City councillor Keenan Aylwin was reprimanded and told to remove his controversial Facebook post made in the spring and directed toward both local Conservative MPs, both of whom have also filed defamation lawsuits, during Monday night's general committee meeting.
The matter still requires ratification by city council.
In a Facebook posting from March, Aylwin referenced MPs John Brassard (Barrie-Innisfil) and Alex Nuttall (Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte) and the need to denounce racism, which led to an investigation by the city's integrity commissioner, Suzanne Craig.
Craig determined Aylwin's social-media post to be "insulting and offensive," and in breach of the city's code of conduct.
"Hate speech is vile in any way that it manifests itself. This is why we have the code of conduct," Craig said while presenting her report Monday night.
The integrity commissioner’s 23-page report, which can be found on the city's website, included recommendations that council impose the penalty of a reprimand on Aylwin.
"A reprimand is a penalty under the Municipal Act and it's very serious," Craig said in the council chambers.
The commissioner added council should consider developing a city-wide social-media policy.
Coun. Gary Harvey, who also suggested a 60-day dock in pay, called it a "light recommendation given the magnitude of the situation."
Coun. Barry Ward disagreed, calling the dock in pay for 60 days "over the top" for a first-time offence.
"I wish he had shown some remorse, but he is a good person," Ward added.
Coun. Doug Shipley said he also found the 60 days "harsh," instead suggesting a 30-day dock may be more in line. He also added he wishes Aylwin had apologized for his remarks.
Council opted not to dock Aylwin's pay.
However, Craig said the post remaining on Facebook continues to violate the city's code of conduct.
"The post is live and well, unfortunately," Harvey said.
Aylwin made a statement after Craig presented her findings.
"I find it extremely unfortunate that we're even debating this," he said. "It was never my intention to distract from the day-to-day business of this council, but this is the route the complainant (Brassard) has chosen to take."
On March 21, Aylwin made a post on his public Facebook page concerning the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The first-term councillor referenced the white supremacist attack in New Zealand, and said there are people in positions of power in Canada using racist and white-supremacist rhetoric for political gain in Canada.
Aylwin urged readers to make connections between that rhetoric and violence.
“We have two Conservative MPs in Barrie that have been silent on their leader’s appearance on the same stage as a neo-Nazi sympathizer, Faith Goldy, at United We Roll Rally. This is unacceptable and it is dangerous. They are playing footsies with white supremacists who have inspired violence through Yellow Vest Canada social media channels and elsewhere,” wrote Aylwin, who tagged Brassard and Nuttall in the post and continued to urge the MPs to denounce white supremacy and offer an apology.
Brassard lodged a complaint with the integrity commissioner almost immediately after the post was made.
Craig determined Aylwin's post, which remained on his Facebook page Monday afternoon, denigrated Brassard and failed to treat the Barrie-Innisfil MP with "dignity, understanding and respect."
On Monday night, Aylwin said Craig's report "completely misinterprets the post" and gives it "exaggerated meaning."
While Craig said Aylwin is entitled to his opinion on matters such as race, the Facebook post breached the city's code of conduct when he "baselessly" suggested that Brassard is associating with white supremacists, Craig also wrote in her findings.
Craig also determined Aylwin's Facebook page carries the weight of the office he holds. While politicians can be protected by privilege in open meetings, this does not extend to their social-media profiles.
In a late-afternoon letter added to Monday's meeting agenda, the lawyer representing Aylwin says council should consider several issues before reprimanding the Ward 2 councillor, particularly since there are also defamation lawsuits before the courts.
Aylwin's lawyer, M. Philip Tunley, cited concerns about the integrity commissioner's report.
"Unfortunately, the analysis in the report is based on fundamental errors of law and misconceptions of fact. Many of these were pointed out to the integrity commissioner by Coun. Aylwin in his comments on the draft report, which we understand he has provided to you," Tunley wrote.
"It is unfortunate the commissioner has chosen to ignore them."
In a letter to the commissioner dated May 3, Aylwin cites what he believes to be several factual errors in her report, including Craig's interpretation of the rules, while also reiterating his right to free expression.
While Craig said she could not speak to the matter of free speech in her report, she said council members are held to a higher standard than the average citizen.
But Aywlin's lawyer says Craig missed the mark.
"The most disturbing result is that the report now before council completely misinterprets the subject Facebook post by Coun. Aylwin, and gives it exaggerated meanings that it is incapable of bearing as a matter of law," Tunley wrote in his letter.
"The law is clear that the interpretation to be given to the words of this post must reflect on what an ordinary, reasonable reader, with no special knowledge or axe to grind, would understand," he added.
Tunley says the Facebook post was made during a political debate and should be viewed as such.
"Comments on the post at the time, and since, make it clear that reasonable readers would and did recognize that it is an expression of Coun. Aylwin’s personal opinions on a matter of public importance, and that it does not in fact convey the very extreme meanings that the complaint and the integrity commissioner suggest."
Aylwin is also facing a pair of defamation suits from Brassard and Nuttall. Both are seeking $100,000 in damages in their nearly identical lawsuits. They've also asked that the Facebook post be removed.
At the heart of the MPs' claim is that Aylwin’s statement is implying they are racist, their behaviours will inspire violence, they support the use of racist rhetoric and the behaviour of white supremacists, they support violence against vulnerable groups and they have caused harm.
Tunley says the legal action against Aylwin is a a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP, designed to silence political speech on a matter of public interest.
"Unfortunately, despite recognizing that it is unwise -- to say the least -- to do so, the integrity commissioner has not only weighed in on a highly political debate, she has done so in a way that may leave her report open to allegations of political partisanship," Tunley wrote in his letter.
Tunley also says Craig "completely fails" to acknowledge that Prime Minister's Office has also commented on these matters, based on the same facts, and in very similar terms to those used by Aylwin.
At council Monday night, Craig said her investigation was not about defamation, but rather the city's code of conduct.
"(Aylwin) went much further than stating his opinion," she said.
"I'm in no way saying a member doesn't have the right to free speech, I'm just saying it's not limited," Craig added
-- With files from Jessica Owen