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Canada Newfoundland councillors vote to use taxpayer money to squash social media criticisms

Venting frustrations over local government decisions on social media may soon carry a price tag in one small Newfoundland town.

Councillors in Witless Bay, a seaside community of 1,000 or so people about 30 minutes south of St. John’s, recently moved to address a barrage of criticism by voting unanimously in favour of a motion to spend taxpayer dollars to hire a criminal lawyer to review social media posts that include accusations against members.

The motion will also “empower the Finance Committee to take disciplinary actions” against those who post accusatory messages involving the town or its council.

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It is unclear whether those disciplinary actions would be fines. No one answered the phone at Witless Bay’s town hall on Thursday; calls, voice messages and e-mails to town staff, councillors and the mayor to inquire about the motion were not returned.

By late afternoon, though, councillors had gathered at the town office for an unscheduled private meeting.

Meanwhile, across Witless Bay – and well beyond, via social media – backlash against the motion, which some argue is illegal, was ballooning.

“It’s basically just a way to try and shut people down,” said Lorna Yard, a long-time resident who has been a critic of town council for years. Ms. Yard, whose mother was the town’s first manager when it incorporated in the 1980s, said she believes she is one of the people the motion was aimed at muzzling.

“Growing up, municipal politics was always front and centre in our house. It was ingrained in me that you have to stand up and take care of your community,” she said.

Last year, Ms. Yard paid out of pocket to take then-deputy mayor Fraser Paul, a local developer, to Newfoundland Supreme Court over an allegation he faked his residency in the town during the lead-up to his nomination in a by-election. Municipal election rules require candidates to be residents in the 30 days before a nomination.

The court ruled in Ms. Yard’s favour and Mr. Paul lost his seat on council. However, he took his seat back in the general election after establishing residence last fall. Then, the entire council, including the mayor, was acclaimed. It has been beset by criticism ever since.

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“This council … thinks they’re untouchable,” said Ms. Yard, a television producer employed by Memorial University. “I don’t think they care if they look silly.”

One of the new council’s first decisions was a unanimous vote to rescind the town’s bylaws, policies and procedures manual. It was adopted by the former council, which had focused heavily on establishing rules regarding transparency, accountability, land use, conflict of interest, harassment and employee ethics. (The town did not previously have a cohesive set of policies.)

Such decisions have spurred vitriolic online commentary. Deepening the acrimony is a long-running battle over the fate of Ragged Beach − beloved of beachgoers and whale-and-puffin-watching tourists − between locals bent on saving the area and developers who want to build homes there.

Ms. Yard has participated in those conversations, but said she has tried to remain professional.

“I’m not a rude person,” she said. “I understand you don’t call people names. Sure there’s been times when I got a bit emotional on Facebook and said things that were a bit snotty. But I’m human, too.”

Ed Vickers, a spokesman for Friends of Ragged Beach, an environmental group created seven years ago, has an occasional blog and Facebook presence where disagreements with town policy are aired. But none of those, he said, merits the threat of a financial penalty.

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“It’s just plain intimidation – a lashing out,” he said of the motion. “I’ve been fairly open about my criticism about decision-making, but I don’t make it a name-calling affair. That’s not my game. But I have particular differences with this council on secrecy and lack of transparency.”

Mr. Vickers was referring to the council’s recent habit of changing long-held meeting schedules, which makes it more difficult to attend. While some meetings are held in secret, he said, others that council deems public are not always posted, breeding suspicion.

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