What do you do if you think a city councillor is exploiting his public platform to make money on the side?

Listener Matt Alexander emailed us with a quandary. He points out that Greater Sudbury Councillor Robert Kirwan gets paid by local businesses to write promotional posts for a community Facebook group he runs. To Matt, that seems problematic, but he doesn’t know what to do about it.

We look into Matt’s complaint and how potential conflicts like this one are dealt with.

 

OUR FULL CORRESPONDENCE WITH ROBERT KIRWAN:

FROM: kevin@canadalandshow.com

TO: robert.kirwan@greatersudbury.ca

Hi Mr. Kirwan,

I produce the politics podcast Canadaland Commons. My host Vicky Mochama left you a voicemail earlier. We just spoke to Sudbury resident Matt Alexander, who raised concerns about your Valley East Facebook group. We would like to get your input on the matter.

We would love to talk over the phone if you can find time. Here are the questions we have.

Do you accept payment for posts on the Valley East Facebook page?

If so, why don’t you identify paid posts?

Do you think it’s appropriate to mix advertorials in with posts about council business?

Why do you ban people from this Facebook group?

How do you respond to the concern that when you ban people, you’re excluding them from participating in conversations about city business?

Thank you,

Kevin Sexton

***

FROM: robert.kirwan@greatersudbury.ca

TO: kevin@canadalandshow.com

>> Kevin Sexton <kevin@canadalandshow.com> 8/16/2016 1:43 PM >>

Hi Mr. Kirwan,

I produce the politics podcast Canadaland Commons. My host Vicky Mochama left you a voicemail earlier. We just spoke to Sudbury resident Matt Alexander, who raised concerns about your Valley East Facebook group. We would like to get your input on the matter.

We would love to talk over the phone if you can find time. Here are the questions we have.

Do you accept payment for posts on the Valley East Facebook page?

No I do not. The protocol for local businesses promoting on the page is clearly written in the pinned post and Mr. Alexander is well aware of that.

If so, why don’t you identify paid posts?

There are no paid posts on the site. I do not permit advertising on the site. If you read the pinned post you will see that any promotions of local businesses is done as part of an education-based series of informational articles and profiles. The businesses can have these articles posted by me if they provide me with the articles in advance. There is no charge for them doing this.

Do you think it’s appropriate to mix advertorials in with posts about council business?

The Valley East Facebook Group is the social media extension of a community web site called www.valleyeasttoday.ca The description of the group is written on the group for all to read. I am the publisher of a community social media site and I also happen to be the part-time City Councillor, so some of the posts contain information about city business just the same as any other news publication. This is an information group, not a political group.

Why do you ban people from this Facebook group?

The policies for the group are clearly written in the group description. Anyone who violates the policies is not welcome and they are blocked from participation. I am the person who founded the group and I have administered the group the same way since it was created about 6 or 7 years ago. There are over 7600 people who have been satisfied with the way the group is run and there are over 200 who have been blocked because they choose not to follow the rules. My decisions are made based on what I feel is in the best interests of the group. If people felt differently they would leave the group.

How do you respond to the concern that when you ban people, you’re excluding them from participating in conversations about city business?

People are being blocked because they choose to violate the rules of the group. There are 7600 people who participate in conversations about city business and they have no problem with the rules of the group.

I will not be taking part in any political podcast on this topic.

[editor’s note: we added italics for clarity]

***

FROM: kevin@canadalandshow.com

TO: robert.kirwan@greatersudbury.ca

Thank you very much for answering my questions, Mr. Kirwan.

I just want to clarify a couple points:

You do mention in the pinned post that you will write businesses’ posts for a small fee. Do these posts appear exclusively in the consumers’ guide?

Also, a handful of posts on the main page (such as the ones for First Round Restaurant and Sports Bar or Monte Vista Golf Club) do read like advertisements. None of these companies paid you to write for them?

***

FROM: robert.kirwan@greatersudbury.ca 

TO: kevin@canadalandshow.com

I assume you read the pinned post in the Consumers Guide. The answers to your questions are there.

***

FROM: kevin@canadalandshow.com

TO: robert.kirwan@greatersudbury.ca

I read it and it says you will write posts for businesses for a small fee. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m left to assume that when you say there are no paid posts on the site, you mean businesses sometimes pay you to write posts, but not to post them. Is that right?

It’s also not clear to me how you define advertisements. One of your posts reads in part:

“Every Monday, Monte Vista Golf Club invites visitors to enjoy two-for-one green fee rates. Just go to the link below and see the savings that you can access. Then call the pro shop and ask how it works.”

http://montevistagolf.ca/green-fee-rates/

How is that not an advertisement?

***

FROM: robert.kirwan@greatersudbury.ca

TO: kevin@canadalandshow.com

What is your point, Kevin?

You see the policy and the procedures and you see that there is no restriction on which businesses can be profiled and promoted on the site if they follow the protocols.

What is an advertisement? You tell me a definition for advertising. Is a person posting something telling about a good experience with a local hairdresser called advertising?

And why do you care?

Why should I care what you think?

Why is it your business or Mr. Alexander’s business at all?

This is my facebook group and I can do what I wish with it.

Everyone on the group asked to Join. I had to allow them to join. No one has a “right” to join this group. Anyone asking to join the group is accepting the group rules. If they don’t like the rules I am not going to change for them. And if they persist in demonstrating disregard for the rules and disrespect for any of the members, including disrespect for me, then I have the right to remove them from the group.

As for the protocols, you have read them. They clearly say that if a business can find anyone to write the promotions then as long as they fit the style I have used they will be shared and posted. So whatever you see me post “IS NOT” an advertisement because I do not allow advertising. It is a demonstration of the style that I require if I am to post a series of informative articles and profiles of any business.

But then, if you want to get philosophical about marketing and promotion, what do any of us do in public that could not be considered advertising? What does anyone do or say in public that is not an advertisement for that person or that person’s product?

Please stop wasting my time over frivolous matters. There are over 7600 people on the group and no one is being forced to remain. They stay because they like the way it is being administered. Go and see how many people still belong to some of the other groups that were formed by people who are merely trying to provide a platform for people who like to complain.

***

FROM: kevin@canadalandshow.com

TO: robert.kirwan@greatersudbury.ca

Mr Kirwan, you are not required to care what I think.

I reached out to you because I’m a journalist and there were legitimate questions raised about this forum. We heard concerns from two residents of Sudbury who feel that by banning people, you are excluding them from participating in policy discussions that a significant amount of Sudbury residents, as well as yourself–a sitting council member–are involved in. In addition, Mr. Alexander is concerned that you may be using your role as a councillor for profit.

I’m asking about advertising because you say repeatedly that you do not allowing advertising, yet there are posts on your group highlighting deals and driving people to a business. These posts may or may not have been written by you in exchange for a fee. I fail to see the distinction that you are making between these posts and advertising.

I hope I have answered your questions,

Kevin

***

FROM: robert.kirwan@greatersudbury.ca

TO: kevin@canadalandshow.com

If Mr. Alexander and the other person who was banned from my group think they have a case they can go to the proper authorities. There is a reason why they have chosen not to do and why they continue in their attempt to find a sympathetic ear wherever they can. You just happen to be the latest. Ask why they have not taken this up with our local media or with the Ombudsman or with our Auditor General. I am 66 years old and I have been a journalist and writer for over 30 years, and I have been a marketing and public relations consultant for that time as well. I assure you I am not a stupid man. I would advise that you to be careful when you listen to claims coming from Mr. Alexander.