Jack Knox: Local politics descends into personal attacks, casual truthiness

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Jack Knox mugshot genericKerrie Reay has had enough. Enough of being called a crook. Enough of being called a liar. Enough of being accused of conflict of interest.


So Tuesday, the Sooke councillor stood up and told her colleagues that she won’t run for re-election. Maybe that will stop the online attacks.


“It has reached a critical point for me,” she said Wednesday. “People have been unrelenting.”


For Reay, it started more than a year ago. Much of the criticism centred on council’s hiring of municipal administrator Teresa Sullivan.


Reay, who chaired council’s selection committee, was president of the local federal Conservative Party executive when Sullivan was the candidate’s campaign manager, though Reay says she didn’t really know her then.


Some thought that put Reay in conflict, and ripped her online.


Reay disagreed, but the social-media contumely continued regardless. By this week, the two-term councillor had decided that when the next local elections roll around in 2018, someone else can have the job. Who needs the abuse?


Which, frankly, is a question that should bother us all.


For it’s not really about Reay or Sooke. It’s about the tenor of the debate surrounding local politics, about all the good potential municipal candidates who take one look at the self-righteous snarlfest that passes for public discourse on social media and, in consequence, back away from political life as though it were dipped in Ebola and coated in anthrax.


“It’s a really legitimate concern,” says Metchosin Mayor John Ranns.


“It’s a mentality that we’ve slipped into that makes me wonder how long we can continue our democracy.”


To be clear, he’s not just talking about the garden variety condemnation that is part and parcel of local politics. People in positions of public trust must expect not just a higher level of scrutiny but a frequently brutal assessment of their decisions. After three decades in local politics and 18 years as a union leader, Ranns can handle that stuff. He has a thick skin. Hell, they even hanged him in effigy once.


But there’s a big difference between being called an idiot, which is a matter of opinion, and being accused of specific wrongdoing, which is a question of fact. “When people suggest that I’m corrupt, that pisses me off,” he says.


It’s not just the terrible tone of social-media commentary but the truthiness, the assertions based on nothing more than wishful thinking. This year, Ranns and his fellow councillors found themselves having to fend off online allegations relating to a land swap involving Metchosin, Langford and the Beecher Bay First Nation. Ranns has seen both himself and Langford Mayor Stew Young accused of having a financial interest in the outcome. “Stew and I were both accused of profiting greatly through the back door.”


One man emailed local papers charging Metchosin’s councillors with being on the take. No proof. He had just heard it was true. Ranns, who was copied on the letter, phoned the guy and told him all he was doing was driving decent people away from getting involved in local politics.


The guy didn’t get it, didn’t understand that it was wrong to smear someone without evidence. “It’s not so much that they’re doing it, but that they think it’s acceptable,” says Ranns.


Many news organizations (or at least their libel lawyers) thought they could put the brakes to false assertions of fact by ending the anonymous posting of comments on their sites, but some people are happy to toss out defamatory statements even with their names attached.


The sheer volume of negativity toward politicians is a disincentive to running, and Ranns includes my ongoing bashing of Donald Trump and Stephen Harper in that. (Maybe he has a point. Years ago, I asked Preston Manning why his Reform Party attracted so many crackpot candidates. “Because negative guys like you stop good people from running,” he shot back, or words to that effect.)


The danger is that local politics will mirror what happened to the comments sections on online news sites, the sane people abandoning the field to the trolls. As it is, some of those Ranns has talked to about running for office have run the other way instead.


“It does bother me in that it’s making it harder to find decent people,” he says. “It’s going to be a problem in the next election.

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