The administrators of a Kerikeri community Facebook page have been threatened with legal action over a post criticising a senior manager at the Far North District Council.
The legal threats have shaken the volunteer admins — who say they feel bullied and can't afford a court case — but have been defended by the council, which says it has to protect its staff from harassment and abuse.
Katy Jane Taylor, a Kerikeri Notice Board page administrator, said all five admins had received a letter warning them they faced defamation proceedings if they didn't remove the post and apologise in writing to the staff member by noon on Thursday.
The council also said the group had to publish a retraction and apology on the Facebook page by 5pm the same day.
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The author of the post was outspoken former district councillor Dave Hookway, who received a similar letter.
The letters, from a Queen St, Auckland legal firm, arrived just before 5pm on Tuesday. Hookway had already removed the post earlier that afternoon.
The post, published on November 14, referred to media coverage of a dog which reportedly become skeletal and lost puppies while in council care.
Hookway also used the post to criticise a named council manager and the size of the council's communications team.
Taylor said she had received a message from a council staffer on Monday asking for her address, but there had been no contact from the council to complain about the post or ask for its removal.
The lawyer's letter was frightening and prompted her to seek urgent legal advice.
''I'm a mother, I work part-time, I don't have the finances to fight this. I feel bullied, and I feel like they're using ratepayer money to bully the public. It's just not on.''
As well as providing a pre-written apology and retraction, the lawyer's letter told the admins they had to advise all group members that ''comments about [the specific staff member], council and other council staff will not be tolerated by us now or in the future''.
Taylor said all five admins had jobs and couldn't be on Facebook all day waiting for a bad comment to come up so they could delete it.
''We don't get paid, we do this for the love of the community.''
Hookway said he had removed the post before receiving the letter but had no intention of apologising.
In the 12 days between the post's publication and the lawyer's letter no one had contacted him to say they were upset about it.
''I do not believe I have defamed anyone, I have offered my opinion,'' he said.
Meanwhile, chief executive Shaun Clarke sad the council had a duty to protect staff from harassment and abuse when they were carrying out their duties. That included, where appropriate, responding to statements on social media.
Clarke said legal advice stated Hookway's statements about a staff member were defamatory.
Through lawyers, the council asked Hookway and Kerikeri Notice Board administrators to remove the offending posts.
Clarke said the posts had been removed and legal proceedings had not gone ahead.
Asked what steps would be taken, if any, if the apology was not published, he said no decision had been made.
The council supported free speech but those rights came with obligations to be accurate, fair and comply with the law, he said.
''Where statements lack balance, are incomplete, or are outright lies, the council must act to set the record straight.''
Asked if the council carried out regular monitoring of Facebook groups, Clarke said the communications team monitored all media and circulated selected newspaper stories, letters to the editor and Facebook posts to management and relevant elected members so they were informed of current issues.
Newspapers were monitored daily but social media monitoring was sporadic unless an issue warranted close attention, Clarke said.
Another page administrator, who did not to be named, said the Kerikeri Notice Board was a private group so posts were only visible to its 20,000 members. It hosted well over 300 posts a day on average and admins only stepped in if there was a complaint.
''Why didn't they [the council] get in touch just say, 'This is abusive about a staff member' and ask us to remove it?"
''It's pretty stressful when your council is using your own money to threaten you with lawyers. None of us are rich people so how do we fight back?''
For much of his term as councillor Hookway was embroiled in conflict with council staff. The social media fracas that followed one of his newspaper columns saw council staff complain of harassment with some saying they had to hide their council name tags when they ventured onto the street.