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Online bullying or smear campaign?

Facebook group Carterton Voice has become the backdrop for bullying allegations. PHOTO/TOM TAYLOR

Mayor to investigate claims of bullying by councillor

A Carterton councillor denies allegations that he has bullied members of an online forum used to debate the district’s issues.

Carterton councillor Rob Stockley. PHOTO/FILE

A group of residents wrote to Carterton District Council Mayor Greg Lang on Saturday, expressing their concern that councillor Rob Stockley had demonstrated bullying behaviour on the Facebook group, ‘Carterton Voice – New Zealand’.

The residents, spearheaded by John Wren, an experienced professional at a senior level in central and local government, said they were concerned about the “considerable bullying behaviour by Stockley on Carterton Voice over the last several months and in particular, since 30 June 2021”.

The residents had also sent the letter to Stockley “as a matter of professional courtesy”.

“This feels to me like a politically driven, coordinated smear campaign,” Stockley said.

He had since posted the letter and Lang’s reply on Carterton Voice.

“Given that I was the subject of the complaint letter, and in the interests of transparency, I chose to proactively release the letter.”

Stockley said the same residents had campaigned against the recently accepted Long-Term Plan [LTP] with official information requests, complaints, and public demonstrations.

At a meeting last Wednesday where the council adopted its LTP, Wren presented his analysis of the budget included in the plan.

Wren said the budget balanced based on “fairly heroic assumptions about whether the forecasting on rates revenue … will be at the levels predicted”.

On July 2, two days after the meeting, Stockley posted on Carterton Voice supporting the council’s finance team and questioning critics of the LTP budget.

“This is the calibre of financial questions that allegedly came from professionals. I don’t get it,” he said in the post.

“I challenged this group to acknowledge facts and the statutory processes that applied,” Stockley said. “They must be growing tired of my repeated challenges because their efforts to undermine and silence me are growing ever more determined.”

Carterton Voice co-administrator Ron Shaw said Stockley had not broken any of the rules of the Facebook group and disagreed with the allegations of bullying.

Posting on behalf of the administrators, Shaw said, “All discussions initiated by Councillor Stockley and all responses contributed by Councillor Stockley meet the rules.”

Shaw said, in the interest of free speech, Stockley should be able to engage in online debate.

“I have very little time for Rob, but it’s not because he engages in debate – that’s a good thing. I just don’t agree with his politics.

“Attacking the issue is a good thing. Attacking the individual is not so good.”

Stockley said any views he shared on social media were his personal views unless stated otherwise.

“When you become a councillor, suddenly everyone knows you. Online it’s not possible for me to distinguish myself as a resident or councillor. Ask me a reasonable question, and I will give you a reasonable answer. If I can’t, then I will explain why.”

Stockley said he had been warned in the past to stay off social media.

“I put this down to my persistent challenging of council critics to support their accusations with facts.”

In their letter to the mayor, the residents did not give specific details on the alleged bullying but said Stockley had made personal attacks, belittling remarks, and had been intimidating.

In a letter to the Times-Age, Wren said he was appalled Stockley had posted the letter online.

“For me, it proves the concerns that were raised in confidence with the mayor have considerable merit … I assumed the process would be confidential and would be treated professionally by the Mayor and councillor Stockley. Sadly, it seems not.”

They said his behaviour matched the description of bullying given by workplace health and safety regulator WorkSafe.

“We note that bullying behaviour can have considerable detrimental health effects on those targeted by the behaviour, and a chilling effect on democracy.”

The group emphasised that two of their members had medical and public health backgrounds.

The group asked Lang whether he considered Stockley’s behaviour acceptable and whether the behaviour complied with the Code of Conduct for councillors.

Lang replied to the residents early on Sunday morning, requesting details on the alleged bullying behaviour.

“I take accusations of bullying very seriously, which is why I responded to the allegations in the letter immediately,” he said.

Lang said he had suffered from bullying as mayor.

 

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