Trustee Jim Murray promptly deleted his Twitter account on Tuesday after he was questioned by the Brandon Sun about a series of disparaging and politically charged tweets he’s posted over the past few months.
Murray, vice-chair of the Brandon School Division board, posted various comments via his personal Twitter account (@Hardcastle202), which included calling the Conservative Party of Canada corrupt, using the hashtag "#voterigging" and referred to Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister as "Liein’ Brian."
But the tweet raising the most eyebrows was one posted last Saturday afternoon — "@Hardcastle202 God Bless Steven Harper for constantly stepping on his own dick, & God Bless Brian Pallister for endorsing his incompetence with his silence."
It was deleted within 90 minutes of posting, however, the Brandon Sun managed to get a screen shot of the comment.
Other tweets posted by Murray include "PC propaganda filled with lies and falsehoods. Greg S. You will Always represent our family & values," "Don’t be fooled by Liein’ Brian, he only cares for his fat cat buddies, same as Garry Fillman etal."
The Brandon Sun is quoting the comments exactly as they were posted on Twitter.
"Liein’ Brian will never let the facts effect his opinion. #mbpc unfit to govern. Only #mbndp will protect mb families and values."
When contacted about the content of his Twitter feed on Tuesday afternoon, Murray took issue with the fact that the Brandon Sun was pursuing the story, and stressed that the comments made were his own personal opinion.
"First off, I want to say I believe it’s ridiculous for the Brandon Sun to attempt to connect my personal opinions, expressed on a personal social media page, to my role as a trustee. My personal comments contain nothing to do with the board or board business," he said.
"Secondly, I believe that the Brandon Sun, by pursuing this, may be attempting to deny basic democratic freedom of speech to individuals whose opinions differ from those of the Brandon Sun."
Murray was elected to the school board in 1995 and has been on the board ever since. He was chair of the board for at least eight of those years. He said he has never taken a partisan stance with anything that has been brought to the board table.
"As chair of that board, I dealt with Conservative governments and NDP governments and never once took a partisan stand," he said. "Having said that, that does not exclude Jim Murray from having personal opinions on anything."
But Kelly Saunders, Brandon University political science associate professor, said public figures are held to a higher standard, and there is really no separation between public and private roles.
"Ask the premier or prime minister or a cabinet minister, when you voluntarily choose to go into the public realm … you lose the right to not be held to a higher standard than everybody else," she said. "That’s what public service is all about. That’s what the public demands."
Saunders said the content of the tweets were both surprising and concerning, as Murray has "been a seasoned participant and observer in the political process."
Murray was the NDP candidate for Brandon West in the 2011 provincial election — and lost by about 150 votes to current Tory MLA Reg Helwer.
"It’s one thing to have a good, healthy debate … but when you get to personal attacks, and questioning someone’s moral character when you’ve got nothing to back it up, that is really beyond the pale for me," she said.
Saunders said this is not acceptable for anyone, no matter if they are NDP, Liberal or Conservative, if they’re in municipal or federal politics — "there’s no room for that."
Mark Sefton, chair of the Brandon School Division board, didn’t think Murray’s comments violated any division policies or the code of conduct, and wasn’t particularly concerned by the content of the tweets.
He said every citizen has the right both to participate in the democratic/political process, and express his or her ideas.
"If the ideas being expressed were things that put the collective board in a bad light or … in a bad position, then yes, I would have a serious concern, and there may be an ethical issue," he said.
"But when one expresses one’s own opinions — strident though they may be — that is one participating in the democratic political process on their own."
Sefton said the school board and the current Manitoba NDP government work well together, and he would expect if there were to be a change in government down the road they would do their best to establish and maintain a good working relationship with them as well.
Brandon School Division’s trustee code of conduct states that all school trustees must "treat board colleagues, divisional and school staff, students and community members in a respectful and courteous manner, and refrain from using abusive or denigrating language in any dealings with them."
There is currently no social media policy in place, however, the division has been working on one for a few years now.
"It turned out to be a much more arduous task than they expected," Sefton said.
As technology and new social media sites seem to evolve very quickly, Sefton said they are struggling to write policy for something that continually changes, but they are "getting closer."
Carolyn Duhamel, executive director of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said they always advise board members that they need to operate in a non-partisan fashion.
"The government can change overnight, your obligation is to work with whatever government is in power," she said.
"And while there’s no law, or prohibition against being partisan in your politics, it certainly can create difficulties for the individual trustee and difficulties for the board, if individual perspective is out of step with the rest of the board, or if it compromises the board’s ability to work with whatever political party of whatever stripe happens to be in government at the time."
Duhamel said it has the potential to alienate voters if it is seen as blatantly partisan or unfair in some way.
MSBA can make recommendations, however, they can’t enforce policies in individual school divisions.
"I think ideally we would all put our partisan politics aside when we’re serving on the school board," she said. "That doesn’t always happen, but … I think that’s what we as a provincial association would like to see."
» Twitter: @jillianaustin