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Safety Harbor is no safe haven from cyberbullying

Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub and the City Commission approved a resolution condemning cyberbullying, which the mayor said has been aimed at him from the Saving Safety Harbor Facebook page run by Shelly Schellenberg. She denied the allegations. [Facebook]

SAFETY HARBOR — Mayor Joe Ayoub put forth a resolution Monday evening asking the City Commission to condemn cyberbullying.

The result? The meeting devolved into shouting and whispering from the crowd and people storming out of chambers.

The mayor's resolution doesn't name anyone in particular but Ayoub said it was "clear to the residents who is engaging in these tactics."

That would be the Saving Safety Harbor Facebook page run by Shelly Schellenberg. The former Code Enforcement Board volunteer started it in 2014 because she said felt the local website/newsletter Safety Harbor Connect was offering one-sided coverage of the city.

"Our government doesn't improve from complacency, it improves by criticism," Schellenberg told the Tampa Bay Times. "Whether the (Facebook posts/comments) are right or wrong, we need to have this discourse."

But what's being posted to her Facebook page is what spurred the mayor's resolution and Monday night's heated 2-hour discussion of cyberbullying. Ayoub said Schellenberg and her commenters use the Facebook page to personally attack him and other residents.

There was also a threat of violence made against the mayor by a resident earlier this month when a commenter said he should be sexually assaulted.

The post has since been deleted and both Schellenberg and the mayor said the poster has apologized.

"I feel like if the bully (Schellenberg) isn't publicly denounced it will keep happening and happening," Ayoub said during the meeting. "If someone is allowing threats of violence, who is next?"

Last week the mayor posted a video to his Facebook page condemning the content and comments posted to Saving Safety Harbor's Facebook page. He told the commission Monday that video spurred other residents to report similar complaints of harassment and bullying from Schellenberg and Facebook commenters.

Schellenberg addressed the commission and denied that she had engaged in cyberbullying. She did admit that some comments on her Facebook page can be out of line but said she "can't control what other people post."

"When you put yourself out in the public, just as I have, I expect to get criticism just like you all expect to get criticism," she said. "Believe me, I have been bullied by the best of them."

Commission members Cliff Merz and Carlos Diaz backed the mayor's resolution.

"Everybody knows this town isn't afraid to speak their mind …," Merz said. "But we should be able to speak our minds in a proper manner."

Two other commissioners, Andy Zodrow and Nancy Besore, were less sure. Zodrow said he would ultimately support the resolution but complained that it was unclear what constitutes cyberbullying, that it was too subjective.

Besore said she was going back and forth on the issue. She said she was "troubled" by the mayor's Facebook video and felt that Ayoub's resolution was a political maneuver.

Schellenberg echoed that sentiment when she addressed the commission.

"You've made a long list of allegations and I think you are using your official position as a bully pulpit because you don't like the subject matter of my Facebook page," she said. "But no matter how much you don't like it, the comments on the page are protected by the First Amendment."

Ayoub was quick to remind the crowd of nearly 50 that the First Amendment also allows the city to send its own message about what kind of behavior should be tolerated.

"This resolution alone can't change behavior," Ayoub said. "That is protected by the First Amendment and people's freedom of speech. We can't change that."

Schellenberg said there was some "valid" criticism of her Facebook page, but that's not going to stop her from speaking out on city issues.

"I'm fine with the resolution," she said. "I don't believe in calling people names … but I don't think saying that we're opposed to a hotel or naming these members of the planning zoning board is bullying. That's stating facts."

Contact McKenna Oxenden at Follow on Twitter & Instagram @mack_oxenden

This article has been changed to reflect the following clarification:

A Facebook post threatening sexaul assault against Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub was hidden by Facebook page administrator Shelly Schellenberg, she said. It was later deleted by the original poster, Schellenberg and Ayoub said. An article Friday in the Clearwater/North Pinellas Times on Friday was unclear on how and when the post was removed.