by Dermod Travis
There’s something about local government that brings out the worst in some people.
Staff get spat on. Mayors and councillors are often the victims of what can only be described as cyberbullying. In some towns, process servers would be well-advised to offer volume discounts to local governments.
It takes place every which way imaginable: fighting between neighbouring councillors, between councillors on the same council, between councillors and staff, between the public and councillors and between the public and staff.
You almost need a scorecard to keep up with who’s bullying who.
And it’s time for a time out. Think adults are too old for time outs? Think again.
Nanaimo council has just hired an independent investigator for an undisclosed sum to conduct an independent investigation into complaints of bullying and harassment between councillors and between council and staff.
This comes on the heels of the city hiring a facilitator from the Integrity Group (no relation) to help councillors make nice with each other.
In a recent interview with Barbara Yaffe of the Vancouver Sun, that city’s outgoing chief planner, Brian Jackson, noted: “My staff, when they go to public meetings, have been spit at. They’ve been called names.”
Jackson blames social media, in part.
In a recent article – Why Twitter’s Dying – writer Umair Haque points to “the endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web. A town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…and you can’t even call a cop.”
Jackson and Haque may be on to something.
Twitter tantrums – the online equivalent to a four-year-old child acting up at the supermarket – seem intended to inflict maximum damage to the character of an opponent in 140 characters or less.
One of the more colourful ones involved Vancouver Green party school trustee Janet Fraser and her decision to support a candidate from the NPA for the board’s chairmanship back in 2014.
Didn’t go over so well with Vision Vancouver who – for some unfathomable reason – decided that you catch more flies with vinegar than you do with honey.
Little short-sighted, since the chair quit a few months later and Fraser certainly had no love left to lose with Vision Vancouver when it came time to vote again.
Check out the various Facebook pages for civic watchdog groups across B.C. and there’s no shortage of vitriol being hurled at elected officials and staff.
“Our bone-headed, pig-headed, empty-headed incumbents” is one of the milder critiques. Not entirely sure it’s possible to be pig-headed and empty-headed at the same time though.
In September, the Alaska Highway News reported that a Fort St. John city councillor took to Facebook to accuse a Dawson Creek councillor of “theft” for “stealing” one of the copies of a report delivered to the Peace River regional district office, by the Northeast B.C. Resource Municipalities Coalition.
If it isn’t already, WorkSafeBC should be on speed dial at a few city halls. One civic worker let it be known that he recently resigned, “because of the deplorable way [he] and others are treated.”
He was referring to how staff treat other staff, but there’s another dysfunctional relationship at many city halls: how the public treats them. It’s not always pretty.
Try some of the same stunts at most places of employment and chances are the cops would be called or complaints filed with WorkSafeBC.
Two chief administrative officers left their posts, in part because they didn’t sign on for the type of abuse hurled at them online and face-to-face.
Part of the problem is the habit of some councils to hide behind staff when they make unpopular decisions. Take a cue from the B.C. government: elected officials defend the decisions they make, not deputy ministers.
For lawyers some of this is billable hours heaven, for police not so much.
White Rock’s mayor called in the RCMP in September to help restore order during a council meeting when things got heated between him and a former councillor.
Most of this bullying could easily be stopped if some of the bullies simply asked themselves one question: how would they react if the shoe was on the other foot?
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca