Great Coverage by the Owen Sound Sun Times!!!
Council ends lawsuit funds
By Paul Jankowski
Posted 9 hours ago
South Bruce Peninsula council voted in front of a standing room only crowd Tuesday to stop all funding of a defamation suit its chief administrative officer has brought against a blog and four individuals.
A resolution introduced by Coun. Janice Jackson to that effect passed by a vote of 7-2 to the applause of many of the 50 people who had crowded into the council chambers room for the vote. All but about 10 left after Jackson invited them to stay, but explained council’s dealing with the matter was over for the day.
The resolution calls for Rhonda Cook’s lawyers to be “notified within 24 hours that the municipality will no longer pay legal fees regarding this matter” and that “with council scrutiny and approval, one final invoice for legal work completed to this day be submitted to and reconciled with the municipality by March 30, 2012.
“And further that no additional invoices will be accepted regarding this claim.”
In January, Cook launched a defamation suit against John Schnurr, Western International Publications, which is based in the Turks and Caicos Islands, Craig Gammie and Rick Lyttle and Orma Lyttle seeking a total of $700,000 in damages for comments posted on Bruce on the Bruce, found online at bruceonthebruce.wordpress.com.
The town’s financial involvement in the case is unclear.
“We all went back over all the resolutions that were passed regarding the blog right from the moment it was brought to council and the last one we had that really authorized any funding was over a year ago,” Jackson said after her resolution passed. “It said we would pay her legal bills to that date . . . there was no resolution, no commitment at all to pay anything beyond February (2011).”
Asked if there was an understanding that Cook’s legal fees would be paid by the town, Jackson said “it was so grey. It’s been grey for so long . . . the public outcry has been very powerful and so really we had to reconsider and weigh what path we were going down.”
Jackson said council does have a responsibility to protect its employees from harassment “but there’s nothing that says we have to commit to a lawsuit and fund it.”
“When it first came to us it was a matter of identifying the contributors to the blog and, as a council, I believe we were authorizing lawyers to try and disclose the contributors and send them a letter to cease and desist. That’s really how it started and we agreed to fund that . . . and it just kind of snowballed from there,” Jackson said.
Cook said Tuesday in a telephone interview, “there was a resolution passed” by council about funding her lawsuit. “It was my understanding that they had said to proceed.”
Asked if she would have launched the suit without the municipality’s financial backing, Cook said, “I’m not going to comment any further.” She gave the same answer when asked if she would continue with the lawsuit. She was not at Tuesday’s meeting.
Mayor John Close, citing laryngitis and illness, referred questions about the lawsuit to Coun. Jay Kirkland, who with Coun. Jim Turner voted against Jackson’s motion.
“The original motion was in closed session,” he said of council’s funding of the lawsuit. “I was to the understanding we were supporting her (Cook).”
“If council made a mistake it was that we didn’t discuss the limits” of that support, he added. “But it was a nine to zero vote by council to go ahead and support our staff and I’ve had that understanding for the last year. Since council found out who is involved, minds have changed and public pressure has changed council’s decision. It hasn’t changed my decision,” he said.
Kirkland said he was unsure how much the town has invested in the lawsuit, but “I feel it’s going to cost us more in the long run with the direction we’re going now.”
“There might be counters (counter lawsuits) now,” he said when asked why.
Schnurr has already filed a countersuit against Cook and the municipality. It asks for $250,000 in general damages, another $250,000 in “punitive, aggravated and exemplary damages” from Cook and the municipality and “special damages” of $250,000 from the town for “champerty and maintenance.”
Champerty and maintenance are legal terms referring to someone not directly a party to a lawsuit bankrolling or otherwise interfering in the legal proceedings for an improper motive.
Schnurr’s counterclaim states that Cook and the town filed the defamation suit in a bid to “silence dissent and criticism” and that he, in particular, was targeted because he “is a supporter of a different political view, has voiced his doubts as to the qualifications of Rhonda Cook in performing as CAO.” The suit is, in part, a bid to stop his inquiries into the town’s hiring practices.
Statements on the blog are “fair and bona fide comments without malice . . . (and) protected by defense of fair comment,” the statement of defence and countersuit says.
None of the allegations made in any of the legal filings in the matter have been tested or proven in court.