This is one that I think has a series of interesting political implications and is very worthy of debate, not for how controversial the action is, but because of the potentially chilling effect it could have on free speech.
Here’s the background. Spokane, Washington, just past an ordinance which requires most employers offer paid sick leave. As you can imagine, this was a highly controversial issue. Councilwoman Karen Stratton was one of the supporters of the ordinance. In the most recent election she was opposed by Evan Verduin, the owner of an architectural design firm. Verduin also opposed the paid sick leave ordinance and was upset that Councilwoman Stratton, among others, didn’t conduct more study or outreach to the business community.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Verduin took to Facebook to express his opposition to the new policy and the way in which it became law:
“Now that the election season is over, the City Council has voted to enact the sick leave ordinance without additional study. There was no additional outreach to local businesses, no contact with business associations, and a total disregard of dozens of scientific studies that prove legislation like this harms those most for whom it is intended to help. Karen Stratton and wanted this legislation passes, and they delayed the vote prior to election to mislead the voters of Spokane. Shame on you Karen!”
Verdium then used his campaign funds to pay for the post to appear as a sponsored ad.
Another twist: Veridun is a member of Spokane’s Planning Commission and up for reappointment, which is subject to the consent of Council. Councilwoman Stratton has announced that she will oppose Veridun’s appointment, laying out her reasons why in a letter to Council and the Mayor:
“The most charitable characterization of his comments is that they were juvenile and immature. In any other context, the comments could be defamatory and actionable.”
“The issue is whether Mr. Verduin is capable of engaging in civil public discourse that reflects well on the City and the Plan Commission.”
My feeling? I can understand Councilwoman Stratton’s feelings, I really can. That being said, I disagree with the decision to oppose Veridun’s appointment. One of the most difficult things in politics – one that I will openly admit I struggle with – is dealing with the fact that citizens can say mean, nasty, terrible things about you. Facebook gives your critics a megaphone. Public officials may not like it, but within some very broad limits, there’s nothing that can be done about it. If you assume that citizens criticizing elected officials is appropriate – and I do – then I think it’s unfair to oppose a citizen’s reappointment to a commission, provided that the citizen in question is doing a good job and represents your views.
Again, this is a difficult one, but public officials have to have thick skin. That being said, I acknowledge that this is easy for me to say…I’m on the other side of the country. If I were Councilwoman Stratton, I may feel very differently!