Hamilton

St. Catharines councillor apologizes after confronting wrong person about harassment

Karrie Porter thought she was confronting an online troll who was relentlessly harassing her and sending her pictures of her children. The trouble is it was the wrong person.

The harassment included comments about her appearance and sending her photos of her children

Coun. Karrie Porter thought she knew the identity of an anonymous troll that was harassing her. But the person she confronted wasn't behind the account, and the integrity commissioner recommended she apologize. (Google Maps)

A St. Catharines councillor has made a public apology after a city integrity commissioner found she broke several sections of the code of conduct while trying to figure out who was relentlessly harassing her online.

Ward 4 (St. Patrick's) Coun. Karrie Porter said in a council meeting Monday that she sincerely believed the person who submitted the complaint to the city's integrity commissioner was behind online attacks against her. She said further evidence showed it was somebody else. 

"In my haste to stop the harassment, and to seek accountability from the individual and those who are providing an ongoing platform for abuse from someone who has a fixation and an unhealthy hatred toward me, I made an error," she said. 

Integrity commissioner John Mascarin found Porter did not make every effort to act in good faith and good care. Her actions constituted bullying, he said, and she insulted the complainant.

Those insults included "effectively [calling] the complainant a stalker and a misogynist," said the commissioner's report

Porter said she accepted the report. 

Reviewing protections dealing with harassment

Mascarin said he has no doubt Porter was being harassed online by someone who went by the alias of "Don Bayley." 

But his review says Porter didn't have enough "tangible evidence" to prove the complainant was behind that account. At one point, he said, the councillor had information that suggested otherwise.

Council passed a resolution to formally censure her actions. It also asked staff to report back on current protections in place to deal with harassment directed at council members, and the resources it needs to further support those subjected by "harassment, intimidation, and threats."

"It's a sad day that we are here, but here we are," said Ward 1 (Merritton) Coun. Lori Littleton, describing the ease at which people "troll" politicians online or repeatedly send emails with little to no accountability. 

"None of this helps build a strong community." 

'Sufficient identifying information'

The harassment started last May, the report said. Porter thought there similarities between the writing style of the complainant and the account harassing her, and she also thought the complainant was stalking her, the report said. 

On Aug. 17, Porter called the complainant to confront him, and he denied the allegations. She also spoke to the complainant's friends and colleagues of a community group, the report said, to ask them to investigate whether the councillor's belief was correct.

Porter posted on Facebook and Twitter about the allegations, and was quoted in a newspaper article about harassment that female politicians face. 

She didn't name the complainant online, Mascarin said, but she posted "sufficient identifying information" that made the identity of the complainant known to others. 

The information was that the person was male, had a dog, and lived in the area. It also mentioned he would pass by her home to walk the dog. 

'Initial vile behaviour'

Porter said she believed, at the time, that she wasn't putting the man's identity at risk. 

"I simply wanted the harassment of me to end," she said, adding she was sorry for upsetting the man, and the lack of respect shown toward him. 

Littleton, however, said the idea that this information could identify the man was "unequivocally false." She didn't know who the person was until the complainant sent an email to councillors on Monday.

Littleton said she watched first-hand how the "initial vile behaviour" affected Porter, and her remorse at causing distress to the complainant.

Harassment included photos of her children

"This went on for months," Littleton said of online trolling, which she described as leaving "nasty, vulgar, rude, completely false or otherwise" comments.

The anonymous "Don Bayley" reposted Porter's social media posts and added comments about her appearance, she said. He also called her a moron, and sent Porter pictures of her own children, said Littleton. 

The integrity commissioner says he considered that Karrie Porter would have been in emotional distress while being harassed by someone using an online alias. (City of St. Catharines )

Another phone conversation between Porter and the complainant ended in the conclusion that this person was not "Don Bayley." The social media posts were removed, the report said, but the councillor didn't seek "to correct the record."

"It is very difficult to be put in the situation that she was in," Mascarin said, noting he empathized with the councillor and took her emotional distress into account.

The only two penalties council could impose from this ruling were a reprimand or a suspension of pay for up to 90 days. 

'Formal and sincere' apology

Mascarin said council should be concerned about a councillor who "oversteps" boundaries of the code, and recommended that Porter make a "formal and sincere" apology to the complainant. Porter apologized before council passed this motion. 

The report noted there were other reasons Porter believed the complainant to be the harasser, but they weren't disclosed.

In her since-deleted Facebook post, Porter noted "Don Bayley" mentioned having a conversation about needles in a park on a particular day. This timing lined up with Porter's receipt of an email about this topic from the complainant. 

Ward 2 (St. Andrew's) Coun. Matthew Harris raised the question of what would happen should this person be responsible for the harassment. 

"In this case, that wasn't our finding," Mascarin replied. "It is on the evidence that we found that based on the whole record, that it was clear that it wasn't this person."

Words matter

Mascarin said if Porter got the harasser right, "perhaps she would have been justified" in her actions. 

Ward 3 (St. George's) Coun. Kevin Townsend, Ward 1 (Merritton) Coun. Greg Miller, and Harris voted against the commissioner's recommendations. Miller said he couldn't punish someone who was protecting themselves. 

It cost about $14,500 for the report and presentation.

In the meeting, Littleton called out the abuse and harassment that women in politics face. She called on groups in St. Catharines to ensure there is decorum on their Facebook pages. 

"Words matter," she said.

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