Calgary

City's legal bill to keep councillor harassment, misconduct report secret cost nearly $83K

The City of Calgary paid $82,780.55 to lawyers who represented several city councillors with the goal of ensuring no details of misconduct by councillors ever became public.

Councillor finds city's handling of matter is giving itself 'a black eye'

Calgary spent $82,780.55 trying to keep details of a report into councillor misconduct secret. (David Bell/CBC)

The City of Calgary paid $82,780.55 to lawyers who represented several city councillors with the goal of ensuring no details of misconduct by the elected officials ever became public.

The figure was released by the city in response to a freedom of information request filed by CBC News.

In June, the CBC reported the details of an investigator's 2014 report that looked into misconduct complaints against the councillors.

Alberta's privacy commissioner ordered those documents be released but allowed the city to redact the names of the councillors and the whistleblowers.

Calgary lawyer Bill Armstrong, who was hired by the city auditor to conduct the investigation, concluded there were several substantiated complaints of disrespectful behaviour as well as discrimination or harassment in the councillors' offices.

He found there was no criminal activity, but there were systemic problems in that workplace. As a result, he made several recommendations for changes.

Ultimately, council authorized hiring an integrity commissioner to investigate any future complaints against council members. 

City, councillors wanted report to stay under wraps

The city and an undisclosed number of councillors fought a lengthy battle against the CBC's attempt to gain access to the investigator's report.

The legal bills for the councillors could have been avoided had the city complied with a 2016 ruling by the privacy commissioner and released the documents with redactions.

Instead, the lawyers were brought in to contest the ruling. The earlier decision in the CBC's favour was upheld by the privacy commissioner earlier this year.

The city fought for years to keep details of the report secret. The two binders in the above photo are the City of Calgary's submission to Alberta's Information and Privacy Commission outlining why it should not have to release details. (CBC)

The councillors' lawyers, who work at private firms in Calgary and Edmonton, were paid by the city's law department.

In 2016, city council voted to pay for lawyers who represent council members on any legal issues that arise from the performance of their duties as elected officials.

During a council meeting in June, Coun. Jeromy Farkas asked the city solicitor Glenda Cole how much was paid to the lawyers who represented councillors on the misconduct matter.

Cole confirmed to council her department did retain external legal counsel, but as for the costs she said, "I would take the position that that information is not publicly available."

Following repeated requests to Cole for the total bill — which were rejected — a freedom of information request was submitted to the city's FOIP office.

No further details on the nearly $83,000 bill are available.

That's because the privacy commissioner ruled earlier this year that the number of councillors involved could not be publicly released by the city to protect the identity of the whistleblowers. 

As a result, details such as the number of lawyers involved, how many councillors were represented or how much each firm was paid cannot be disclosed.

Farkas calls for more transparency

Farkas said he was troubled this much money was spent on the matter and that the city had to be forced through the FOIP process to release the information.

"It's public money being spent for a public purpose. I think we absolutely should be transparent," said Farkas.

Coun. Jeromy Farkas has been an outspoken critic of secrecy at city hall and wants city administrators to change the way they operate. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

"When I read the line 'information acquired through a freedom of information request,' I think that that's a black eye on our reputation."

The councillor, who has become an outspoken critic of secrecy at city hall, wants city administrators to change the way they operate.

"It seems like it's more like pulling teeth these days to be able to get the needed information out of the city when we should just, I would say proactively disclose it," said Farkas.

'Something to hide'

Mount Royal University political studies professor Lori Williams said the fact the FOIP legislation needs to be used to get information out of city hall undercuts its commitment to transparency.

It's hard to see what they're protecting. This is public information- Lori Williams, Mount Royal University political studies professor

"It's hard to see what they're protecting. This is public information," said Williams.

"The effect of resisting this makes it look as though somebody has something to hide or that they don't respect the taxpayers who contributed the funds that went to these legal fees."

The city has been actively fighting the release of information regarding misconduct by city councillors since the matter was discussed by council's audit committee in 2014.

City cannot legally suppress all details

Williams said the city has put a lot of time and effort into contesting the requests for information but it cannot legally suppress all the details on such a politically sensitive matter.

"I'm sure they're hoping this will deter others from trying to get information or make it so difficult that they don't think that it's worth it," said Williams.

The city's own website states: "The City of Calgary strives to be a transparent organization and believes that promoting freedom of information is essential for good governance, quality service delivery and effective citizen engagement."

Williams said one can hope the city's failed effort to suppress all of the information on councillor misconduct will result in changes in its decision-making.

"Enduring public censure for failing to do so might actually provide an incentive for them to be more forthcoming in the future."

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