Sooke, BC – July 5, 2016
For immediate release
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN SOOKE
Consternation has been expressed by a number of people this week in response to statements made by Britt Santowski about freedom of expression in Sooke. Some have directed criticism to the municipality, and in particular to me, but all of the comment is directed at things published by Ms. Santowski and not by the District or me. Ms. Santowski has sadly misconstrued and misrepresented the content of the only letter that I did write and the only statement that I did make.
To be clear, the District and I have at no time written to any newspaper or citizen to stifle comment. What I did write to one citizen in one letter was that we do not welcome or condone statements that subject municipal officials to defamation, harassment and bullying. That was it. In the same letter, I expressly stated that the District welcomes feedback regarding governance, environmental, financial and all other matters. In the letter, I also encouraged the writer to send me any complaints or criticisms about municipal officials.
In sum, ALL I said, and ALL the District has said, is that we do not welcome defamation, harassment or bullying. At no time did the District or I threaten a law suit or any legal action (despite the allegations of Ms. Santowski). It is frankly absurd for her or the letter recipient to jump to the conclusion that somehow the letter prohibits any sort of expression or any articulation of interests – my point was simply that we welcome this, but we do not welcome defamation or bullying.
The reason for my polite letter that did NOT stifle freedom of expression or threaten legal action: the Province and District Council have created binding legal obligations on the municipality to protect municipal officials from bullying and harassment. The District received two formal complaints from staff in regard to bullying and harassing statements made in public by a citizen, so I followed through under the duty imposed by me under the law by writing to the citizen to advise that the District does not welcome defamation, harassment or bullying. This is my duty under the law. However, I did not threaten any legal action whatsoever. SLAPP suits? Ms. Santowski knows that a municipality cannot sue for defamation or threaten an action for defamation, and at no time did I remotely threaten any legal action.
That is it. The other two letters that Ms. Santowski complained about were not sent by the District or me. They were private letters sent to her on behalf of municipal officials, but not by the municipality. Accordingly, it is clear that the municipality is not stifling any freedom of expression. In fact, the District’s Council meeting procedures are the most democratic in the region – we welcome and encourage public discussion, debate, and input on all topics, at Council, committee and commission meetings, and at public hearings and open houses.
Let me share with you how my actual comments and actual letter were twisted in the July 4, 2016, SPN article to create this controversy:
- The SPN said that it received a letter from a staffer demanding that the SPN stop asking questions. Disturbingly, this was NOT from a municipal employee and NOT from the municipality. The letter did NOT say the employee was going to sue. It asked the SPN to stop defaming. Council was not aware of this letter. It was sent by the employee’s lawyer at the sole request of the employee as a result of the employee being defamed by the SPN.
- The SPN said that it received a second letter accusing SPN of defaming a Council member. This was not from the municipality. It was from the Council member’s lawyer at the sole request of the councillor as a result of the member being defamed by SPN, with the defamatory article showing up at the top of google searches. This could very well hamper future employment opportunities.
- The SPN said the articles complained of were not defamatory, because they were true. Actually, the statements complained of were NOT true, and were in fact incorrect, and damaged the reputations of the employee and councillor respectively. In Canada, if you are defamed, you have a right to complain to the defamer.
- This was NOT the municipality writing to the SPN. Council and the rest of the District were not aware of the two letters.
- The SPN, after laying this false foundation about the municipality chilling public comment, then went into a discussion of SLAPP suits. This is also very disturbing to me. The SPN stated that a “ … (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.” SLAPP suits “load defendants with costs of responding”. Note that the Mayor and Council and the municipality did not send the two letters complaining of defamation – they were sent without the knowledge of the Mayor and Council, and sent privately on behalf of the individual employee and councillor. It is simply wrong to tie the two letters to the notion that somehow the District itself is censoring or silencing critics.
- In fact, I can say that after considering legal advice received by the District over time, all of Council has safely concluded that a municipality cannot sue for defamation or threaten defamation due to freedom of expression. This has been drilled into us by a number of lawyers over time, and in fact, neither I nor my fellow Council members have issued any threats of suing for defamation.
- The SPN says that the one letter that I did write “holds the public to an in-house anti-harassment policy”. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing in the letter whatsoever even hints that the public is held to the policy. In fact, the Mayor, Council, and staff are all subject to the policy and subject to potential sanctions further to the policy. In fact, the policy does not impose any duty or sanctions on citizens who are not Council members or employees. What it does do, is it says that a municipal official can lay a complaint if the bullying comes from a member of the public. While a Council member can be censured or removed from appointments if in contravention, and while an employee can be disciplined, a member of the public cannot be sanctioned under the policy. That is why my response on behalf of the two complainants was simply to write a letter to the public citizen saying we do not condone bullying or defamation. So the SPN was dead wrong on this point as well.
- The SPN stated that I made a public statement that if a staff member is bullied, “any offending member of the public will be dealt with further to the policy and applicable laws.” This is discussed in point #7 above.
- The SPN ends its comments by saying it will “…cease to question” for fear of a SLAPP suit. This is drama that is not based on fact or law. As I stated, a municipality cannot sue or threaten a suit for defamation, so why stop questioning the municipality? The municipality welcomes public comment, criticism, and all other input. In light of the provincial legislation on bullying in the workplace, however, I am not in a position to welcome bullying.
Mayor Maja Tait
For further information:
Chief Administrative Officer
District of Sooke
Tel: (250) 642-1634
In March of 2016, the Mayor of Guelph responded to mistreatment of municipal staff, both in public meetings and in online forums.