A conduct panel rejected councillor Elise Chapman’s argument she was acting as a private citizen, not a councillor, when she tweeted a graphic image linking female genital to the proposed Bendigo mosque as irrelevant.
The panel dismissed the disclaimer on her Twitter profile that “opinions are my own” and found her role as councillor curtailed her freedom of expression, that her actions were harmful to council and deemed her proposed apology as “inadequate and insincere.”
The findings have been revealed in documents submitted to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal as part of Cr Chapman’s challenge to the panel’s findings of misconduct against her.
Cr Chapman tweeted an image of children with mutilated genitals to a supporter of Bendigo’s proposed mosque in February last year. Cr Chapman is currently challenging a independent conduct panel’s decision she apologise for the offence caused by that tweet at VCAT.
They detail the three specific parts of the councillor code of conduct which the panel found Cr Chapman had breached and one which it found she had not.
They include clauses which stipulate councillors act with honesty and integrity.
The panel said there “will, and should be, vigorous debate” between councillors on controversial issues, but that Cr Chapman had failed in her obligation to treat all people with respect and courtesy.
“The issue is not that Cr Chapman has expressed an opposition to the proposed mosque, but that she has done so in a manner which is so extreme as to be in breach of the code and is harmful to the council,” the panel finding reads.
Cr Chapman argued that allegations against her did not constitute a breach of the councillor code of conduct as she was acting as a private citizen.
“I feel that I have been discriminated against and that my democratic and human rights to exercise freedom of speech as a private citizen have been violated," Cr Chapman wrote in her response to the submission for a councillor conduct panel.
“The tweet was not from councillor Elise Chapman, it was from private citizen, Elise Chapman.
“I explicitly stated on my profile that this is a personal account and that the opinions are my own.”
But the panel found that the Twitter profile drew attention to her role as a councillor.
It read: “Elise Chapman, mother, farmer, Estate Agent, volunteer, actor. Retweets are not endorsements. Opinions are my own not of Bendigo Council. Proudly Team Australia.”
“The phrase in her Twitter profile ‘opinions are my own not of the Bendigo Council,’ establishes a clear connection between her and her role as a councillor of the Bendigo council,” the panel found.
“Irrespective of any disclaimer in the Twitter profile or elsewhere, Cr Chapman was known as a councillor of the council and particularly so following the high-profile town planning application.”
The panel found that the tweets, which were sent to a supporter of Bendigo’s proposed mosque in February last year, needed to be taken in the context of her role as a high-profile opponent of the mosque.
“The tweet from Cr Chapman ‘Oh we could have this here too? Would you like your fanny sliced off?’ and the accompanying picture is very offensive,” the panel found.
"The implication from Cr Chapman in that, and other tweets, is that female genital mutilation, child brides, inequality, women beating are all part of the Quran and the Muslim religion and that these may occur in Bendigo if the proposed mosque is approved and built."
The panel said there was “a qualified acceptance” of the offensive nature of the tweet in an apology which Chapman proposed, but was not given opportunity to deliver, at a council meeting prior to the instigation of the conduct panel.
But the panel found that the inadequacy of her proposed apology reflected “a failure or unwillingness by Cr Chapman to fully appreciate the consequences of her actions.”
“Cr Chapman's proposed apology was inadequate as it was insincere,” it read.
“It sought to deflect responsibility onto a council officer, blame the media and indicate that her comments were made as a private individual and that others failed to recognise this.”
Mayors bullied councillors following tweet
The documents before VCAT, submitted by Cr Chapman, also reveal the previously confidential reasons for the decision of a separate councillor conduct panel.
That panel’s finding of misconduct against councillor Peter Cox was tabled at a council meeting last month.
It looked into 12 incidents which Cr Chapman and councillor Helen Leach alleged constituted a breach of the councillor code of conduct, most of which related to the fallout from council’s decision to approve construction of the mosque.
The panel upheld seven of those allegations, among them that Cr Cox denied Cr Chapman an opportunity to deliver her proposed apology at the March 5, 2015, council meeting, saying it demonstrated a “clear lack of respect for Cr Chapman and her right to due process.”
Cr Cox was serving as City of Greater Bendigo mayor at the time.
Another incident in which Cr Cox was found to have breached the code of conduct occurred in a television interview following an anti-mosque rally in August last year.
The then-mayor told WIN News he was upset by “twitters” made by Cr Chapman.
“Comments [such] as 'wear your steel capped boots and bring along your capsicum spray' for an elected representative that is not satisfactory,” Cr Cox said at the time.
The panel findings said Cr Chapman objected as the comments were not made publicly on Twitter, but to a private online forum.
“She said it in a group social media message between approximately six individuals,” the panel findings read.
“It was a private conversation, and the statement was made because at a previous rally she had been caught in a crush, so was advising the others to be prepared if they were going to the rally.”
The panel therefore found the message taken out of context and reprimanded Cr Cox for not seeking to clarify them with Cr Chapman before engaging the media.
Other allegations against Cr Cox the panel upheld included “constant negativity” and bullying towards councillors Chapman and Leach.
The panel upheld Cr Chapman’s claims that she was “humiliated” when Cr Cox offered her a chance to apologise for her graphic tweet at the August 5 council meeting in which a separate panel ordered Cr Chapman to say sorry -- despite knowing that Cr Chapman was challenging that finding at VCAT.
Among the five allegations of misconduct the panel dismissed were that Cr Cox “insulted” the people of Long Gully, California Gully and Eaglehawk and that he had failed to declare conflicts of interest.
The panel heard from several councillors and the city’s chief executive officer that Cr Cox has served as a “great” and “excellent” mayor. Several councillors also noted what they said was an intransigence on the part of councillors Leach and Cox.
"Councillors Chapman and Leach have been disruptive, vexatious and are in my opnion incapable of working within and on behalf of their communities within the local government structure,” councillor James Williams said.
The panel said it was concerned to the level to which relations between councillors had sunk.
“The panel… was particularly concerned at the extent to which the professional relationship between Cr Cox and councillors Chapman and Leach had deteriorated to,” the findings read.
“Even when observing their interaction at hearing, it was evident to the panel that there were strong feelings of mutual dislike between the parties.”