CYBER FEUD

A Columbus City Council member’s private social-media postings have generated a local debate on what content is appropriate for public officials to share on the Internet with friends or constituents.

Two of Councilman Kenny Whipker’s posts generated criticism on Facebook after Mayor Kristen Brown displayed them and included her own comments on her public page, generating dozens more negative remarks.

Whipker’s posts — open to friends, but not the general public — included a photo of a woman in a bikini, with commentary about words that men will never say including a phrase about female anatomy, and two bikini-clad young women sitting on a beach with one saying, “I slept with a Brazilian,” and the other replying, “OMG, how many is a Brazilian?”

Brown prefaces the posts with her own commentary, including “Here’s what I’m up against in the council chambers,” and “At-Large City council member Kenneth Whipker just posted this. Is it any surprise I did not have his support as a chief executive?”

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David Jones, a member of city’s park board and planning commission, replied with a photo posted by another city council member, Frank Jerome, a year ago of a Winnie the Pooh character with the costume pants on backwards — the tail instead protruding from the crotch area. Jones prefaced the posting with the comment, “But great minds think alike, right? Here is his buddy Frank Jerome posting no better …”

Comments to the postings on Brown’s Facebook page ranged from describing them as sexist, degrading, disgusting, sophomoric and inappropriate to calling for Whipker to resign.

Council members: Humorous postings

Whipker, who served two terms as Bartholomew County sheriff through 2007, said he posted both of the photos on his personal Facebook page, shared among his friends, for their humor.

When told of the comments and the allegations of lack of respect for women, he said that is their reaction, not his.

“I see it purely as humor,” Whipker said.

He added that he looks at these types of humorous postings every day, helping him get through the day in his full-time job with the Indiana Department of Correction, where he has served the past six years as executive liaison for sheriff and county jail operations and prior to that two years as director of parole services.

He described the critical comments as political in nature and said that none of his friends or family — male or female — had objected to them.

Comments about the posts on Brown’s Facebook page don’t really bother him, he said.

“I’ve been in politics for 35 years,” he said. “You develop a thick skin.”

Jerome said he initially didn’t remember posting the Winnie the Pooh photo in July 2014. After the picture was described to him, he said he did recall it.

“Offensive and silly are different things,” Jerome said of the photo. “If I was making fun of someone in a wheelchair, that would be offensive. I thought the Winnie the Pooh photo was a riot. Hell, it’s hysterical. It’s a lot funnier than the Brazilian thing.”

As for the Brazilian post, Jerome said it was a sophomoric take-off on a blonde joke.

“As Donald Trump says, you can take political correctness too far,” he said. “I put things out there that are funny. Someone is spoiling for a fight. They can twist it, spin it any way they want, but they can’t win. They’ve got nothing.”

Jerome said that he tends to be more cautious than he used to be about what he likes or shares on Facebook because the items can move beyond friends to strangers and it’s uncertain who will view it. It’s impossible to know how some people will react, he said.

Brand: Message misinterpreted

Other council members said they had seen Brown’s posts and the comments but for the most part ignored them.

Ryan Brand did laugh when the Whipker posts were described, saying people have got to have some sense of humor.

However, Brand said he doesn’t post items like that on his Facebook page.

He turned the Whipker posting interpretation around, saying it depicts a message about men, rather than about females.

“It depicts less-than-intelligent attitudes,” he said. “What it’s basically doing is making fun of men. It’s playing on men’s attitudes on these things.”

Brand said Whipker does not have any chauvinistic characteristics and that he has never heard Whipker objectify or make disparaging comments about women.

Brand described the critical postings on the mayor’s Facebook page as childish.

Council member Dascal Bunch said his Facebook page was set up as part of his campaign four years ago. He doesn’t post much, other than an occasional “happy birthday” message to a friend.

Bunch was critical of Brown taking material from a private Facebook page and placing it in public view.

“I’ve known Kenny for a while,” he said. “It’s strictly a joke to share with friends.”

Mayor-elect: Setting example

Council member and Mayor-elect Jim Lienhoop stopped posts on his personal Facebook page when he began his campaign and said he continues to have campaign staffers post only on his campaign page, probably through the November general election.

Most of the posts relate to voting for Lienhoop and encouraging residents to attend community events that he hopes they will support.

As mayor, Lienhoop said, he would not tell other elected officials to refrain from posting items on their social media pages because he doesn’t think one elected official has the right to tell another elected official what to do.

However, Lienhoop said he would hope to offer a better example of how to use social media as a civil servant, viewing everything that is posted through the eyes of the beholder.

He said he was disappointed that the social media issue had focused on Whipker but said it is not the most egregious post he had seen on Facebook.

Brand said city officials do have a responsibility to police their own Facebook page and the comments made about those posts. It’s not responsible to have no-holds-barred comments on postings, as social media is not where public officials should be airing dirty laundry, he said.

Brand said he talks to people directly about concerns or complaints — either in person, on the phone or in email. He also said that the social media postings and fallout do have an effect on the city’s reputation.

When the mayor allows her supporters to place defamatory statements on her Facebook page, it is a reflection on city leadership, he said.

Council President Tim Shuffett, meanwhile, said he doesn’t have a Facebook page.

He has concerns about social media because there is a tendency to do things on the sites that most people wouldn’t do or say in public — things that are best left unsaid, he said.

“There is responsibility on both sides,” he said of the posts on the mayor’s page. “We all have responsibility to use social media properly.”

Shuffett said he had never seen any tendency on Whipker’s part to be sexist or inappropriate and added that none of the council members has exhibited that behavior.

“I have a daughter. I have a wife. In any situation, I put them first,” he said.

When told that the mayor’s supporters had called him a “sexist pig,” Jerome said it would not be the first time he had heard that.

“At my age, it’s quite an honor,” he said.

Opponents react

Tom Dell, a Democrat who is seeking an at-large council seat in November among a three-way field which includes Republicans Whipker and Laurie Booher, has a personal Facebook page and is in the process of putting together one for the campaign. He had not seen what had happened on Brown’s page, but said he felt is was unfortunate if someone was taking postings out of context and using them in a derogatory way.

Once things are placed on social media sites, they are no longer private, Dell said, and everyone needs to be more cautious because of that. Dell said his campaign page will be upfront and respectful of everyone and will not be used as a tool for negative campaigning.

“I think people get a little carried away and put inappropriate things on Facebook,” Dell said. “I think we need to keep things in a civil manner.”

Dell also said public servants and those aspiring to serve need to raise their standards on social media and keep everything on an ethical level. If anyone comments or posts anything on his Facebook pages that he considers inappropriate, it will be removed and he won’t have any tolerance for it, he said.

Booher has a Facebook page, but only keeps it to keep tabs on her kids, she said.

“I honestly don’t post anything,” she said. “If I post something, people are very surprised.”

She said she would not use social media to criticize any candidate. “If that is what it takes to win, count me out,” she said.

Booher said everything she had seen of Whipker has been professional, and that he has made good points at council meetings and bringing up citizen concerns.

During the primary campaign, Whipker was gracious to include her in his campaign events to help her get her name out to voters.

“I have nothing but absolute respect for him,” she said of Whipker. “He treated me with respect as a female.”

Booher said she agrees that public servants should set a high standard in their actions.

Party leader responds

The two council incumbents weren’t the only public officials taken to task recently on Brown’s Facebook page.

Mayor Brown made comments about Bartholomew County Republican Party chairwoman Barb Hackman following publication of a Monday story in The Republic examining divisions within the party. Hackman had endorsed Brown’s opponent, challenger and eventual mayoral winner Jim Lienhoop, in the May primary.

“Barb Hackman, ‘Chairperson’ of the local Republican Party needs to go! It’s time to end the rule of the ‘GOP Party’ bullies,” Brown wrote in a Facebook post.

Hackman said she saw the posting, but it wasn’t the first time Brown had made that comment.

“She sent me a message quite some time ago with the same sentiment,” Hackman said.

Hackman, whose full-time job is serving as county auditor, said Brown has been using Facebook comments to criticize others.

“Unfortunately, that’s what she’s been doing,” Hackman said.

Hackman said she uses Facebook to post news about upcoming GOP events or photos from events that have happened. But most of her postings are about her grandchildren, she said.

“I was told by a friend, and I think this is very true, don’t write an email or a letter or post anything on social media that you wouldn’t want your grandmother or pastor to see,” she said.

Hackman said she knows Whipker and that he’s not like what those making comments are saying.

“People are just making something of it,” she said. “People are going to be upset with anything you do.”

She acknowledged she was not in control of anyone’s actions, but she said everyone needs to be mindful of what they do and say.

“People need to realize it’s hurtful,” Hackman said of some social media postings. “And if it’s not true and it will hurt someone, they need to stop posting it.”

Hackman said she normally doesn’t dignify postings such as those on the mayor’s Facebook page with a response, categorizing most of it as lies.

“I’m a Christian,” she said. “It’s not a Christian way to handle things.”

Brown did not return repeated requests for an interview to explain why she made the social-media postings. Additionally, attempts to contact councilman Frank Miller were also unsuccessful.

City council duties

In a third-class Indiana city, such as Columbus, the city council consists of five members who are elected to represent geographic districts and two at-large members.

The city council is the legislative branch of city government, approving the annual budget and individual expenditures in excess of $500,000. In addition, the council considers resolutions and ordinances that establish how the city operates.

City of Columbus ethics policy

The Columbus City Council approved a Code of Ethical Conduct in 2013.

Conduct is covered in Section 120 of the ethics policy, including the following excerpts.

Subsection A: Each public servant shall demonstrate the highest standards of conduct, personal integrity, respect and honest in all of their activities in order to inspire public confidence and trust.

Subsection H: Public servants are expected to demonstrate, not only publicly but privately, their honesty and integrity and be an example of appropriate and ethical conduct. Public servants should not personally criticize other public servants, not impugn their integrity. Public servants should treat each other with respect when discussing issues outside of meetings, and should convey to the public their respect and appreciation for other members and their positions.

The full Code of Ethical Conduct can be found online at

columbus.in.gov/city-hall/clerk-treasurer/ordinances-resolutions/code-of-ethical-conduct-2013/

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.