Following an investigation by the integrity commissioner, the Town of the Blue Mountains (TBM) council has been warned not to bring social media commentary into formal town communications.
The commissioner also encouraged council members to hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to formal communications and to update their code of conduct to make that standard clear.
Late last year a local resident wrote to the Blue Mountains Attainable Housing Corporation (BMAHC) board and the TBM council to express her concerns around the Gateway attainable housing project.
Council and board members received the letters for information and decided TBM Mayor Alar Soever and councillor Rob Sampson would each pen a response letter to the resident.
In the response letters, the council members made reference to social media posts the resident had previously made in a public Facebook group. The resident who wrote the letter in the first place took issue with those references.
In late January, a complaint was filed with the integrity commissioner against Soever and Sampson. The complaint alleged misconduct by the two members of council while receiving the correspondence during the aforementioned council and board meetings, which were held on Nov. 30 and Dec. 3.
The complainant alleged that council members did not address the formal correspondence appropriately in either meeting and were also out of line when they brought up “unrelated” social media posts in their responding correspondence.
“Is it reasonable for anyone to attack someone’s character based on a handful of posts, pulled out of context from social media? Is it reasonable for anyone to attack one’s character without knowing them at all? Is it reasonable for a citizen to be attacked […] by elected officials for merely asking questions?” stated the complainant in the integrity commissioner report.
The complainant claimed that, as a result of Soever and Sampson's actions she had "reasonable and probable grounds to believe that they colluded to bully, malign and discredit me, resulting in public shaming and humiliation.”
Soever denied the allegations of harassment and collusion. The mayor said he does not spend time “trolling” social media. But he makes it a point to be aware of what gets posted about the town on various social media platforms.
Through the integrity commissioner’s report, Soever said the social media posts were referenced in an effort to “point out the different emphasis between her social media posts and her letter.”
“When [the complainant] submitted correspondence to council citing technical grounds for rejecting the Gateway site, people should debate with honesty and integrity and not hide behind false flags,” Soever said.
Not all complaints made to an integrity commissioner are investigated, however, Integrity Commissioner Suzanne Craig determined this one warranted a further look.
Craig was poised with the task of determining whether the series of written correspondence was a form of harassment or simply political discourse. She delivered her report on the investigation at a council meeting held on April 19.
“I look at the whole picture in respect to credibility and facts,” Craig said. “This investigation was about whether the respondents breached or did not breach the code [of conduct] based on an allegation of harassment by the complainant.”
The integrity commissioner sought to answer whether there was collusion on the part of Soever and Sampson to bully, malign and discredit the complainant, resulting in her public shaming and humiliation in contravention of rule 13 of the code.
While the Craig found the correspondence from the council members to be “clumsy”, she did not consider it to be harassment.
“Following my review of all the facts and speaking to everyone concerned, the written and oral statements by the respondents, in my view, are not examples of bullying, maligning or discrediting the complainant,” Craig said.
However, she did take concern over the council members' decision to reference the resident’s social media posts in formal town correspondence.
“Can a member of council take into consideration what's out there when deliberating on matters? Of course they can. But there is a distinction between how you comment on an official correspondence. Full stop. And then how one comments on what's out there,” said Craig.
According to Craig, if a resident has posted comments on social media as a private citizen, a member of council may generally refer to public comments in their discussions at council, but may not consider the official correspondence of an identifiable individual with general comments made on social media.
Craig explained that if a member of the public submits untrue allegations against initiatives of committees or the council through formal correspondence, a member of council may legitimately correct the inaccuracy.
If a council member feels that a public comment has unfairly suggested that they have contravened the code of conduct, she suggests seeking advice from the integrity commissioner rather than commencing public discussion in response to public allegations of the code compliance.
For the investigation, Craig said that she did not review commentary on social media nor did she determine the truthfulness of the social media comments surrounding the Gateway project.
However, she added that it would not be unreasonable for members of council to be concerned that some social media dialogue may come with improper motivations, be contrary to the best interests of the town and in some instances, be malicious, divisive and factually incorrect.
“The public has a responsibility to be civil when communicating with their elected officials, whether they disagree or not with interactions. Participating in a council or committee debate, through email or other correspondence is not an effective way of conducting town business. Official correspondence should be a statement and not an attack or a code complaint,” she said.
Craig added that in this situation, both the complainant and council members made assumptions about each other's statements. However, “it is the responsibility of members of council and local boards under your code to be held to a different standard.”
She stressed that if portions of formal communications from residents are unclear, council members should seek clarification before responding or making assumptions.
After determining the actions of the council members to be within reason and stating that they did not violate the ethical obligations outlined in the code of conduct, Craig recommended that TBM take a close look at its communication policies and develop a detailed protocol for how council members are to respond to certain situations and correspondence.
“This is a policy matter that I believe I've seen is part of an ongoing discussion around communications at the town. I strongly urge council to ensure clear guidelines are set out with respect to responding to communications from the public and providing the public with responses in a timely fashion without interfering with the operations of the town through the use of resources that are already stretched thin,” Craig said.
TBM is currently in the process of reviewing and revising its code of conduct policy for members of council, local boards and advisory committees. A public meeting in regards to the review will be held on May 3 at 5 p.m.
Comments collected at the public meeting will be presented to council at a Committee of the Whole meeting that is scheduled for May 18.
Jennifer Golletz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca