Social media beef between two councillors results in integrity investigation

Social media beef between two Brock councillors has resulted in an investigation by the municipal integrity commissioner.

A report from Guy Giorno included on the agenda for Monday’s (Aug. 10) meeting details a complaint from Ward 5 Councillor Lynn Campbell against Walter Schummer, the representative of Ward 3.

The complaint alleged that three Facebook posts from Coun. Schummer – dating back to August of 2019 – breached council’s Code of Conduct and also included an email exchange between the pair where Coun. Campbell explicitly told him not to quote her or refer to her by name, directly or indirectly (see below).

She also alleged that Coun. Schummer breached the Township’s social media policy, though none of those restrictions apply to members of council.

The investigation found that the posts did not contravene the policy for a variety of factors, including that Coun. Schummer has the fundamental right to post his opinions on social media – even those critical of council decisions.

“With great respect to the Complainant, | suggest that public support for group decisions cannot be forced on anyone. Canada is a democracy. Ontario is a democracy. The Township of Brock is a democracy” the report reads.

“In a democracy, the will of the majority prevails but a minority always has the right to dissent and to explain the reason for its dissent.”

The report notes that both councillors had months to resolve the dispute but they could not come to an agreement.

“As the Integrity Commissioner for more than 30 Ontario municipalities, my experience is that by far the largest category of code of conduct complaints consists of complaints by elected officials against other elected officials. Whenever there is the chance to pursue a mutually agreed outcome, I take it,” the report reads.

“In this case, I paused the proceeding to give the parties an ample opportunity to explore the prospect of a resolution. The pause was similarly intended to allow the parties to consider the matter with the benefit of distance from the actual events. In this respect the pause was deliberate, as often the passage of time makes an intractable difference possible to resolve.”

An invoice, also included on the agenda for Monday’s meeting, notes that the municipality was billed more than $5,700 for the investigation. Not surprisingly, the bulk of that cost appears to be related to the preparation of the report.

“While I have not found a clear breach of the code, I do believe this particular situation offers an opportunity for all council members to reflect on the possible impacts, including unintended impacts, of what they post on social media and say about other individuals. Language may be hurtful or insensitive without rising to a level that contravenes the code. Council may wish to consider whether it wishes to participate in sensitivity training that includes content on appropriate and respectful use of social media,” reads the lone recommendation from the report.

In an interview, Coun. Campbell said she welcomed the recommendation as the Township is conducting review on respectful workplaces this month.

Coun. Schummer declined to comment until Monday’s council meeting.

Mayor Debbie Bath-Hadden has not responded to a request for comment.

For the full report, click HERE.

The ‘Tears of Joy’ post
A post from Coun. Schummer on Aug. 13, 2019 notes that Coun. Campbell had been “moved to tears (of joy)” after reading a report on Township operations reviews but he “was not quite so emotionally affected.”

“The complainant (Coun. Campbell) alleges that this comment was derogatory and condescending and reflects a pattern of ‘talk[ing] down to and mak[ing] fun of women.’ The complaint material alleges that the respondent ‘never ridicules males’,” the report reads.

Coun. Schummer denied that allegation, noting that Coun. Campbell made the comment in an open meeting of council that is available online. He also claimed the comment was taken out of context and was not meant to be derogatory.

“The respondent also rejects the claim that his social media comments never ridicule males. He submits that his posts are criticism and not ridicule and submits that he has criticized male council members on many occasions. He provides what he describes as a ‘small sample’ of his posts in which he has criticized male council members,” the report reads.

While Coun. Campbell said the post was designed to make her “look silly,” Giorno did not find it breached the code of conduct.

“It is difficult for an Integrity Commissioner to look behind statements of fact to discern whether one politician was improperly motivated in referencing a public comment by another politician,” the report reads.

It also notes that the threshold for limiting political speech must be high.

“The bar cannot be set to prohibit criticism of another politician’s policies or record. Being able to contradict or take issue with another politician’s record is an important aspect of democracy,” it reads.

The ‘Bag of Cash’ cartoon and the ‘Sunderland arena’ post
On Aug. 16, 2019, Coun. Schummer posted a graphic of a man holding a moneybag with a dollar sign on it and a caption reading ‘Planning problems? What planning problems? There’s no problem a bag of cash can’t solve (or hide).’

The post came a day after the Township announced that a settlement had been reached in regards to a planning application that could see the developer provide funding to the Sunderland Memorial Arena expansion project.

A subsequent post on Aug. 24 referenced a news story on the agreement along with Coun. Schummer’s own commentary.

Coun. Campbell alleged the posts revealed confidential information that was dealt with at an in-camera meeting and contained “inaccurate” or “misleading” comments related to the cost of the expansion project versus building a new facility.

“The complainant adds a new argument in her reply submissions, stating that council members are ‘supposed to support council decisions, such as the Sunderland Lions initiated arena project partnership’ and that ‘[e]ven if individual councillors are opposed, we are supposed to publicly support the group decision and not constantly post negative things on Facebook.’ She states that she could not understand why the respondent was so opposed to the project when she thought it would provide so much benefit to the community,” the report reads.

The investigation did not support any of those claims, with Giorno noting that expressions of political opinion should be tested through political debate – not a complaint process.

“I find that much of what Councillor Campbell considers to be false is in reality just an expression of Councillor Schummer’s opinion, not a factual claim. Expression of political opinion lies outside an Integrity Commissioner’s purview. It is not for me to pronounce it true or false. Instead, a statement of opinion is subject to being tested through political debate,” the report reads.

Giorno also found that all of the information contained in the posts had already been made public and that members of council are under no obligation to support decisions made by majority vote.

“The right of dissent is a fundamental democratic principle which neither the Municipal Act nor the code takes away,” the report reads.

The ‘Never Quote Me’ exchange
On Aug. 20, Coun. Campell emailed Coun. Schummer explicitly telling him not to quote her or to refer to her by name, directly or indirectly.

“Anyone has the right to quote what a member of council says in open session. Such a right has its base not only in a free and democratic society but also under our country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The quote was accurate and was simply stated since it was quite surprising to hear a member of council be ‘moved to tears’ about a consultant’s report which was confirmed by the numerous chuckles I heard at the time,” a response from Coun. Schummer reads.

No action was taken surrounding the email as politicians are clearly allowed to quote their colleagues during open session.

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