Councillor's call for social media code draws mixed reaction

There are varying degrees of support around the Ottawa city council table for the idea city leaders could have to follow a social media code of conduct to encourage better behaviour.

Mayor wants attacks to simmer down; Kitchissippi councillor wants it left to voters

Innes Coun. Laura Dudas said social media 'vitriol' directed at city councillors and other municipal officials is on the rise and her colleagues are sometimes the ones fanning the flames. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

There are varying degrees of support around the Ottawa city council table for the idea city leaders could have to follow a social media code of conduct to encourage better behaviour.

The debate was triggered by Innes Coun. Laura Dudas, who submitted an inquiry to city staff Wednesday about how the city would investigate cyberbullying directed at councillors and staff.

Dudas is asking the integrity commissioner and clerk to study existing policies to see if they go far enough to curb the involvement of city staff, compare them to other jurisdictions and explore the possibility of punishment.

While her motion refers to social media in general, much of it and the discussion around it has centred around Twitter.

Dudas said she had been a target of online abuse triggered in part by a tweet from Coun. Shawn Menard, with people piling on to question the motives of certain city councillors perceived as members of the mayor's inner circle.

Menard said he stands by the content of the tweet, though he said it was "harsh." He said he's reluctant to embrace the idea of "tone-policing" councillors on social media.

"Equating criticism with cyberbullying and then asking for punitive measures is going to an extreme," Menard said after Wednesday's meeting.

Mayor supports code

Menard added he spoke with Mayor Jim Watson about his tweet.

The mayor said he accepted Menard's apology and thanked him for stepping up.

"We had a wake-up call by Coun. Dudas that we still have to do better," Watson said.

"I hope that there is something that comes back from the integrity commissioner and the clerk that allows us to set some code of conduct so we're not always attacking one another."

Watson said social media could be a "cowardly medium" where people can attack public figures without identifying themselves

He previously backed down from a court battle about whether he could block people from following his Twitter account.

Are new rules necessary?

Coun. Jeff Leiper said he has blocked accounts on his main account — usually spambots or abusive accounts — and those kinds of questions may need to be hashed out in pursuing this kind of policy.

He's wary of creating new rules.

"We already have a lot of the expectations set out in our code of conduct," he said.

"Ultimately, it's going to be the voters who determine whether or not the tone that is set by the councillor is acceptable to them."

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper said existing code of conduct rules should guide how councillors act on social media. (CBC)

Leiper said he doesn't consider his account a taxpayer resource, since he doesn't use a work phone to post on social media and is using the same account he had before he was elected.

He has a separate constituency account for his staff.

'Leading by example'

Coun. Scott Moffatt said while he often spars or challenges people on Twitter, it is important for councillors to maintain a respectful tone on social media.

He's generally supportive of Dudas' inquiry.

"Sometimes rhetoric can open a door to more divisive and more disrespectful rhetoric from non-councillors on Twitter. It really comes down to leading by example," Moffatt said.

Moffatt said he'd consider a public apology, similar to what happens when a councillor is unparliamentary in council chambers, an appropriate punishment for inappropriate conduct on social media.

He added it's important that rules touch on the treatment of city staff who, unlike councillors, wouldn't take to social media to defend themselves.

These types of inquiries always get a response at a city meeting, even if it's that there's nothing that can be done.


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