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MacDonald: Where Bob Kirwan went wrong

As integrity commissioner report makes clear, politicians have to hold themselves to a higher standard. In his online dealings with constituents, it's hard to say the Ward 5 councillor does that
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The Ward 5 representative has the dubious distinction of being the first politician in the city's history to run afoul of the integrity commissioner. Robert Swayze only took office in January, but you knew right away Bob Kirwan's abrasive approach to dealing with critics online was going to lead to a ton of complaints.

Swayze's reprimand will go to council for a decision Sept. 24, and the normally talkative councillor declined an interview request this week, pointing me to his defiant comments on his Valley East Facebook page. He remains defiant and hopes council will defer a decision on the reprimand.

For context about misbehaving politicians, take a look at what's going on in Elliot Lake. Multiple politicians ran afoul of their integrity commissioner, E4M Solutions. In the most severe case, E4M recommended one councillor be booted from office for not declaring a conflict of interest.

Council in Elliot Lake fractured badly over a land deal – specifically where to build a new community hub. The councillor E4M wants gone had an indirect pecuniary interest in a property he was promoting for the hub, but didn't declare a conflict. That's a big violation of public trust.

By comparison, Kirwan's habit of insulting people on his Facebook page who disagree with him is relatively tame. And whether his responses encourage attacks or not, he certainly has been harassed since the Kingsway Entertainment District decision was made last year. Remember the 'Kirwanker' signs that kept popping up? There's no mention of that stuff in Swayze's report.

And I'm guessing that's the conspiracy against him Kirwan believes in, and that the integrity commissioner mentions in the report. Kirwan's enthusiastic support for the KED — and his disdain for those who disagree with him — has made him a lightning rod for opponents, as he himself said.

It's important to remember Kirwan is not alone. Anyone who has been vocal on either side of the Kingsway issue has similarly been attacked – online and through vicious rumours that spread as quickly as they fizzle out. Suffering unfair online assaults is something KED developer Dario Zulich and anti-casino campaigner Tom Fortin have in common.

Both have endured vicious attacks, but wisely have refused to engage. Fortin and Zulich don't even criticize each other, and their public comments are always positive, despite relentless attacks from online trolls.

It's an example Kirwan would have done well to follow.

Because as much as he feels victimized by the Swayze report, Kirwan doesn't seem to quite realize where he went wrong. Public figures — especially politicians, but entertainers, bureaucrats and even journalists — now live in a world where anyone with a social media account can attack them. The meanest, vilest, most disgusting lies can be posted online. There's really no way to control someone who is determined to harass you.

What we can control is the way we respond. As tempting as it is to give nasty response, it really is putting out fire with gasoline. Kirwan loves a good dust up, and if he wasn't an elected politician, how he responds to dissent would be a matter of personal choice. 

But he is a city councillor.

In fairness, Swayze doesn't delve into the trolling Kirwan has endured, and the report only includes his responses to comments, not the original comments themselves. But Swayze doesn't indicate he has any issues with the original comments, observing that Kirwan is “often to be unable to enter into professional debate with anyone who disagrees with him, but rather prefers personal attacks.”

To me, that's where Kirwan lost his way. Patient, informed responses — even to the most ridiculous and mean-spirited attacks — is the best way to deal with the online stuff. Or put on the thick skin public figures of all stripes need these days and ignore them entirely.

Is it fair? Life isn't fair. But with social media critics, responding with personal insults only gives your attacker power. When politicians allow themselves to be goaded, the response becomes the issue, not the original comments.

Kirwan's insistence he was just defending himself misses the point. We should expect politicians to behave well, to hold themselves to a higher standard and to act professionally as representatives of our community, no matter the circumstances. 

It's awfully tough to argue that Kirwan met that standard.

Darren MacDonald covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com and Northern Life.




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