After listening to an interesting episode of Canadaland Commons, which pitted a citizen with an axe to grind against a councilor with a bad attitude, I just came away feeling sad.
(If you haven’t heard the podcast, go listen to it now. If you want, it’s mostly petty politics, which is what I try to show below, though my comments won’t make sense without the full picture provided by the Canadaland hosts.)
I’m a writer and a communications consultant. I’ve also got a background in politics – I stood for the federal NDP in Kitchener Centre in 2011, and served as campaign manager for the 2011 NDP provincial campaign in the same riding. Additionally, I was co-campaign manager for a candidate who ran for Waterloo Region Council in 2014. While none of those campaigns were successful from the perspective of winning an election, they have given me a peek inside the world of politics at all three levels of government, four here in the Waterloo Region. Together with my communications experience in the not-for-profit sector, I provide my clients unique perspective on community building. Instead of building in silos, I offer a well-rounded perspective that acknowledges the unique role that the political process plays in Canada.
That kind of approach was not on offer when Canadaland Commons concluded that we should be thankful for the Matt Alexanders of the world which expose the sinister deeds of councilors across Ontario was not only at odds with the advice provided by the experts on the show, but also gives too much power to a snubbed man with an axe to grind.
It’s pretty clear from the outset that the councilor is being a jerk – Matthew is right when he says that all that’s needed is a short statement acknowledging a sponsored post – but Matthew’s complaint just doesn’t make sense in this situation. The only way it makes sense to censure a councilor for banning a member of the community from a Facebook group is if the rules of the group themselves run counter to the Ontario Human Rights Code or fall out of line with any Municipal Code of Conduct. As far as I can see, the Facebook page makes it clear that it is part of a business held by Mr. Kirwan, the Valley East Today, and it doesn’t appear that any rules would come into conflict with the Human Rights code.
Mr. Kirwin claims that,
The Valley East Facebook Group is the social media extension of the community web site, www.valleyeasttoday.ca which was founded in 2003 and which contains hundreds of archived stories and information about Valley East.
I do grant that the rules about advertising appear to be unbearably complicated, but they are not particularly insidious:
Please keep in mind that in order to prevent the site from becoming inundated with marketing posts, we do not permit any display advertising or promotions from individual businesses or home-based operations on the main site unless they are approved and posted by the site administrator, Robert Kirwan.
A very specific education-based marketing format has been established that must be strictly adhered to by any business wishing to be promoted on the main site. If the business meets the criteria and provides the material in the approved style and format, then Robert Kirwan will share the post from another location and will post it accordingly. All promotional material must be posted on the site by Robert Kirwan and not by the business or an agent.
Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps the problem is that Mr. Kirwin is just not a very good communicator. If I were to condense Mr. Kirwin’s writing, I’d suggest that he re-write the above section as such:
We do not permit any display advertising or promotions from individual businesses or home-based operations on the main site unless they are approved and posted by the site administrator.
If you wish your business featured on ValleyEastToday.ca, I have established a very specific education-based marketing format. Once shared from ValleyEastToday, I will post it to this page. If you post promotional content that has not been approved by and posted through me, it will be removed.”
Returning then to the main site description, Mr. Kirwin explains the procedure for posting in his sister group, the Consumers Guide, and indicates that he will be sharing some of those posts in the main group. The phrasing, again, is convoluted and complicated:
I will also be posting more comprehensive stories, articles and informational posts about businesses that wish to provide more in-depth profiles of their goods and services. The procedure can be found in the pinned post on the Valley East Consumers’ Guide. Articles can be provided by the business in advance or they can arrange me to do the writing and photos for them for a small fee in order for them to take advantage of this marketing opportunity.
Mr. Kirwin could have been much clearer in his writing, saying instead:
I will occasionally promote some of our community’s small businesses in this group. If you wish me to feature your business, please submit a post that meets all the requirements for in the pinned post in the Valley East Consumers Guide directly to me. I am able to help you write your post, of course, for a small fee.
That’s 19 less words, and much warmer, inviting language.
As the experts in the podcast suggested, Mr. Kirwin has done absolutely nothing wrong. As a part-time councillor who owns a media company outside of his municipal office, he is permitted to establish whatever Facebook group he wants, with whatever rules he wants, curated however he wants. Moreover, the fact that he is a councillor should not disqualify him from talking about city hall issues in that space, except where prohibited by law, as is the case for in-camera meetings.
As a recovering politician, I’m inclined to think that this mess has to do with a particular person at a particular place. Matt Alexander believes that Mr. Kirwin is committing a very grave conflict of interest, operating his business in this manner and he is particularly incensed that he was banned for asking this kind of question. It’s clear that Mr. Alexander has his belief, and whether it’s grounded in reality or not (the experts suggested it wasn’t, which he deftly turned into a supportive statement – see 21:35), he isn’t going to stop until Mr. Kirwin gives way.
Mr. Kirwin, for his part, doesn’t do himself any favours. His rules are long and convoluted – for a writer and media man, he should know better – and his correspondence proves he’s dug in his heels and has nothing to lose. He’s a councillor with the keys to the community in his hands and he’s not going to let this guy get away with taking him down, not when those keys were acquired legitimately through the operation of his business.
And so we’ve come full circle. I’m sad because there was ever a Canadaland Commons post about this in the first place. Political discourse has become so toxic in Canada that many would rather escalate their own personal grievances with another person to the media than sit down and have a fruitful discussion.
I’m sad because this whole episode could have been avoided if Mr. Kirwin had simply paid a little more attention to his writing, ensuring it was simple, clear, direct and to the point. With a little injection of style and tone, Mr. Kirwin could have sent a much more welcoming message, not only to the members of his group, but also to potential advertisers.
Finally, I’m sad because the postscript of the show drew the entirely wrong conclusion from the episode. Instead of calling for better discourse between constituent and counsellor, the hosts chose to chase the thread of municipal integrity commissioners, giving credence to Mr. Alexander’s theory in the first place. Despite being told by their expert that not only had the councillor done absolutely nothing wrong, but that there could even be a section 7 charter challenge if rules were created that restricted someone’s ability to maintain their livelihood, the hosts pressed on, concluding that “What is councillors all across this country aren’t reporting their conflicts, because nobody is watching. And what happens when there is no Matt Alexander asking these kinds of questions?”
No, Canadaland Commons, that’s not the lesson here. That’s not the lesson at all.