The Liverpool Echo reports that a former Halton councillor’s taxi driving licence has been suspended for a week over a Facebook group he set up that featured ‘offensive’ and ‘bullying’ comments towards council officials.
But an initial three-month suspension imposed against John Gerrard, former Labour member for Mersey ward in Runcorn, was set aside when he appeared at Warrington combined court on Friday to appeal against it, with the decision to take effect 21 days hence from the hearing.
District Judge Bridget Knight said she was giving Mr Gerrard the benefit of the doubt.
The matter relates to a 48-hour window from November 1-3, when a ‘Halton Taxi Owners & Drivers’ Facebook group set up by Mr Gerrard, briefly became public.
Mr Gerrard was also the group ‘admin’ and was a serving Labour councillor at the time.
Halton Council’s legal counsel Malcolm Hope told the court that Mr Gerrard himself had been party to making offensive comments, referring to the local authority taxi enforcement officer Nick Wheeler as a ‘d***’ and senior council traffic officer Stephen Rimmer a ‘t***’.
Former Halton councillor John Gerrard’s former Facebook profile picture and header. He told the court he could not discuss the police badge’s relevance and his former employment in an open setting.
Judge Knight dismissed Mr Gerrard’s claims that ‘d***’ had been a ‘nickname’ for Mr Wheeler, and that predictive text was to blame for him calling Mr Rimmer a ‘t***’ when he had meant to say ‘twit’.
Most of the ‘offensive’ comments were about Mr Wheeler. Mr Hope said the official had been ‘ridiculed, degraded and insulted throughout these posts’.
When quizzed by Mr Hope, who claimed the Facebook page had a sparked a ‘witch hunt’ from a social media ‘mob’, Mr Gerrard denied being a ‘bully’ or ‘abusive’ and disputed that the tone of the comments was ‘bullying’ or ‘threatening’.
The former Labour councillor, who was an elected member until May when he did not re-stand for election, told the hearing he was bad with computers and had not known how to log in to his Facebook taxi group.
Two other taxi drivers were each suspended for one month in January by Halton Council’s regulatory committee for offensive comments they made about Mr Wheeler in the Facebook group, but did not appeal and apologised as required by the committee.
The hearing heard two others had received warnings.
Mr Gerrard’s solicitor, Anthony Schiller, said his client had an ‘exemplary’ record as a taxi driver spanning 20 years, and had no penalty points, had a clean Disclosure And Barring Service certificate and had received no sustained complaints but had been praised for his work including with vulnerable residents.
He urged Judge Knight to replace Mr Gerrard’s ‘disproportionate’ suspension with a lower penalty.
He said the comments made against Mr Wheeler by the two drivers who had been suspended for one month by Halton Council’s regulatory committee had been more ‘colourful’, adding that this suggested the panel members had an ‘axe to grind’.
Judge Knight remarked that social media users may say lots of things due to ‘freedom of speech’, saying that she herself had been called an ‘incompetent cow’ on Youtube.
In her summing up, she said Mr Wheeler’s authority and ability to do his job had been undermined but that it was reasonable for staff in the same job to have a ‘talking shop’ and the group was public for a short time, remarking ‘we’re only talking about 48 hours’.
She said: “All what was being laid at his door was by misinformed people.
“They had got the wrong end of the stick but naturally that unleashed personal venom.”
She added: “I am giving him (Mr Gerrard) the benefit of the doubt.
“He knew it was a closed site, he was encouraging rather than saying to them ‘listen chaps, we’ve gone far enough’.
“It wasn’t just chaps, it was women as well who raised some of the more vile comments.
“He never said ‘we’ve gone too far, let’s keep this proper and professional’ and for that he must bear some responsibility.”
The judge rejected an appeal from Mr Schiller for the council to pay costs.
She said the committee members were ‘doing exactly what they are elected to do’ in ‘benefit of the public’, adding: “There will be no costs.”