At the end of this week’s Committee of the Whole (22 February) I approach John Heckbert who has just taken a deputation to Mulock Drive to lecture councillors on social media and to tell them why they shouldn’t block people like him. We shake hands and I tell him he has been slowly spit-roasted by councillors. He smiles.
Now, dear readers, read on…
Let me start by saying I like John Heckbert. I see him as a bit of a troublemaker. And I like that. He assiduously follows what’s happening on Newmarket Council and regularly sits in on their meetings. He spends a big chunk of his life patrolling Davis Drive and singing the praises of local eateries. He dines out a lot, helping struggling local businesses survive. He is a leading light in the local taxpayer group that monitors the Town’s spending for signs of profligacy. His diligence was rewarded by the Era Newspaper by being named “Newsmaker of the Year” in 2015.
Heckbert also takes lots of deputations to the Council and why not? Until now, it was always thought to be an easy, painless, danger-free way to give councillors a poke in the eye and get something off your chest.
No Sour Grapes
Earlier this week Mr Heckbert chose to comment on the Town’s updated Code of Conduct (which will be approved at the next Council meeting on 29 February). He tells us his company bid for the work to help the Town update it but he didn’t get the contract. It went to Ethicscan which, says Heckbert, did a good job except in two areas – lobbying and social media. He doesn’t want any criticism to come across as sour grapes.
He tells councillors it is a mistake to block people from accessing their (the councillors) social media platforms. He tells councillors it is all about “democracy”:
“No member of Council should be allowed to block, censure or otherwise restrict the inherent right of residents to question them and receive information from them in whatever way that resident chooses to engage them including via social media platforms.”
(As I am listening to this I recall my own experience of being blocked. Former councillor Maddie Di Muccio (now President of the York Region Taxpayers Coalition) has for years posted tweets, dripping with venom. I figured they deserved a much wider audience. So I mocked and she blocked.)
This will end in tears
Now Heckbert clicks the mouse and screenshots of councillors’ twitter pages come up on the screen, one by one.
Oh dear! I think I know where he is heading and I fear it will all end in tears.
Now we are looking at Dave Kerwin’s Twitter page. It looks innocent enough to me.
Heckbert tells us Kerwin’s tweets are protected. He can’t read them. Now he goes through the others - whose Twitter pages are all open - before finally settling on Tony Van Bynen who, we learn, doesn’t share information with Heckbert.
Heckbert complains in his measured way that all residents are not being treated equally.
He says Twitter is a “key delivery mechanism” for getting emergency information out and the Mayor shouldn’t be blocking anyone.
Now it's open for questions and regional councillor John Taylor is first up. He wants to know if Heckbert had been elected to Council in 2014 would he have given unlimited access to members of the public who were abusive to him. (Heckbert ran unsuccessfully against Joe Sponga in Ward 5).
Heckbert tells us he has been the subject of some very vicious social media attacks both personally and professionally. But people have a right to vent. That said, he has blocked someone for overt sexual advances!
Taylor immediately zeroes in on this key admission. If Heckbert blocks for one reason then perhaps councillors can block for other, equally legitimate, reasons?
The fusebox clamped at the back of Heckbert’s head is now starting to short-circuit. There is an acrid smell in the air.
Taylor tells him in a powerful put-down:
“I have a family and I have a life and a wife and I don’t think I should have to start my day, every day, having the same two or three people telling me I am a liar or a horrible person or the scum of the earth etc etc. I think I have the right to block that out of my life and out of my family.”
Vent by all means. But not on my page
Now Tom Vegh wades in. He has blocked people for attacking his family.
“Every one has the right to vent but they don’t have the right to vent on my page… They can put whatever they want on their own social media.”
Ward 4’s cherub, Tom Hempen, tells us he has never blocked anyone - until recently. We learn one person has been attacking him, going on line at 10pm and continuing until midnight.
“I have great pride in who I am and I think I am a very ethical person and I will not allow someone to attack me. So I will continue to block in those circumstances.”
Next up is Jane Twinney who blocks one or two people because she feels harassed. She tells us she enjoys being on the Council and there is an obvious authenticity in her voice which I find endearing. But there are downsides. She tells us her 11 year old son is now doing social media stuff at school and she doesn’t want him seeing some of the comments made about his mother on her Twitter account.
I'm no Movie Star says Sponga
Now she hands the baton over to Joe Sponga who tells us he too has been forced to block people. There are comments about the way he dresses, the food he likes, the house his family lives in. He says people are driving past his house taking pictures. His son tells him John Heckbert is now following an account that has nothing to do with his (Sponga’s) politics.
“I am not a movie star. I’m a blue collar guy and I take exception to the fact that my family has to be exposed to this.”
By now, Heckbert’s face is visibly reddening.
Now it is the turn of Christina Bisanz who is perfect manners personified. She tells him she appreciates his perspective on lots of things before giving a dignified exposition on the meaning of ethics and morality and what is right and wrong. She talks of Ontario’s Human Rights Code and that people deserve respect. Harassment can extend well beyond sexual comments or innuendo. It is about conduct that is unwelcome.
As I am listening to this I am struck by her quiet and softly spoken eloquence. She gently dismisses Heckbert’s assertion that Twitter is a “vital tool” for getting across information in an emergency, saying it’s a bit of a stretch.
Smiling sweetly, she closes by telling Heckbert how much she appreciates he has an opinion and that he has taken the time to come along and present it to them.
Heckbert is now rapidly back-pedaling. He tells his audience you can turn people off but still allow them to see what you are saying. On harassment he opens up:
“I have been subjected to it (harassment) as a result of running for Council. I have a much more personal experience of harassment beyond what any one of the councillors present could possibly imagine”
Now it is the turn of flatterer emeritus, Dave Kerwin, to insert the blade below the ribs:
“I thank my colleagues. Christina, you were marvelous. John, always. You and I have our battles (he chuckles softly). We’ve always resolved them. You are commendable. You’ve taken a stand and I appreciate that."
(Now addressing Heckbert) "You ever been in a war zone John? Military?"
“I have been.”
“So you’ve suffered some kind of harassment that’s unforgettable. More than most of us sitting around this table. I am sorry to hear that. So now you understand my position. Thank you, Sir.
Coup de grace
Now the Mayor clinically delivers the coup de grace.
“Yes. You are entitled to say what you have (said). And if you have something to say my view is you post that on your site. My page represents my views and anything that comes from my twitter feed is believed to be endorsed. So I don’t feel in the slightest way obligated to advance an argument that is contrary to my views. So I don’t apologise for blocking certain people."
"I do set standards in terms of what I permit on my site and again I don’t apologise for that. But if you have something to say, set up your own site. Set up your own contacts. Send out your own messages. So you still have that right.”
I don’t know the word that would best apply. Kebabed? Skewered? Barbequed?
Whatever. John Heckbert was toast.
You can see the exchanges on video at 1.38 in