Like a letter in an envelope, most people have a general expectation with email that the contents of the correspondence will remain confidential to those it is addressed to. When a person writes elected officials or government, the expectation of privacy is typically even higher.
For one resident, it turns out that writing an email to Council ended up in one Councillor forwarding it on, resulting in the resident being harassed, threatened and ridiculed online.
On April 30, 2022 the resident sent an email to all Members of Council and the CAO on an issue of equity regarding By-law enforcement. The author pointed out the difference in the treatment of a resident who had a solo protest downtown and those who had been gathering on the Oakes Road overpass waving flags.
To understand the full scope of the matter, we contacted the resident and they provided information including the email to Council, reproduced below. Some information has been redacted and emphasis added:
I am writing to request that an apology be issued to resident [name redacted]
https://www.wn3.ca [url redacted[
The reason for my request is a clear differential treatment as it pertains to the implementation of bylaws in regards to protest on public property.
For several weeks now a group organized by “Freedom Grimsby” has been regularly participating in a protest [on] the Oaks [sic] Road overpass. This is currently against several of our bylaws yet permitted by both the Town of Grimsby and Niagara Regional Police. For example there is a bylaw prohibiting signs being placed on a public place and there is several dangerous violations within bylaw 16-82
Just this past Friday the Niagara Regional Police were called by several drivers on the highway notifying them of the dangerous conditions this protest was causing. Vehicular traffic was abruptly reduced from an average speed of 120 to an [sic] dead stop due to the distraction. There was at least one accident just before that overpass.
I am not debating the Town on their decision to grant an ongoing event permit as they often do to events that temporarily close down live traffic lanes and safe pedestrian accessibility. I’m sure staff has carefully weighed the liability in this case. What I think is appropriate, is the recognition that there is a clear difference in the way that residents have been treated. A [resident] was threatened to be charged and immediately removed from the premises as [redacted] was in violation of the bylaws. Whereas, Niagara Regional responded at least 4 times to the overpass and allowed the infractions to continue.
In both instances there were violations, there were complaints and there was a police response.
I believe this [the named resident] deserves an apology.
From the email it is rather clear that the author was simply seeking an apology to the resident who had been subjected to intense scrutiny while those on the bridge had been treated with “kid gloves”. In other words, the simple principle of fairness under the law.
Email Gets Distributed To Facebook
Through a chain of custody unknown at the time, a portion of the contents of that email as well as the identifying information of the resident who ended up in a Facebook page/group known as “Freedom Alliance Canada Niagara Region” by a Facebook user identifying themselves as “Freedom Grimsby”.
Here is the subject post:
What is interesting to note is that that “Freedom Grimsby” post only included a portion of the email that fits whatever narrative of whatever they were trying to promote. Conspicuously omitted is the portions of the original email that said the purpose of the email was that the single resident protester deserved an apology for fairness.
The post identifies the email author by name and included a screenshot of their Facebook profile. Additionally through what appears to be text manipulation by a somewhat tech-savvy user using developer “Inspector Tools” built into most web browsers, a description of the individual or less-likely, a fake profile, was created to say:
The individual was not a candidate in the municipal election. “Freedom Grimsby” chose to label the resident as being “anti-freedom”, whatever that means, thereby invoking the ire of some in the Facebook group who then began to harass, ridicule and threaten the resident. That came in the form of nasty comments or direct messaging to the resident from individuals and other questionable looking Facebook profiles.
Here are some of the comments on the post, names and profile pictures have been redacted other than “Freedom Grimsby”:
The nature of these comments speak for themselves.
However the most vitriolic messages were sent by Facebook Messenger to the resident. We asked the resident for a copy of those messages to verify the claim and were given permission to share some of them, as below:
That is just a sample of the behaviour that nobody should have to defend themselves against or put up with, especially considering all that they did was write our publicly elected officials requesting an apology to another resident.
At some point later unknown, the user account “Freedom Grimsby” disappeared mysteriously from Facebook.
Integrity Commissioner Raises Concerns With Councillor Sharpe
The Town’s Integrity Commissioner was made aware of the email and subsequent online harassment on May 3, 2022. As the IC was already investigating a separate matter, he commenced a “parallel investigation” in this regard, searching the Town’s email server and requesting another interview with Councillor Sharpe. He “initially rejected a second interview and requested questions in writing, but after an exchange of emails, he eventually accepted my request for a second interview” according to the IC.
The IC in his report details his questioning of Councillor Sharpe and how the email reached Facebook:
Sharpe further stated there was nothing in the email “about it being private and confidential” and that it has been his past practice to share emails from residents on issues with others identified to “create awareness that there is a problem”. Even though the email was not specifically marked “confidential”, it was egregious to share it without seeking permission first.
Councillor Sharpe Refuses IC’s Request
The IC report then follows up with an account of how he tried to obtain a copy of the forwarded message. This would have detailed exactly who the email content was sent to. However, Councillor Sharpe refused him, believing it should be a separate matter:
We take Councillor Sharpe at his word that forwarding the email contents was not intended to be reprisal, but the resident believed that he knew or ought to have known that by disclosing the contents to those in a Facebook “protest group”, that it would subject them to being a target of abuse.
IC’s Analysis & Findings
In the final pages of the report, the IC expresses his concerns about Councillor’s Sharpe failure to produce requested evidence but does not make an “adverse inference”, a conclusion based on that missing evidence:
Council’s Consideration of the IC Report
Due to Members of Council not having the time to absorb the IC’s report, it was deferred to a Special Council meeting on July 18, 2022. The meeting was well-attended and you can find the archived meeting video here.
On the issue of disclosing the email and refusing to provide information to the IC, Councillor Sharpe stated that:
“… what the Integrity Commissioner was asking for was my Facebook Messenger messages. I don’t know how to even exactly download my Facebook Messenger messages, I suppose maybe I can screenshot them, I delete them as I go.”
Well, if anybody wants to know how to download ALL the data Facebook has on them they can follow the instructions in this link. In most cases, the data goes back to your first day on Facebook, including all Messenger messages, deleted or not… it can be a real trip down memory lane.
Councillor Sharpe further goes on to say that he “copied from the email and I sent it, I think, via Facebook Messenger”. After discussing time constraints placed on him by the IC, he further added “it was information that I didn’t want to give to him, I don’t know if I even have it”.
He also re-iterated in the meeting that in regards to the email, that it was not an act of reprisal. The IC also stated that because of the already lengthy and complex nature of the investigation, he decided not to make a decision on whether he considered the actions to be reprisal or not.
Multiple Councillors stated that Councillor Sharpe should apologize or be given the opportunity to apologize, while a pay suspension based on the entire report was on the table. Councillor Sharpe stated “I’m asking my colleagues to consider, I am willing to apologize, to make… to turn down the suspension of pay, for 15 days and then I will make an apology whether I am forced to or not”.
In the end, the motion to suspend Councillor’s Sharpe pay for 15 days was CARRIED.
Councillor Sharpe did not apologize to the resident.
No resident should have to fear that contacting their duly-elected representatives is going to result in harassment, ridicule and threats from people, in any form, on any medium. But that is what resulted due to the actions of Councillor passing the contents of the resident’s email along to persons known or unknown.
Councillor Sharpe stated that no reprisal against the resident was intended and he does appear sincere in that regard. However his refusal to provide the Integrity Commissioner with a copy of the message(s) containing the forwarded email leaves crucial questions unanswered.
From the report and by admission, Councillor Sharpe had a copy of the residents email and admits to have forwarded the contents of it on. From the screenshots, it is known that a portion of the contents were posted by a Facebook profile called “Freedom Grimsby” in the “Freedom Alliance Canada Niagara Region ” group. That resulted in harassment and ridicule of the resident, so that raises several questions:
- Who owns/owned the “Freedom Grimsby” profile and why is Councillor Sharpe reluctant disclose their identity?
- If the identity of “Freedom Grimsby” is not known to the Councillor, then why would he transmit the residents email and personal information to an unknown and untrusted party?
We may never know the answer to these questions. But as Councillor Vaine stated in that meeting “it is up to the voters to decide if he has done anything serious” and with those words, this post will close with thoughts in that regard.
In this municipal election or any election for that matter, it is important to research candidates, consider their record and campaign and cast your votes accordingly.