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Harassment should not be part of city staffers’ jobs

Public meetings have always had a bozo quotient – those people who come to propagate their position in the most obnoxious way possible. Why speak politely when being loud, belligerent and insulting is an option?

By now, I've lost count of the number of times I've felt sorry for the poor public servant whose job it is to move the meetings along, to nod respectfully no matter how rude and aggressive those in opposition to some plan are being.

You couldn't pay me enough to have to sit there on my hands, unable to give voice to the unspeakable thoughts going through my mind, powerless to tell the jack-hole yelling into the microphone (often with the encouragement of a coterie of like-minded thugs) what a complete and utter moron he is.

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Which brings me to this week's goings-on in Calgary, where Mayor Naheed Nenshi announced he was shutting down further public meetings related to a controversial transit project in the wake of allegations by city staff they were being harassed, physically assaulted and threatened by members of a citizens' group opposed to the plan.

Not surprisingly, the mayor's move was met with some disapproval.

The group the mayor identified as being behind the tactics is called Ready to Engage, a loose-knit collection of mostly well-heeled residents opposed to the $40-million transit project. This is a crowd, dare we say, that is used to getting its way. A spokesman said the mayor's charges amounted to nothing more than a smear job devoid of proof.

For his part, the mayor is standing behind his staff.

"It is very clear that this stuff happened," Mr. Nenshi told reporters. "When I hear someone saying about one of my colleagues, 'Where is that bitch? I want to strangle her,' this is not acceptable. People have to take responsibility for their actions, and if the Ready to Engage group is not willing to take responsibility for their actions, well, this then is the result."

Calgary police have confirmed they are investigating the allegations.

One of those city officials who alleges she was threatened and harassed went public in support of Mayor Nenshi's decision. In a Facebook post, Emma Stevens wrote that in the course of doing her job, which involves engaging with the public on city-shaping projects, she had been "berated, demeaned, physically assaulted and disrespected by complete strangers on too many occasions." She confirmed she is the one alleging physical assault.

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While I have never met Emma Stevens, my gut tells me what she is saying is true. And her fellow staff members have confirmed what she has said about the abhorrent conduct on display at too many public hearings.

Of course, you never want to see the public's right to voice its opinion on matters related to the functioning and operation of its city taken away, but there is also a line that has to be drawn. That line has to stop at abuse of any kind.

City staff should not have to accept that some of it comes with the job; that people are going to scream in your face, fill the air with obscenities, maybe threaten or push you and you just need suck it up. No. None of that is ever acceptable. And in this case I fully endorse the mayor's decision to shut these meetings down and move public consultations online.

The mayor has to take a stand. He has to show his city officials he has their back and is not going to tolerate exposing them to potentially dangerous situations. Sometimes it takes dramatic gestures such as this to drive a point home.

Some have criticized the mayor for not better organizing these hearings so these sorts of things don't happen, including having police presence. Honestly? That's what it's come to? We can't engage civilly anymore, so let's waste the police budget ensuring a group of BMW owners on a power trip don't frighten young city officials trying to do their job?

Or maybe we want to start getting the public to police the meetings? You know, deputize people to step in when things get out of control? I don't think so. That's called a Donald Trump rally.

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No, there needs to be some education here, needs to be a message sent. Certain idiots need to be singled out and identified. They have to understand their behaviour is going to ruin things for everyone – just like it did this week in Calgary.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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