The town council of Witless Bay passed a motion recently to retain a criminal lawyer to advise them on how to deal with criticisms and accusations levelled at individual councillors — or the council as a whole — on social media, and apparently to advise council on how to financially discipline the residents making the comments.
In the town minutes dated Feb. 13, under the heading “Legal Advice” the motion states, “Be it resolved that council retain an independent criminal lawyer to review recent social media accusations against current town council or councillors to empower the finance committee to take disciplinary actions.”
The motion was carried unanimously.
Mayor Rene Estrada, however, said Wednesday no lawyer has yet been retained and council is reconsidering whether it will be necessary.
“There were accusations made of some of the councillors (on social media), but they aren’t named as such,” Estrada said. “We are just looking at the situation (to see) if we are going to take any action or not take any action, or if it’s best to ignore it.
“We haven’t contacted the lawyer as of yet. We are still at the point of discussing how important it is of having a criminal lawyer at all. We haven’t made a move one way or another.”
Witless Bay resident Lorna Yard is no stranger to criticizing the council or calling out individual members about various issues on social media platforms such as Facebook.
Last year, Yard took a former deputy mayor of Witless Bay to Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court, challenging his claim of being a resident of the town for the required 30-day period prior to a September 2016 byelection. Yard won her case and the then-deputy mayor was forced to resign his seat. (That person now has a permanent home in Witless Bay and is again a member of the town council following last fall’s municipal elections.)
Yard has also been vocal on land issues in the town, particularly the controversial Ragged Beach potential land development area.
Yard said the motion passed by the council in February is an attempt to intimidate residents who speak up.
“I thought what a bizarre motion it was because a criminal lawyer represents somebody accused of a crime and just the very idea of trying to financially penalize residents with their own money because they spoke out against (municipal) government is very Machiavellian,” Yard said.
“When I tried to make sense of it I think I just came to the conclusion that the language in that is designed to intimidate people, to keep people quiet, and is part of a greater plan to remove the public from having any participation with this (council).”
Estrada said that because individual names of councillors are not mentioned in the social media posts, the accusations and criticisms reflect on the council as a whole. He said the council has a right to protect itself from any possible smear campaign.
“It’s to protect the integrity of the council,” the mayor said.
“I didn’t read the (social media posts) myself. It was relayed to me because Facebook is not something I bother to subscribe to. But it was something from the past that brought this up.
“If there are implications there for individuals, if the individuals wish to pursue (legal action) on their own, that’s their business. But what do we do if it reflects on the council as a whole? Do we just ignore it?
“We will discuss it at an (upcoming) in-camera meeting. We will more or less get advice if we should pursue it, or not pursue it, whatever the case might be. Sometimes I find it’s best if you ignore it and it goes away because it has no basis.”