Should city councilors receive funding to sue taxpayers?

March 02, 2010

Robyn Doolittle

http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/773626

Should taxpayers be responsible for the legal bills of councillors who sue the media or private citizens?

Last August, city council said no. But a new motion presented at city hall Monday reopened the door on this controversial question.

At an executive committee meeting, Councillor Howard Moscoe asked for the creation of an independent legal office, separate from the City of Toronto solicitors, to meet the needs of councillors. Such an office would give councillors easy access to legal advice and protection from lawsuits.

“Politicians are considered fair game and are frequently being used for target practice by both the media and disgruntled individuals,” says a summary included with the motion. “Any individual who has $300 can, for whatever reason, launch a lawsuit and push a member of council toward financial ruin.”

It’s about defence, not offence, said Moscoe.

But as written, the motion seems to leave room for legal attacks against – or as the motion reads, “dealing with” – members of the public and the media.

“I think they’re trying to get by the back door what they couldn’t get through the front door,” said Councillor Doug Holyday. “Lawsuits initiated against councillors through their work as a councillor, fine, they’re entitled to protection. But if they want to launch a lawsuit against someone they feel has wronged them in some way, then they should do that on their own.”

Last summer, city councillors voted against an ongoing policy that had the city paying the legal expenses of councillors who sue. The issue came up after Councillor Sandra Bussin asked for help with paying legal bills after she launched an action against a publication in her ward, Ward 32 News. Bussin alleged the publication printed untrue and defamatory statements about her, which prompted questions from her constituents.

A libel case that goes to trial can cost $150,000, city staff said at the time.

Councillor Mike Del Grande raised concerns that, should the city pick up the tab for lawsuits launched by councillors, taxpayers may end up intimidated by their own elected representative.

In the end, council decided to evaluate each instance on a case-by-case basis. (Council ended up approving up to $25,000 for Bussin’s lawsuit.)

Del Grande said Monday the focus of Moscoe’s motion is good, but the finer points will need to be debated.

“I think there’s a general agreement that councillors are sitting ducks. Even today I’m not clear … about what protection we have or don’t have,” said Del Grande. “I certainly don’t approve to use the legal (office) to sue or go after people … We voted that down.”

“If there needs to be some fine tuning, I support changes so we would not be launching any lawsuits,” said Councillor Paula Fletcher, who seconded Moscoe’s motion.

“We’re simply being able to protect ourselves as individuals, so we aren’t cashing in our own RRSPs for legal advice and legal matters.”

Constituency budgets are not meant to cover legal advice, Bussin said. “And in many cases, we have no one to go to even for advice. A number of us do rely on – and we shouldn’t – asking anyone we know who is a lawyer.

“To be told that it’s up to me as an individual, that it’s up to me to fight for my own reputation, my professional reputation on my own … I’m just a regular person,” she said.

The issue will be debated at city council at the end of the month.

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