A 3-3 vote prevented the return of comments to the town's Facebook page.
Councillor Marni Fedeyko brought forward a last-minute notice of motion to once again allow the public to comment on the town's Facebook page. In the end, some councillors wanted more information before reaching a decision and the motion was lost.
On Sept. 27, the town announced it was disabling comments from its Facebook page.
"While the discussions we see on our public Facebook page reflect the community passion, they do not always contribute to a civil dialogue or the sharing of accurate information," it was stated on the town's Facebook.
"We will continue to share information on this platform, and we still want to hear from you. Send your comments and questions through Facebook messenger, send an email, or give us a call. We look forward to more public engagement through upcoming engagement sessions and our Let’s Talk Cochrane page."
Councillor Fedeyko administers several Facebook pages and says there are tools available to deal with vulgar comments and half-truths.
"I don't lay my money down on social media for reading certain people's comments, but the problem is, when you restrict one, you're restricting all, and that is where I'm having a hard time with it," she said.
"We are accountable to the public, and I really don't want to limit another line of communications where they can get a hold of us, because at this point I feel that as a councillor, I've really been directed that I'm not necessarily supposed to have some kind of direct communication with the residents themselves."
She said she ran five years ago on transparency and communications and viewed the measure taken to be in opposition to her beliefs.
"Like it or not, I'll deal with the crappy comments as much as I will with the good ones, but I consider it our job as public servants to be accountable as well as reachable to the public at all times, in any way or capacity that they feel they can reach us."
She said this was not a decision of town council and was concerned the public would deem it as such.
Not so quick, said town CAO Mike Derricott.
"That is inaccurate, it is false, and it is not fair to the administration for that to be characterized that way."
There had been some discussions at a spring town strategic session to promote a healthier dialogue around the community and there were concerns raised about the negativity and misinformation being posted. Prior to the comments being disabled, council received an email detailing the rationale.
Derricott says this is not an attempt to censor residents. He says residents and councillors are free to make their comments elsewhere, just not on the town's Facebook page.
"The interest remains from administration to produce the best possible outcomes for our community. We want to make sure our social media presence is creating the best possible environment reflective of the kind of community we are and we're trying to be, and we were actively trying to make the statement that we're not going to participate in that type of negativity and that kind of commentary around our community."
Derricott says research indicates comments made on Facebook are not a valuable form of public engagement.
"There are a lot of issues with considering social media feed as public engagement. Research is pretty conclusive that it's a really bad place to take advice from on the comment section of social media. It is not regularly indicative of the feelings of the general populous on issues."
He says the town has other public engagement tools and the purpose of the Facebook page is to issue town notices.
"People have all kinds of different reasons for engaging in social media. The town's reason is primarily to share information and that reason can be achieved without supporting or encouraging some of the challenging dialogue we've seen take place there."
He says the comments on the page represent the collective political interests, not the individual interests of councillors.
"We genuinely believe that this will produce a better overall outcome for our community and the work we're trying to do as an organization and as representatives of the work council is trying to get done."
Fedeyko believes council is being set up to fail.
"I have been reading more comments about how this council is not doing their job, they are not doing this, they are not doing that, and it's not just between some three negative people out there."
Mayor Jeff Genung said too much weight is given to comments on social media.
He said it's not about censorship, but rather about the misinformation being spread. He says he's regularly tempted to weigh in by correcting the information without providing an opinion. He says it's creating and enabling those people in our community that want to continually throw stones at something, and the town is losing the ability to share its message.
He also questions whether council is now sending a message that they watch the town's Facebook site for how to vote on certain things.
"This is one source of information, not the source, and I feel like we're promoting and enabling poor behaviour with this."
He agreed to get more information before making a decision and declined to have a knee-jerk reaction to a couple of emails.
"Social media, I've heard nothing, I've been around the community in every available space, and it's never been brought up once."
"This didn't even exist 10 years ago, and now it's a hill for us to die on? I don't get it."
Calling himself a freedom of speech absolutist, Councillor Patrick Wilson says he is opposed to turning off the comments and wanted to see them enabled. He agreed with turning on the profanity filter and encouraging people to engage in civil dialogue.
He believes uncivil dialogue always reflects poorly on the perpetrator and often people who resort to using it have weak arguments
Councillor Nagel also voted to enable the comments. He recognized there are constant naysayers taking to the site who use half-truths and vulgarity. He has identified them and simply chosen to ignore their comments. He says removing vulgar and abusive statements can be controlled through tools within Facebook.
Councillor Alex Reed understood Fedeyko's arguments but wanted more information before reaching a decision.
Lisa Almond, town director of organizational strategy and culture, said should council decide to debate the question, she would provide a full package of the information she based her decision upon. She says they have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the decision.
Should comments be enabled, she says there are financial consequences. She said they would have to pay overtime to the communications staff to monitor the page.
"There's a couple of lawsuits going on right now of municipalities being sued by people within the comments who have been accused of bullying, of personal attacks, etc. that aren't being monitored quickly enough. If we have comments on, we would need to cover it so as to protect our risk of being sued for not taking down comments quickly enough, etc."
Councillor Tara McFadden wasn't in attendance.