LATROBE City Council removed councillor Melissa Ferguson’s name, photo, and contact details from its website following her one-month suspension for failing to apologise for transphobic social media comments made last year.

It leaves no councillor listed under the ‘South Ward’, something residents and supporters of Cr Ferguson expressed would impact them negatively at the most recent council meeting (Monday, June 3).

Local political commentator Taylah Ling, who runs the Facebook page Valley Insights, which has attracted more than 1000 followers, and its purpose, according to the page, is to keep council ‘accountable’, addressed the chamber. She said South Ward residents and the broader community were upset and frustrated by the suspension.

“A lot of residents didn’t know about this until it was made clear on social media, and I think that many people are actually quite frustrated to hear that the applicant of this matter was requesting a six-month suspension,” she said.

Last year, Cr Ferguson was criticised for a series of comments on Twitter (now called X), that an arbitration case found “did not treat members of the public with dignity, fairness, courtesy and respect”.

The state government Principal Councillor Conduct Registrar appointed an independent arbiter, Dr Meredith Gibbs, to assess if the councillor had misused social media. Fellow Latrobe City councillor, Cr Tracie Lund actioned the arbitration case, arguing that Cr Ferguson acted in her role as a councillor when making the comments she felt breached the Council Code.

The comments – either retweeted or written and posted by the councillor to her personal X account, ‘Cr Melissa Ferguson’ – included a shared tweet by an account called ‘Gays Against Groomers’.

“Predators are hiding behind the rainbow and using it as a shield to prey on children,” the retweet said.

“If the American people do not do something soon, it will be legal to f*** kids. The government will eventually enforce it. These monsters are coming after ALL our children. They are consuming them. The ‘Trans Bill of Rights’ will be the end of all things beautiful.” This was another ‘Gays Against Groomers’ post the councillor retweeted.

Another tweet Cr Lund submitted as evidence against her fellow councillor referenced “confused kids” were being forced into a “trans/gender bender” through gender-affirming workplace training and programs. Cr Ferguson called the programs “radical” and condemned people for profiting from them.

At the time, the Latrobe Valley Express reported that the Gippsland Pride Initiative called Cr Ferguson’s re/tweets “reprehensible, harmful, hatefully ignorant and worse still, factually incorrect”.

Similarly, it was reported that Cr Lund had taken to Facebook to say she was committed to calling out unprofessional and discriminatory behaviour.

Not a bystander: Councillor Tracie Lund, as an LGBTQIA+ ally, pursued action against Cr Ferguson’s ‘discriminatory’ online behaviour. Photo: File

The arbiter’s report found the tweets and retweets were “disrespectful to trans people by inferring that trans people are paedophiles, grooming children and using their gender identity to legitimise paedophilic activities”.

Dr Gibbs also noted the comments do not support council’s obligation to promote gender equality.

Cr Ferguson was found in breach of the Local Government (Governance and Integrity) Regulations 2020. Rather than interpreting the comments as made personally, Dr Gibbs found the councillor made her association with Latrobe City Council clear and that even retweeting was a breach of councillor conduct because it ‘endorsed’ the transphobic views.

Upon the arbiter’s direction, Cr Ferguson was required to apologise at the council meeting in September 2023 and attend diversity, equality and inclusion training.

Cr Lund took to Facebook, saying, “It is my sincere hope that this finding raises the bar on expectations for the behaviour and conduct of those entrusted with the privilege of public office.”

However, Cr Ferguson did not deliver a written apology last September and opted to read the arbiter’s direction verbatim.

“As stated in the arbiter’s findings, in each case, the apology must be unreserved and reference that Cr Ferguson has engaged in misconduct by breaching the standards of conduct… of the Local Government (Governance and Integrity) Regulations 2020 through her tweets about the LGBTQIA+ community,” Cr Ferguson read to the chamber on September 4, 2023.

Cr Ferguson has been suspended from council duties for one month for the insincere apology.

As such, she attended her last council meeting on June 3, 2024 before her suspension period, which came into effect at 12.01am the next day. In that time, she will miss one council meeting and won’t be paid or have access to council property.

Freedom of expression not a license for discrimination

CR Ferguson defended herself in a submission to the arbitration hearing held last August, saying she had the right to exercise freedom of expression and opinion and that Cr Lund was attacking her for having a different political view.

These sentiments were shared by Ms Ling at the council meeting last week. Ms Ling told the chamber that the arbitration system was being used as a weapon to attack not just Cr Ferguson but the broader community as well.

“Those who stand by her and share those views have as well been censored by this attack,” Ms Ling said.

“It attacks our want for a truly diverse council chamber, it attacks our freedom of opinion and expression, and it is attacking our democratically elected councillor,” she continued.

“I want to thank (Cr Ferguson) for having the courage to stand firmly in her convictions and her beliefs regarding the LGBT community, and I want her to know that she is not alone in this fight for single-sex spaces and safeguarding children.”

Taylah Ling attended the Latrobe City Council meet last week to support Cr Melissa Ferguson. Ms Ling’s Facebook page Valley Insights has quickley gained popularity in the region for holding council ‘accountable’, according to the page. Photo: Latrobe City Council YouTube

Cr Lund posted on social media before the council meeting that “Freedom of speech is not a license for discrimination.”

The councillor also wrote that her calling out of Cr Ferguson’s “harmful behaviour” made her a target of attacks intending to intimidate and disrupt what she called “the necessary processes to address these serious issues” (referencing the arbitration system).

Cr Lund told the Gippsland Times, “As an elected representative, I am firmly committed to accountability, transparency, and addressing unprofessional and discriminatory behaviour. I have consistently stood against discriminatory and harmful behaviour.”

“It is not easy to do this, and in doing so, I have been subject to online attacks aimed at intimidating and disrupting me. Despite this, it hasn’t hindered me in ensuring that, as a council group, we hold one another to account and conduct ourselves in line with the Councillor Code of Conduct.”

When asked if freedom of expression and accountability can be balanced, Cr Lund said, “The arbitration outcome, which resulted in Councillor Ferguson’s one-month suspension, aims to uphold the standards of accountability and transparency while reflecting the need to balance freedom of expression with holding politicians accountable for their actions.”

Latrobe City Council Chief Executive, Steven Piasente said the correct process was followed in accordance with the Local Government Act 2020 and that the council will support the implementation of the outcomes.

He said, “Adherence to these standards (of behaviour) ensures that council operates with the highest level of governance, integrity and professionalism to maintain the public’s trust.”

Public frustrated by ‘petty’ schoolyard politics

AS the Gippsland Times understands, two police officers attended the meeting after being alerted a protest could occur. No such situation eventuated.

However, as Ms Ling exited the chamber at the conclusion of her address, interacting with gallery members as she did, approximately half of the gallery followed her in silent demonstration.

Latrobe City residents seem to be seeking accountability and transparency. While council meetings are open to the public again after being closed and held online in June last year, they require registration and are limited to 60 people.

A year ago, council cited maintaining a respectful environment free from “disruptive behaviour” as the reason for hosting the virtual meeting.

The gallery was about full last week, and the atmosphere was decidedly more tense as Ms Ling began her address.

Some gallery members nodded passionately as Ms Ling said the arbitration system incentivises systematic misuse. She said financial cost inhibits councillors’ ability to appeal because they often have to self-fund the appeal process in the Supreme Court or VCAT.

Ms Ling said this could be why “genuine people” do not run for council because although councillors make comments that are not meant to be offensive, offence is often taken. Before Ms Ling left the chamber, Cr Ferguson asked her how the community, particularly the South Ward, perceived the situation.

While thankful the suspension is just one month rather than half a year, Ms Ling said it does not mean people aren’t upset the South Ward has no councillor for that time.

Council’s website suggests residents contact any councillor to raise an issue in the interim, regardless of the ward they represent.

“As a council, we are here to serve all in our community,” the statement says.

Latrobe City Mayor, Darren Howe, underscored this point in a media release.

He said, “I acknowledge that South Ward residents are concerned that they will lack representation, I would like to assure these residents that they will be supported during Cr Ferguson’s absence.”

“I am confident that all councillors will work together effectively into the future and will support Cr Lund and Cr Ferguson on her return to the chamber.”

However, some Latrobe City residents – Ms Ling included – are not convinced of this. In the days following the meeting, Ms Ling posted to Facebook, highlighting that council removed Cr Ferguson’s profile from the Latrobe Valley Council website.

She described it as a “new low”.

“Are we back in high school, or is this the maturity we should expect from our council?” Ms Ling wrote.

Facebook users did not hold back their disappointment in the comments, describing the circumstances surrounding Cr Ferguson’s suspension with words like “petty”, “toxic”, and “childish”.

Leanne Irving commented, “Wow, this council are acting like they are still in high school, not a good look.”

Others were quick to endorse the suspension, with Sarah Howard commenting, “It’s not immature; it’s protocol.”

Latrobe City Council restricted Facebook comments for the council meeting.

Cr Ferguson is operating her Facebook page under the title ‘Citizen of South Ward Melissa Ferguson’ and posted a montage of videos of herself as ‘Rise Up’ by Andra Day played.

She wrote, “Hello followers. Due to my 30-day suspension I will be updating this page as a community minded citizen.”