Katherine Whitworth was mid-sentence from repeating potentially libellous commentary that exists on Mayor Richard Atwell’s Facebook page (titled Richard Atwell Mayor of Saanich) when Atwell interrupted her during the public input portion of council on Monday night.
The topic of inappropriate comments, made by the public, not Atwell, but sitting the uncontested on Atwell’s mayoral Facebook page (not his personal page) led to a hotly contested debate over the responsibility of monitoring libellous and defamatory comments.
On Tuesday, Atwell added he’s not deleted anything from the page following requests from council to monitor it with a greater degree of accountability.
“I felt we covered the issue in council,” Atwell said. “There have been no complaints from staff about the comments. In the past, if someone crossed the line, you needed someone to come forward and say they’re being defamed (before it was dealt with).”
Atwell added the page is an extension of the transparent election platform he brought to Saanich in 2014.
Coun. Fred Haynes clearly sees things differently. He brought the item, titled “disparaging comments on the mayor’s Facebook,” to Monday’s agenda. Members of the community, including a local developer, expressed concern to him about what the mayor’s Facebook page was doing for the District of Saanich’s image, he said.
“It’s not good to have these comments outstanding on Facebook, it doesn’t look good for staff, for the mayor, or for council,” Haynes said. “By leaving comments there, my impression is he’s endorsing them.”
When Haynes approached Atwell about removing defamatory comments last week, Atwell said he’d deal with it, but he didn’t do it fast enough for Haynes, and then agreed instead to debate it in council, Haynes said.
Whitworth, a Saanich resident, actually attempted to repeat specific comments from Atwell’s page when he stopped her to confer with staff. CAO Andy Laidlaw asked only that Whitworth refrain from repeating the posts, which she did.
The debate wore on, however, mostly over the nuances of moderating Facebook, including a declaration by Atwell that while his Facebook page is open to all, Coun. Judy Brownoff’s (personal page) is not. He added he is not privy to hers, as she did not accept his request to be a “friend” on Facebook.
“I’m not as troubled with this as my counterparts are,” Atwell said. “Do I need to go on a comment-for-comment basis? I think that’s overkill. It’s an open page … but it’s also important that criticism be respectful.”
“At the root of this is, where do we decide the line, when do posts go too far?” asked Coun. Colin Plant. “When it’s defamatory to staff. When it’s attached to [the name of] Saanich. That’s when.”
Plant’s comments were echoed by most of council.
“If we let half truths and untruths go unchallenged we have a problem. It seems odd to discuss this issue here tonight,” said Coun. Leif Wergeland.