Esperance Shire Councillor apologises

Photo: Jesinta Burton.
Photo: Jesinta Burton.

Esperance Shire councillor Dale Piercey has publicly apologised at the ordinary meeting of Council over breaching Local Government Regulations and publishing false information about funding for the Esperance Jetty.

During the Council Meeting on Tuesday evening, November 27, Councillor Piercey apologised for her actions.

“I accept that I should not have posted the false information and apologise for my actions,” she said.

“I apologise to my fellow councillors.”

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The apology was made after the state’s Local Government Standards Panel were presented with three minor breach complaints, made by Shire president Victoria Brown, deputy president Natalie Bowman and former councillor Kevin Hall.

The complaints were made with regards to councillor Piercey stating that $50,000 of jetty funding had been offered and refused by the shire and that, when offered an inspection of the jetty, officials were taken to view the worst areas.

The comments, published to a page with more than 11,000 members in January, were found to have breached regulation 7.1(b) of the Local Government Regulations 2007 which states a council member must not make improper use of the person’s office to cause detriment to the local government or any other person.

The Panel also found that councillor Piercey failed to correct her statements.

The Panel noted it was the first minor breach by councillor Piercey and deemed a public apology an appropriate penalty.

The public address prompted fellow councillor Shelley Payne to stand and formally request an apology from councillor Steve McMullen regarding a Facebook post made about both her and councillor Piercey she stated was incorrect and defamatory.

The post, made on councillor McMullen’s personal Facebook account, was a copy of an article written in October by the Esperance Express regarding the budget variation to the annual roads program for the Main Roads WA Direct Road Grant.

After the item was carried 6-2, councillor McMullen’s post criticised the decision by councillors Payne and Piercey to vote against the budget variation – a move councillor Payne said she made because she did not believe the funding should be allocated to power line tree clearing.

Shire president Victoria Brown interjected, stating that there were significant differences between both of the cases.

“There are differences in both of these cases,” she said.

“Councillor Piercey was asked numerous times to correct the information, which she didn’t.

“When I contacted councillor McMullen and suggested he remove the post, he did so immediately.”

Councillor McMullen told council that he refused to apologise for the post.

“I certainly won’t be apologising because there was one key difference – my post was factual,” he said.

Shire president Victoria Brown called council to order and said the incident presented a timely reminder of the issues associated with social media.

“I think this is a timely reminder that we all need to be wary of what we post on social media,” she said.

“Social media posts have the ability to bully, belittle and defame and, quite frankly, I think it is appalling.”

Speaking to the Esperance Express following the meeting, deputy president Natalie Bowman stressed the importance of the oath taken by council.

“As councillor we sign an oath, a code of conduct, an agreement that we will put out correct information,” she said.

“I was the acting shire president when that post went out and it contained incorrect information.

“I understood that it was a new councillor, gave her the benefit of the doubt and gave her the correct information and asked her to correct it.

“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that didn’t happen.

“That’s when I chose to take the next step.”

Shire president Victoria Brown said lessons had been learnt and that it was time to move forward.

“As councillors, we are bound by rules and we sign to say we will accept those responsibilities and obligations,” she said.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m a councillor 24/7 – when I’m on the phone, when I’m on social media, when I’m on the street.

“You have to make those judgement calls.

“Councillor Piercey apologised and I thanked her for doing so.

“A wrongdoing, an apology, let’s move forward with the lessons learnt.

“One thing that can be said is that it [social media] takes up a huge amount of government resources.

“Whether it has gone up on our page or a personal page, it’s almost a full-time job watching what is coming up on social media.”

Shire of Esperance chief executive officer Matthew Scott said a new line in the sand needed to be drawn with regards to local government conduct on social media.

The Local Government Standards Panel dealt with 82 complaints against councillors in 2017/18, many of which involved statements made on social media. 

However, with the use of social media not addressed in the Local Government Act 1995, and the act under review, Mr Scott said it was a difficult situation to police.

“As a councillor or senior staff member, you’re expected to provide factual information,” he said.

“Looking at how the community have a discussion these days.

“How do senior staff, councillors and members of the shire engage in that without breaking any rules?

“Local government has rules it has to follow, the rest of the community doesn’t – we’re not playing on a level playing field to start with.

“Who polices social media?

“Should it be policed?”