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Opinion: Post-mortem on Squamish’s smear campaign

Every civic election deserves a post-mortem. The most recent trip to the polls is no exception. There are several key takeaways from that democratic process as it unfolded in Squamish.
Newly-minted council at the swearing-in on Nov. 1.

Every civic election deserves a post-mortem.

The most recent trip to the polls is no exception.

There are several key takeaways from that democratic process as it unfolded in Squamish.                                                          

Of course, there were winners and losers.

For starters, the Squamish First slate crashed and burned. No one who ran under that banner was elected. Either the electorate was not in tune with any of the three candidates, or folks around here don’t care much for slates.

Some locals have a long memory of that concept, particularly the short-lived Squamish New Directions overture in 2002.

Members of that ambitious group won several council seats, but in the end, SND sputtered and disappeared.  Another interesting development leading up to this campaign was the deployment of over-the-top social media and mail-in attacks against specific candidates. That smear strategy was directed at five sitting members of council.

Karen Elliott and Doug Race, both of whom were targeted, decided not to run again. For Karen Elliott, the fusillade of derision was a clear-cut factor leading to her exit from local politics.

In Doug Race’s case, there was less of a smoking gun. Whether he bailed out because of the social media witch hunt or just got tired of being a four-term councillor is unclear.

Meanwhile, Chris Pettingill, Jenna Stoner, and Armand Hurford, who were also in the crosshairs of that seedy online campaign, stayed the course and were re-elected. Hurford even upped the anti and landed the big chair at muni hall.

In the end, five incumbents retained their seats. Apparently, whatever brand they brought to the table resonated with voters.

It is interesting to note how the deluge of mail-in and social media onslaughts fizzled at the ballot box.

Stoner, who garnered 4,094 votes, was on the receiving end of some of the nastiest intimidation tactics.

In other words, counter-intuitively, there appears to be a direct correlation between the level of attacks and her success at the polls.

The clear message is the majority of Squamish voters were not swayed by sleazy, in-your-face U.S.-style political chicanery.

On the contrary,  there was a voter backlash against the attack ad agents for their effrontery.

It also sent another message: thick-skinned council candidates were able to avert the slings and arrows of outraged social media pundits.

That’s not to say attack ad politics should just be dismissed with a shrug.

Continued investigations related to the individuals responsible and their source of funding are in order. Most, if not all, negative social media onslaughts are anonymous, and they come with a hefty price tag.

One Facebook campaign alone reportedly cost $70,000. Those factors run contrary to the fair play component in the local political arena that has been in place from the get-go and undermines the spirit of the democratic process.

Just before the municipal election, Hurford told The Tyee that far from being small-town politics, this is an example of “well-funded, outside sources trying  to manipulate politics in our small town.” He added that as a member of council “I can see it affecting your decision-making process around having a safe place to express your ideas.”                                                         

Everything considered, at times, this election had its share of melodrama and intrigue. In the end, as always, the will of the voting public prevailed.   

Helmut Manzl is a long-time Squamish resident and political commentator.     


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