Stolen signs, personal attacks, online outrage mar municipal election

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

      HALDIMAND—The 2022 municipal election in Haldimand has been a reflection of the times, with more than one mayoral candidate facing intense scrutiny from the public.

      Incumbent Mayor Ken Hewitt is facing the most heat being at the centre of online backlash to the proposed Nanticoke development. In addition to a series of ‘Boycott Hewitt’ web links that flooded social media channels in the Provincial election, he has reported over 300 stolen signs in his current mayoral bid, with homegrown signs also appearing on some lawns in the Cayuga area with the phrase ‘Jail Hewitt’.

      On this backlash, Hewitt said, “Being in the public eye, you expose yourself to personal opinions on social media and there’s nothing that governs social media, so people are a lot more able to say things they may not say face-to-face.”

      He said it is obvious there is a “whisper campaign” that has “relied more on fiction than facts”, noting that the personal attacks he has experienced originate from these ideas.

      Hewitt added, “When you can’t challenge those that are in office for their success, you create a different narrative, and it becomes an attack on character.”

      He said that in addition to the online discourse, he has received numerous phone calls from people angry with him about Nanticoke and other “false claims”. He added, “You want to run a fair campaign and be respectful to other candidates and how they run their campaigns, and you hope that it’s reciprocal.… But there are people out there taking signs, and it’s not just in one community it’s right across the county.”

      He concluded, “This is, by far, the least ethical of all campaigns I’ve been part and party of.”

      Hewitt is not the only candidate feeling the heat. Calvin Eady, moderator for the Facebook group Haldimand County Political Discussion, said a personal attack on candidate Shelley Ann Bentley crossed a line as the poster claimed she was using sick leave to campaign. The post ignited a flurry of replies, with comments like, “I heard she’s on unemployment and leaching from taxpayers.” Bentley herself entered the comments, asserting that the original post was incorrect.

      “In my opinion, there’s been quite a lot of toxic comments and posts over the past couple months,” said Eady. “Personal insults and attacks, calling people names, and being really rude to each other…. Not just disagreeing on candidates, but calling people idiots … (and) often worse than that.”

      Eady said another poster made a “veiled threat” against Bentley, saying they’d ‘expose’ secrets about her employment history. He added, “We have had to remove posts and comments supporting and/or opposing multiple candidates.”

      Eady said the potential Nanticoke development polarized the discussion in both the Provincial and Municipal elections: “There are people on one side that hate the idea and there’s people who think it is great, and there are people in the middle that are being drowned out by the hatred on both sides.”

      The Press reached out to Bentley about this experience and received the following statement: “That is all true. I really did not read the whole page as it was quite disturbing, hurtful. I don’t believe this is a one off incident; I have been taking digs on social media for most of the campaign. It appears to be the same group of people that are making comments that I find disturbing. I thought the campaign would get dirty, just not like this. I find it very disheartening. I believe it has crossed a personal line.”

      Mayoral candidate Dick Passmore said he has seen personal attacks on social media “from a very limited group of individuals that support another candidate,” along with receiving similar phone calls originating from Toronto or blocked numbers. Passmore said candidates should expect tough questions, but it crosses to harrassment “when the respondents decide to attack the person, not the issue.”

      “I definitely don’t condone the harassment of anyone, candidate or not,” he said. “There are some keyboard warriors that spend all day on social media hurling hate at others.  I think it gives them a sense of power, especially when they feel that they have ‘won’ when they get the last word. It’s a sad reflection on society.”

      Generally, however, Passmore says he has “been met with kindness and openness” from residents in person: “I don’t see the anger that spills out online, but rather a community that is concerned about some basic issues.”

      He encouraged residents posting online “to think about your answer before you press send. Ask yourself if your statement is factual, necessary, and written in a kind way.”

      Mayoral candidate Jake Vandendool said he has not personally encountered any incidents of such attacks.

      “The most I have encountered is some very passionate and vocal voters not happy with the status quo – I feel that is to be expected in an election as people truly care about the community,” he said, condemning any personal attacks that have been done to other candidates. “Criticism and opinion must remain respectful and not cross the line to threats or personal attacks on one’s person.”

      On the positive side, he said that people have been very engaged when he’s been out knocking on doors, and added that he limits his interactions on social media to his campaign and responding to questions or comments from the public.

      He said that he has been surprised by the tactics used by some of campaigns in “pressuring residents to place signs or take down other candidates signs. I have received a few calls of this nature advising me of encounters with volunteers from other campaigns.”

      Candidate Jenn Gilmour did not respond to a request for comment as of publication.

      With the election just over a week away, the online discourse only seems to be heating up, as seen on this week’s Opinion page. With so many divisive issues, it’s shaping up to be a memorable election come October 24.

 

Editor’s Note: The online version of this article has been amended to include comments from candidate Shelley Ann Bentley. The original edition noted that her comments were not received in time, but this was a technical error in which an older draft of the article was accidentally used, written prior to her comments being received. We apologize for this error.