It doesn’t take a degree in education to realize that elected officials need to be mindful of what they say in a public forum. Excessive partisanship or off-colour comments can often lead to political turbulence for the individual, and embarrassment for the organization or party they represent.
Thus is the case of current Brandon School Division vice-chair Jim Murray, who made some disparaging and highly partisan remarks on Twitter over the weekend regarding Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister.
In fact, Murray routinely uses his Twitter account for partisan purposes, with many of his comments taking on a political edge. Here’s a few recent examples:
•“@GregSelinger thank you for everything you do for Manitoba families,” he wrote in an April 24 tweet.
• “Has any government, prov or fed been as corrupt as @CPC #voterigging #influencepeddling #paybacks,” on May 9.
And this one on May 10, which was hastily deleted soon after it was made, for obvious reasons:
• “God Bless Steven Harper for constantly stepping on his own dick, & God Bless Brian Pallister for endorsing his incompetence with his silence.”
Murray’s political views are hardly surprising, given the fact that our learned friend ran under the NDP banner for Brandon West in the last provincial election — and lost by a mere 151 votes to current PC MLA Reg Helwer. But that does not excuse his conduct as a member of the school division board, or even as an elected official.
The school division’s Trustee Code of Conduct is clear that members should 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.”
It also suggests that trustees refrain from using their position for personal gain or “the pursuit of personal interest.”
School boards are supposed to remain non-partisan, not only because of some idealistic code of conduct, but because partisanship can damage relations between board trustees and the provincial government. Imagine a not-so-distant future where Murray is appointed board chair, a post the veteran trustee has held, and Brian Pallister becomes the premier of Manitoba.
For the good of the school division, and the board upon which you sit, it makes little sense to pick fights with politicians you may well have to answer to, if and when political fortunes change.
Based on his Twitter comments, however, perhaps Murray isn’t too concerned about his future on the board, and has instead set his sights upon Brandon West once more — but even if that happens to be the case, that too is no excuse to use his position as trustee and board vice chair for his own political gain.
Both Murray and board chair Mark Sefton tried to explain away the comments yesterday, saying that they were made on his private account, and should not be considered for public consumption.
They should know better than that — these are educated individuals who have been in the public eye for a great many years. If anyone attempts to gain public office, what they say in the public sphere becomes relevant, even for board trustees.
Also, what would happen if a parent had come before the board with a complaint about a teacher or principal having made similar comments? Would Sefton or Murray have been so blasé? We can only guess, because the board has yet to finalize its long-promised social media policy that was last heard of two years ago, when it apparently just needed some “fine tuning.”
Until yesterday, Sefton and Murray were the only two members of the nine-member board who we found to be using Twitter. Within five minutes of being contacted by the Brandon Sun, Murray deleted his Twitter account.
This would not be the first time that an elected official has garnered unwanted attention for something they posted on Twitter. NDP MP Pat Martin also closed down his Twitter account in December 2012, and rather abruptly so, after attacking then-federal Public Safety minister Vic Toews in a series of comments on the social media platform.
Unfortunately, like Martin, it seems Murray had to learn that lesson the hard way.
We also suggest that, if and when the school division finally gets ’round to finalizing its social media policy for students and schools, they make sure to add a line about trustee conduct as well.