Despite his claims to the contrary, not all of Matt Whitman’s constituents are happy with how he conducts himself online.
The deputy mayor and councillor for Hammonds Plains—St. Margarets has made a habit out of saying things he probably shouldn’t. He's casually mentioned confidential information over the radio, cracked jokes maligning residents and been ordered by council to make a public apology for “inappropriate” tweets. But for a public official who can dish it out, Whitman doesn't seem to be able to take much criticism himself.
Susy MacGillivray, a resident in Whitman’s District 13, recently submitted a letter to the mayor’s office complaining about her councillor after he deleted her comments from a Facebook post about the Cornwallis branding vote.
Whitman’s post, now deleted, stated that Cornwallis was “not perfect.” The deputy mayor also asked “How bad was it?” in reference to the former governor, who issued bounties for Indigenous scalps and used rape as a war tactic.
MacGillivray commented that she found the post “completely disrespectful and insensitive.” Whitman removed that comment, and the two engaged in several subsequent private messages (shared with The Coast).
“I do not need your posts about how disappointed you are,” Whitman writes to MacGillivray, advising her to “praise others publicly and criticize personally.”
“That’s a good rule of thumb for you,” writes the deputy mayor.
In her letter to Mike Savage, MacGillivray lambasts Whitman for using his social media accounts as political tools, but then censoring anyone who criticizes or disagrees with him—something she calls “profoundly undemocratic and completely unacceptable.”
You can read the full letter here.
“I really do think that it’s unacceptable for any elected representative to use social media freely to their benefit, but then be unaccepting of any form of constructive criticism,” she says in a phone call with The Coast. “It’s like taking advantage of the power of the message he can get across.”
Whitman, however, downplays the incident.
“I’m sorry that someone was disappointed,” he says. “I could not please her, and that’s that. People think that by sending it to the mayor it becomes a bigger deal. For The Coast it does; for others it doesn’t.”
He also shrugs off MacGillivray’s accusations that his actions were undemocratic and his comments condescending.
“Sounds like her, sure.”
Mayor Mike Savage says he intervened in the matter, speaking with MacGillivray to understand her complaints. He considers the matter largely resolved.
“There was certainly a difference of opinion between the citizen who wrote the letter and the councillor,” Savage says.
A difference of opinion isn’t an official complaint, though. Only one of those has been filed (so far) against Whitman.
Earlier this year he was forced to make a public apology after publishing what he later called rude, unkind and inappropriate tweets about an RCMP officer who was ticketing his neighbour. A complaint made by that officer caused council to debate the deputy mayor’s use of hashtags like “#powertrip” and “#getalife” for three hours in camera before ordering the act of contrition.
The self-admitted fan of publicity stunts then went on an “apology tour," telling CBC that he would be more careful with his social media use in the future.
Whitman says he “gained a lot of fans” for that debacle—both for standing up for his resident and then later apologizing for his “disrespectful” comments. He also points out that councillors aren’t required to operate social media accounts, which excuses his careful curation of what and who shows up in his timeline.
“If I’m not happy that someone writes that they’re disappointed with me, or I’m ugly, or I’m a jerk, I don’t need to leave that on my wall. It’s not a public tool. It’s a personal tool. And, yes, I’m on there as the ‘deputy mayor,’ because that’s my title. If I was an architect, I’d be on there as an ‘architect.’”
Whitman’s earned a reputation over the past few years for routinely blocking “negative” users on Twitter who either slag him online or try to discuss municipal politics. The councillor says he’s learned a lesson about that, too, and usually just mutes people these days.
Asked how many people he has blocked on Twitter—a question he says “really offended” him—Whitman claims it’s only “three or four spammy companies.”
The councillor made that remark yesterday, after I chased him down at City Hall—an effort required because the usually media-friendly Whitman has been aggressively difficult to get a comment out of for this article.
He didn’t return The Coast’s calls, and refused to answer any emailed questions, only writing back to say he was “disappointed” in me and to call the story a “witch hunt.”
Part of what I wanted to clarify from the deputy mayor were confusing remarks he made at a recent Hammonds Plains town hall about the proposed Tantallon asphalt plant.
Three attendees of that meeting The Coast spoke with claimed Whitman declared he wouldn’t be part of the community advisory committee for the project, because of a conflict of interest over negative remarks he’d been making about the asphalt plant in the media.
“I didn’t fully understand that,” says Hammonds Plains-Lucasville MLA Ben Jessome, who was at the meeting and heard Whitman make such a statement. “It wasn’t clear to me why he would have decided not to. I don’t understand enough about what makes that a conflict of interest.”
When I was finally able to corner him after Tuesday's council meeting, Whitman clarified that he only meant he wouldn't be a part of the unofficial citizen liaison committee being organized by Scotian Materials developer Rob MacPherson.
That's a small but important distinction. Still, the confusion between what Whitman said and what he meant is understandable, given the councillor’s ongoing foot-in-mouth disease. When it comes to praising publicly and criticizing privately, Whitman’s really bad at taking his own advice.
He casually belittles others, including satirist Matt Brand and Pamela Lovelace (his political opponent in October’s election).
“Via FOIPOP I know that Whitman refers to me as ‘ThePamFactor’ to his staff and supporters,” writes Lovelace in an email to The Coast. “He refers to me on social media as ‘Loveless.’”
Former CAO Richard Butts was also a common target of Whitman’s japes—both while he was at HRM and shortly after his departure this past winter. Whitman appeared on News95.7’s “Rick Howe Show” back in January with fellow councillor Gloria McCluskey to talk about Butts and claim, among other things, that a cheer went up at City Hall when the CAO announced he was quitting.
During that radio appearance, Whitman also revealed confidential information that was discussed during in camera meetings with HRM’s hiring committee (while also throwing shade at the other members of that committee who didn't like his idea).
“We’ve started a process to see how we’re going to find a replacement, which is going to involve, of course, spending a ton of money on a recruiter. I thought we would just take a look at the top 10 from last time, and see if they were still interested. We interviewed them all. That was my idea. But my five colleagues on that committee said, ‘Let’s spend the money...’” —Matt Whitman
The Coast was told Whitman’s remarks prompted the staff report request made a week later by Jennifer Watts on procedural options when a member of council breaches in camera. Watts denies her request was about any councillor or incident in particular. But a week later, Whitman himself told me he was “already in trouble for something else” he had said in the media during an interview on an unrelated matter.
Speaking yesterday at City Hall, Whitman admitted to unwittingly releasing confidential information over the radio but claims to have not received any disciplinary penalty for breaching in camera.
“People don’t get in trouble for saying stuff like that.”
To be completely honest, Whitman’s forthright comments are refreshing and his (accidental) willingness to expose in camera discussions is certainly beneficial to members of the media. I mean, it's not like we were big fans of Richard Butts around here, either.
Speaking critically about matters and individuals in a public setting is often part of the responsibility of being a councillor. But it’s hard to square all that with Whitman’s own tweet-positive philosophy and his failures to live up to it. He takes a noticeably giddy amount of glee in cracking wise about others—whether it’s the assholes who deserve it or just people who disagree with him.
“If I do, I shouldn’t,” Whitman says about his negative remarks. “I wouldn’t be proud of dressing down staff or speaking to someone the way I wouldn’t want to be spoken to. If I’ve done that, I’m sorry, again. I’m just a human.”
Even after her experiences with him online, Susy MacGillivray still praises Whitman for being “hyper aware” of what’s happening in his district. She says she respects the way he’s active and supportive in his community, which is why his “condescending” remarks were so surprising and disappointing to her.
According to Mike Savage, Whitman receives the same amount of “unofficial” complaints as anyone else at City Hall.
“I certainly know he’s got a lot of very supportive constituents, and he’s got some that don’t like his style,” says the mayor. “But that’s something that gets sorted out in October.”