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Proposed Georgina bylaw called ‘spear into heart of democracy’ sent back to staff for review
July 16, 2015
By Heidi Riedner

Suing Joe Public on his own dime for slandering city hall was one of many issues raised regarding a sweeping town bylaw up for review this week.

A bylaw that, among other things, would allow town officials to use the public purse to sue someone for defamation did not get passed by Georgina council Tuesday, being sent back to staff, instead, for further analysis.

But some residents believe a bylaw - they describe as having far-reaching impacts that will effectively chill public participation using taxpayer money - should never see the light of day.

“It drives a spear into the heart of democracy,” said Pefferlaw resident Karen Wolfe.

“Everyone in this community should be outraged. There is something inherently wrong with a bylaw that would allow the town to use my money to sue me.”

Describing far-reaching impacts of a bylaw that would “morph into nothing more than strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP)”, Wolfe and solicitor Mark Donald said the bylaw would chill public participation and use taxpayer money to do it.

Staff recommended adoption of the proposed bylaw calling it a “fair and expedient process for the assessing of claims or proceedings involving public officials” and said it would allow a proper assessment if “any potential harm” to the reputation of the town and its public officials occurs, according to a report tabled at a special meeting of council.

“It seeks to protect public free speech while weighing the harm that could occur if not addressed,” the report went on to say.

A few members of the public who addressed council cautioned elected officials to put in some serious second thought before potentially passing “such an intimidating piece of legislation”.

According to the report, the proposed policy provides, for the first time, an internal review process for handling indemnification of claims filed against all of the town’s public officials.

And while defamation claims against them are covered under the town’s general liability policy, it does not cover the costs when public officials initiate claims against a third party for either libel (printed material) or slander (spoken word).

Bylaw provisions addressing defamation claims would also encourage the highest standards of professional and ethical behaviour among public officials and protect their reputations, the report states in regard to attracting citizens into public life.

“It is in the public interest that the town be able to attract and retain competent persons of good repute as public servants,” the report said. “It is not likely to be able to do so if these persons may be subject to false, personal attacks without recourse.”

But for those members of the public who addressed council, the implied threat of the bylaw alone “is constitutionally and morally wrong”.

The fact that the report was described as administrative in nature and, therefore, requiring no public consultation, also didn’t sit well.

“How can anyone consider a bylaw of this magnitude and its far-reaching implications on the public and the public purse to be simply an administrative matter? This should have been a statutory public meeting, period,” Wolfe said.

Staff was advised to further examine the proposed bylaw, separating the indemnification and defamation issues into two separate reports to be brought back to council for review.