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City clarifies legal coverage for councillors; council approves $175K expense

Calgary city councillors agreed to cover $175,000 in legal costs incurred to defend Calgary city council members over the past four years.

In the extended session of Calgary’s combined meeting of council Tuesday afternoon, councillors first discussed the matter behind closed doors and then presented in public.

Two members of council – Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Coun. Druh Farrell – excused themselves from the discussion due to pecuniary interests.

Earlier in the day, and first reported by the Western Standard online, two lawsuits levied by the same city developer involving Mayor Nenshi and Druh Farrell were made public.

City of Calgary solicitor Jill Floen said at several points during the meeting that due to solicitor-client privilege, they couldn’t provide information on how the $175,000 was specifically used, nor for whom.

“There is a duty to defend,” Floen said.

“What I can tell you is the number is restricted to those items for which the city has an obligation or a duty to defend.”

It got into the legal weeds. Tuesday’s item was in response to a recent court decision on city council’s indemnification policy (the security against legal liability) and who is authorized to pay external legal fees if city staff require outside legal counsel to defend a lawsuit against them. Yesterday’s decision was to clarify that councillors fall under that 2016 policy.

Floen said the court didn’t strike down the city’s 2016 decision to allow the city solicitor and general counsel the ability to authorize the payment of external fees. She added that the Municipal Government Act’s section 535 demonstrates legal protection for councillors conducting their duties.

Disclosure of identities

Coun. Jeromy Farkas raised the issue of disclosing which council members were defended with the city’s $175,000.

“How does the public hold their elected council accountable if the recipients of the lawyers’ fees were members of council and their identities were kept secret by the city?” Farkas asked.

“Where I’m coming from is that my concern is that this money might potentially be going to cover up misconduct by counselors. That would be an abuse of taxpayers’ money and abuse of power.”

Floen said this applied to matters in which they believe, in their legal opinions, they have a duty to defend under the MGA.

“This is not about naming people or identifying particular matters,” she said.

Accountability moving forward

Coun. Ward Sutherland there is a need to ensure protection of councillors from frivolous lawsuits. He added there should be a framework in place to determine which legal action qualifies for the expense of outside legal counsel.

“First of all, as a council we need to protect the institution of council and the office of council because unfortunately there are potential individuals that might want to take advantage of it in a legal manner,” he said.

“But on the other side, it’s important as council that we’re held accountable.”

Coun. Sutherland’s motion directed the city manager and solicitor to create a protocol to help determine the legal appropriations – including situations where reimbursement may be necessary.

Floen said she was comfortable with the creation of this protocol as an added layer of accountability. She expected they could report back on this by July.

The amended main motion and the motion arising were approved.