Bell refuses to apologise for Facebook posts
By Michael Sinclair-Jones
A SERIES of Facebook posts by Cr Ben Bell criticising Toodyay Shire CEO Stan Scott over the past year has prompted a legal battle in Perth over whether Cr Bell should be required to apologise.
Cr Bell refused Shire President Brian Rayner’s call at last month’s council meeting to stand and apologise to Mr Scott across the chamber for criticising him on social media about a number of issues, including rate rises, legal costs and the shire budget.
Above: Part of a Facebook post by Cr Ben Bell on May 18 last year, the same date as a post that resulted in one of six WA Local Governnent Standards Panel rulings that Cr Bell is appealing against.READ MORE
Mr Scott filed several official complaints to the WA Local Government Standards Panel, which found that Cr Bell had committed six “minor” breaches of local government regulations by making “improper use of his office” as an elected councillor.
A further complaint of a “minor breach” against Cr Bell by Cr Paula Greenway was also upheld, although the panel said on May 14 that the complaint was dismissed and didn’t correct its error until May 22.
Cr Bell said he could not stand in the council chamber and apologise because he had lodged an appeal against the findings with the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT).
“I can’t comment on matters currently before SAT,” Cr Bell said.
Mr Scott said he had checked with the SAT and Local Government Standards Panel and found “no information about an appeal”.
The appeal period has expired,” Mr Scott said.
However, a check of the SAT online public register by The Toodyay Herald two days later showed two appeals by Cr Bell.
The first lodged on May 20 – eight days before last month’s council meeting – contests all six panel findings against him.
The second – lodged on May 22 – challenges the shire’s decision to publish a ‘notice of public censure” in the shire’s ratepayer-funded Toodyay Community Newsletter.
Cr Bell said the panel had ordered its findings to be published only in The West Australian newspaper and The Toodyay Herald – nowhere else.
The council agenda paper showed that the panel had ordered Cr Bell to publicly apologise to Mr Scott for six breaches of local government regulations.
Each required Cr Bell to say “I should not have acted in such a manner towards the CEO and I apologise to the party concerned for having done so”.
The shire also recently twice published a “notice of public censure’ against Cr Bell in The West Australian, and one each in last month’s Toodyay Community Newsletter and on Page 7 of this month’s Toodyay Herald.
The Herald notice concerns Cr Bell’s May 2018 Facebook criticism (including an image pictured above) of Mr Scott’s decision to exclude 16 of Cr Bell’s 20 questions from being answered at a council meeting that month.
Cr Bell criticised Mr Scott’s performance, accused the shire of censorship, pointed to its lack of a communications policy and claimed a lack of shire openness and accountability.
Mr Scott complained to the Standards Panel that Cr Bell’s post generated a number community comments, “including several that were very uncomplimentary”.
“Cr Bell even acknowledged in his post that he was adversely reflecting on the CEO, and was unapologetic,” Mr Scott said.
“Even if the premise had been accurate, which it is not, discussion of the CEO’s performance does not belong in the public domain and certainly not on Facebook.
“Regardless of whether there is any merit in his observations, and there is none, this discussion has no place on Facebook or in the public arena.”
Mr Scott said Cr Bell’s Facebook posts had “dishonestly misrepresented the shire and a fellow councillor on a range of issues and created significant community angst and backlash”.
“As can be seen from some of the responses generated, there has been considerable actual damage to the reputation of the council and the CEO,” Mr Scott said.
Cr Bell joins a small group of other WA councillors – including outspoken Capel Shire Councillor Michael Southwell – who say local government rules are “anti-democratic” and are being used to “stifle debate” and “silence councillors”.
They say the same restrictions do not apply to elected members serving in State and Federal parliaments, and should not apply to those in local government.
President Rayner said he would inform the WA Local Government Standards Panel that Cr Bell had not followed its instruction to apologise.