficult in a town where many residents are commuters and cannot always attend town meetings or hearings.
That will likely involve social media as it is part of people’s lives, he said.
“It’s a very challenging topic,” Butts said. “And I don’t know a perfect way to accomplish it.”