ONLINE comments criticising councillors have been blasted as “deplorable” by the targets of “demeaning attacks” amid claims of death threats during discussions with members of the public about narrowing Beach Rd to build the Mentone to Mordialloc section of the Bay Trail.
Cr Tamara Barth highlighted a post on Facebook at May’s public council meeting last Monday (22 May) that showed a montage of the North ward councillor “scratching my nose” and “looking at my phone” during council meetings.
The post showed a montage of selectively-edited screenshots from streamed video footage of Kingston Council meetings.
She said she had been subjected to racist and misogynist comments online and criticised the person responsible for “manipulating” and posting the montage.
“I wonder if they thought about what the impact was when you victimise or vilify a person,” Cr Barth said at the meeting.
The councillor said people who commented on the post did not say such “cyber bullying” is unacceptable and were “bystanders … who do nothing when someone else is attacked”.
“[These people] have tried to demean, belittle and intimidate me.”
Cr Barth said she had tried to contact the people responsible for posting derogatory comments online but none were willing to talk about it in person.
She said people had a right to disagree with her opinion but not a right to attack her personally “or try to humiliate or demean me” despite “being a public figure” as a councillor.
Fellow North ward councillor Steve Staikos said the “repulsive, hateful” behaviour started in the public gallery during previous debates at council meetings about the Bay Trail “then spilled out over social media”.
South ward councillor Georgina Oxley said at the meeting she had received a death threat from a person unhappy at some councillors’ view that Beach Rd should be narrowed to avoid the removal of some foreshore vegetation when constructing the Bay Trail.
“I have been told that my body will be dumped in the bushes of the Bay Trail,” Cr Oxley said.
“I have been attacked for my age and attacked for my gender.”
Cr Ron Brownlees cited pop star Ed Sheeran when slamming online attackers. He said Sheeran described social media as “a toxic wasteland”.
“It is a faceless engagement. You can put your finger to keyboard and really try not to be responsible for what comes out of it.”
Cr Rosemary West said she has also been the target of online attacks and read out several comments about her made on Facebook forums.
The mayor Cr David Eden said politicians and news outlets had been contacted by an anonymous person “alleging false things” about his family shortly after he was elected mayor late last year.
Cr Geoff Gledhill said flyers and emails have been distributed criticising his family.
Cr Tamsin Bearsley said “there is no place for personal attacks” but she has subsequently had “some good conversations” with some people who have criticised her online if they do not use “fake names”.
Councillors at last week’s meeting voted for council to write to the administrators of a Facebook page against any narrowing of Beach Rd “expressing its disappointment in the misogynist and personally demeaning attacks on women councillors hosted as unmoderated comments and asks owners of the account/s to do their best to discourage this kind of behaviour”.
Councillors also agreed to “draft amendments to the Councillor Code of Conduct to ensure that councillor social media accounts are not used to spread/host misinformation and hateful remarks against other councillors and council remarks”.
Crs Barth, Brownlees, Eden, Oxley and Staikos backed the move while Crs Bearsley, Geoff Gledhill and George Hua abstained.
Cr Hua did not believe council should “censor” councillors or residents despite personal attacks “being wrong”.
“All Australians enjoy freedom of speech,” he said.