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Wright steps away from Engage Barrie amid 'media frenzy'

'If my involvement is proving to be an impediment to the democratic process, then I need to not be involved, for the sake of the public good, and democracy,' says Alyssa Wright
Engage Barrie chair Alyssa Wright said Friday she is "taking leave" from the organization effective immediately.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Alyssa Wright denied any connection to The Biased Scribe Twitter account. Instead, Ms. Wright told BarrieToday that Engage Barrie had nothing to do with the Twitter account. We apologize for the misunderstanding.

Engage Barrie chair Alyssa Wright is taking leave from the group effective immediately.

“This week’s media frenzy has taken away from the great work the board, election committee and all members have been doing,” she said in an email Friday afternoon. “It is also distracting from getting the candidates’ messages across, and the democratic process at large.

“If my involvement is proving to be an impediment to the democratic process, then I need to not be involved, for the sake of the public good, and democracy," Wright added. 

On Tuesday, Coun. Natalie Harris called out Wright for alleged social media harassment and verbal abuse. Wright has denied the Ward 6 councillor's claims. 

And Alex Nuttall, who’s running for mayor in the Oct. 24 city election, released a statement Friday morning saying he could no longer confirm his attendance at Saturday’s mayoral candidate forum, which is co-hosted by Engage Barrie.

“I was extremely saddened and appalled to hear about the recent claims of harassment directed at Barrie city Coun. Natalie Harris, by the chair of Engage Barrie,” Nuttall’s statement said.

Nuttall put out another statement Friday afternoon saying he would attend Saturday’s forum.

Gwen Kavanagh, chair of Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) Chapter 36, which is also a co-host of Saturday’s forum, said its status is unchanged except for Wright’s absence, that Engage Barrie is still a co-host and that one of its directors will take Wright’s place. CARP advocates on behalf of Canadians as they age.

Wright confirmed to BarrieToday that she will not be attending Saturday’s debate.

Rob Romanek, an Engage Barrie director, said the decision was made Thursday night at a regularly scheduled meeting of its elections committee.

“We didn’t feel that Alyssa had to walk away, because these are accusations. Nothing has been resolved,” he told BarrieToday. “We said if you would like to step away, we think it would be beneficial from a democratic process because we want people to be able to hear the (candidates’) voices. If that’s what it’s going to take to get the mayoral candidates to show up, then that would be appreciated, not required.”

Engage Barrie says its mission is "to create an equitable community, mobilize and empower people, and build an engaged local democracy."

Harris said she was grateful for the support from Nuttall and some Barrie council members.

“Having political leaders like Alex Nuttall, Sergio Morales and Robert Thomson and Jeff Lehman take a public stand against vindictive anonymous harassment outside the realm of proper accountability is exactly what we need to restore civility to our public discourse,” she said. “I hope all mayoral and councillor candidates, especially my current colleagues who saw it happen, or it happened to them, follow suit.”

But Wright has denied these claims to BarrieToday. The Biased Scribe Twitter account follows and comments on city council matters. 

“I have never engaged in targeted harassment of anyone based on gender or race, nor have I made any threats, made fun of anyone’s heritage, or used racial epithets against anyone on council or anyone else, for that matter,” Wright said. “That other councillors are using their dislike of me to try and smear the reputation of the organization (Engage Barrie) that holds them accountable is also very telling.”

Barry Ward, who’s also running for mayor, said he would be at Saturday’s debate.

“Harassment and bullying are never acceptable and nobody, including Natalie Harris, should feel threatened at any time, including in the performance of their duties,” he said. “That is a separate issue than accepting an invitation to the only in-person public debate during this entire election campaign because one person associated with the group co-sponsoring the debate has been accused of harassment."

Ward said he wants to take part in the debate so seniors can hear what the candidates have to say. 

“I was invited by CARP, which has a longstanding tradition of holding election debates to ensure issues affecting seniors, among other subjects, are addressed by candidates in municipal, provincial and federal elections,” he said. “It would be disrespectful toward our seniors, especially on National Seniors Day, to turn my back on them.

“The issue of harassment is extremely important and my record speaks for itself. When serious allegations were made of a council member harassing a Barrie staff member during this term of council, I took the lead in calling for a thorough investigation and holding the person accused of the harassment accountable,” added Ward, who is a longtime councillor and served as Barrie's deputy mayor this part terrm.

Gerry Marshall, also running for Barrie mayor, said he would attend Saturday's event as well.

“There are precious few opportunities to do so,” he said. “Choosing to opt out of a legitimate debate only punishes the citizens of Barrie. They lose an opportunity to learn about candidates' positions, ideas, and intent. I’m ready to answer questions and discuss the issues raised, so that Barrie voters can make the most fully informed decision about who they want to be their next mayor.

“Harassment in any of its many forms should never be tolerated,” Marshall added. “Social media is often weaponized to harass, while attempting to maintain anonymity. It was disturbing to hear Coun. Natalie Harris share that she was victimized in this way. She has my utmost respect and gratitude for her leadership and service to our community.  

“I trust that Engage Barrie will investigate these allegations and based on their findings that they will address the issue swiftly and accordingly," he said. 

Marshall said his decision to attend Saturday’s debate doesn’t diminish his stance against bullying, harassment and aggressive behaviour, but rather his desire to provide Barrie residents an opportunity to hear the candidates for Barrie mayor discuss their ideas and vision for the city.

Andrew Gordon, also running for Barrie mayor, has a work conflict Saturday and said he won’t be attending the debate.

“I agree with Alex (Nuttall) and harassment in the workplace should be investigated and dealt with swiftly and accordingly,” he said. “As for my opinion on Engage Barrie, they seem to have some internal problems that they need to address. Until they are resolved, I will choose not to engage with them. Pun intended.”