Challengers in Tempe's upcoming city council race have been rebuffed in attempts to gain access to the city's popular Web site (www.Tempe.gov) to promote their campaigns.
Tempe's mayor and six council members all have photographs and brief biographies posted on the city's Web page, which receives more than 200,000 hits a month.
Challengers say they want the same exposure on the Web site, which is taxpayer funded.
Foes claim the page contains nonpolitical information as innocuous as the names of council members appearing on city stationery and that challengers have no right to equal exposure.
The debate is likely to heat up as Internet access continues to increase. Tempe's three-year-old Web site already provides extensive information ranging from the complete city code and budget to electronic links to hundreds of Web sites maintained by Tempe businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Challengers, who typically lack name recognition and have limited funds, see the Web as a low-cost way to transmit a political message 24 hours a day. They want the city to provide an electronic link, which costs nothing, to Web sites the candidates maintain at their expense.
Leonard Copple, a Tempe attorney who is running for one of three council seats, asked Mayor Neil Giuliano via electronic mail in early November for space on the city's Web site to display a photograph, a brief biography and an electronic link to his campaign Web site, which is under construction.
Copple says the city rejected his request. "They said, 'No. We will not give you anything.'"
Tempe spokeswoman Bridgett Hanna says the city plans to provide an electronic link to the Tempe Chamber of Commerce's Web site, which, according to Hanna, will include information on all candidates in the March 10 primary.
"Since the Chamber of Commerce is providing information, we won't be doing that," Hanna says.
But Chamber of Commerce officials say they have no firm plans to post candidate information. "We've talked about it, but that's all we've done," says the chamber's Steve Snyder.
Copple says the city's attempt to shift the issue to the Chamber of Commerce is just another facet in Tempe's effort to deny candidates a high-visibility, low-cost way of reaching potential voters.
"My real bitch is if you or I are interested enough to take advantage of the technology and go to the city Web page, why deny us the ability to go one click further to find out something about people willing to serve the community?" he says.
Voter apathy has long dominated Tempe politics and the Web provides an avenue that could stimulate political involvement, says Copple, whose 3,500 votes in the 1996 election fell 200 short of winning a council seat.
Tempe's council elections do not coincide with national and state general elections and typically attract few voters. Of 87,720 registered voters, only 7,185 (8 percent) voted in the March 1996 primary election.
Two other challengers for council seats plan to use Web sites to promote their campaigns, and say they want access to the city's site.
Bank says Tempe's restriction on the Web site raises constitutional questions.
"It is contrary to the tenet on which this country was set up to obstruct the free exchange of ideas and the free flow of information," Bank says. "It's unfortunate in Tempe that free speech has been damaged."
Bank says the council must address the issue rather than leaving it up to staff; he plans to place it on the council's agenda later this month.
Hallman is taking a lower-key approach.
"My own view is it is whining to sit there and complain," Hallman says. "But I think it is wrong for the city to deny access."
Council members who responded to interview requests are split on the issue.
Councilwoman Linda Spears, who faces reelection, says she is not opposed to providing electronic links to candidates' Web pages but she doesn't want city's Web site to become a political venue.
"We have links to other groups that have prepared their Web sites," she says. Spears does not intend to use the Web in her campaign, opting instead for direct contact with voters.
Councilman Joe Spracale is strongly opposed to the city providing an electronic gateway to candidates' Web sites.
"I don't think this technology should be used for political reasons," Spracale says.
Mayor Giuliano, who has a campaign site (www.giuliano.org), says the city must decide whether it should simply provide a candidate's Web address, if one exists, or to take a more active role and provide an electronic link to Web sites by allowing viewers to simply click on a candidate's name and be automatically transferred to that candidate's page.
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"Do we provide the basic information or do we provide access to their political message?" Giuliano says.
Providing access to political messages, Giuliano says, could open a can of worms. "If you do that, where do you stop?" he says.
As a compromise, Giuliano says he is leaning to simply posting candidates names, addresses, phone numbers and Web site addresses but not providing an electronic link to candidate's Web pages.
"I have to be careful not to be proposing a link because I plan to have a great Web page. I don't want to appear self-serving," Giuliano says.