Six words posted by Buck Buchanan on social media last January have landed the Red Deer city councillor in a heap of trouble.
Buchanan was sanctioned by most of his council colleagues on Monday for breaching the city’s Conduct Code by posting a comment that many people believe undermined pandemic restrictions when local viral cases were in the hundreds.
On Jan. 27, Buchanan posted the comment “Good job Glenn — Any AHS yet?” on a Facebook live event staged by former Innisfail town councillor and current Innisfail mayoral contender Glen Carritt.
The event took place in Hockey Central Sports Lounge in Sylvan Lake, showing a lack of social distancing and mask wearing protocols among customers inside the facility at a time when restaurants were prohibited from opening.
The sanctions against Buchanan were recommended by a third-party SAGE Analytics investigator, who was paid $20,000 by the city investigate the councillor’s actions. Deputy Mayor Vesna Higham said the investigator’s report also considered other times when Buchanan seemed to make light of pandemic health recommendations, publicly saying things like, “Where’s the emergency? Do we see an emergency?”
The result was a 97-page report that calls for Buchanan to apologize to the public, to council and city staff and to Alberta Health Services’ medical director for his social media comment.
It also called for Buchanan to be banned from sitting on any council committees or from assuming the role of deputy mayor until he apologizes — and to dock his salary accordingly.
But this last part couldn’t be done by council, based on legal advice, because it’s illegal in Alberta to withhold the base salary of a elected official, said Higham.
Instead council resolved to make Buchanan take social media training.
The complaint under city council’s Code of Conduct bylaw was made by Mayor Tara Veer on behalf of many upset citizens — including city staff and health workers, who thought such a comment was unbecoming for a city councillor as it undermined efforts to prevent viral spread, said Higham.
To avoid a perception of conflict, Veer chose not to chair Monday’s council meeting when this matter was discussed, but was allowed to vote on the sanctions — as was Buchanan.
During Monday’s meeting, several councillors spoke of their regret that a formal sanctioning had to happen — as well as the expense of a formal third-party investigation.
Informal appeals were made to Buchanan over a couple of months, asking that he take down his post, or voluntarily apologize for it, or to at least explain his position. But all these efforts were to no avail.
On Monday, Buchanan explained that his comment was really made in support of small businesses who suffered financially from many full or partial lockdowns, some of which lost tens of thousands of dollars in sales or expired food and supplies.
He voted against having to formally apologize — and was on the losing side of this vote.
But Buchanan was pleased to take a social media course as he said he didn’t know certain things, such as how to take down a comment.
Buchanan didn’t accept the report’s findings saying a certain “slant” was taken by the investigator who only spoke to people who supported that position. He noted SAGE investigators also found Carritt had breached conduct codes while Carritt was an Innisfail town councillor, and suggested the same company handling the two separate investigations could present a conflict of interest.
Councillors Dianne Wyntjes and Michael Dawe also had issues with the report. Wyntjes disagreed with the lack of timelines for the sanctions. She suggested the public would have a right to determine Buchanan’s fate should he decide to run for re-election.
Wyntjes also believes the general anxiety among business owners and employees wasn’t taken into consideration: in January, many small businesses were angry that big box stores were allowed to operate when they had to close.
Dawe said the six-month time of the internal and external investigations into Buchanan’s comment took too long. He mentioned the courts will throw out charges “if justice is delayed.”
But all other members of council, including Mayor Veer, Higham, Lawrence Lee, Ken Johnston, Frank Wong, and Tanya Handley approved the sanctions against Buchanan.
“It is the most difficult resolution that’s come before me,” said Lee, summarizing the sentiment of most councillors. Several lamented the many lost opportunities Buchanan had to voluntarily make amends for his comment without council having to go through the expense of a drawn out investigation.
Johnston said, “It is the burden of an elected official to to be held to a higher standard of conduct” and to uphold regulations that have been put in place to protect public health.
City solicitor Michelle Baer told council the sanctions have no expiry date, which means if Buchanan runs for office again and is re-elected they will still apply. He will have to step down from about six committees.
Buchanan chose not to attend a media conference after the meeting to comment on the sanctions against him.
A second conduct complaint involving a member of city council is also being investigated but a report has not yet made it back to council.