New Brunswick

Ferguson ready to move on after 'gruelling' trial

Former Saint John city councillor John Ferguson said he's looking forward to going back to St. Stephen after winning a five-year legal battle with the Saint John pension board.

City councillor found not liable by jury Tuesday night

John Ferguson said he's relieved a five-year legal battle is over. (CBC)

Former Saint John city councillor John Ferguson said he’s looking forward to going back to St. Stephen after winning a five-year legal battle with the Saint John pension board. 

The verdict was delivered Tuesday night after the jury deliberated for eight hours.

The seven-person jury found Ferguson was within his rights to criticize the management of the city’s pension fund.

"I would never wish this on anybody," Ferguson said. "I would hope nobody would ever experience a 12-week trial. It is gruelling. Gruelling on the jury, gruelling on everybody. It’s very difficult. It’s been hard on my family."

Saint John councilor and mayoral candidate Mel Norton told CBC News he was quick to support Ferguson for battling the pension board in court and promised if he's elected mayor, Norton will make sure that sort of thing doesn't happen.

"I'm just very happy for John Ferguson, I think that it's an example of common sense prevailing," Norton said.

"We've got to work together. We've got to be respectful of one another.  We've got to co-operate. That's how we get stuff done. You don't sue one another to solve problems."

A deifant Mayor Ivan Court feels differently. When CBC News asked him if he thinks the pension board owes Ferguson an apology he replied, "I don’t owe him anything."

The Saint John pension board sued Ferguson for multiple statements he made at five city council meetings and in a newspaper opinion piece over an 18-month period beginning in April of 2005, claiming serious and malicious damage to its reputation.

At the time, the city's $400-million pension fund was running a deficit of about $45 million. The shortfall has since ballooned to more than $190 million and caused significant funding cuts to city services.

In the end, the jury found the newspaper story and two meetings contained no defamatory statements at all. 

At two of the remaining three council meetings, the jury said Ferguson’s comments were defamatory but not directed at the pension board.

As for the fifth meeting, the jury said there were defamatory comments made, but they were not motivated by malice and were protected by Ferguson’s privileges as an elected representative. The jury estimated the damaged caused by those comments to be at just $100.

CBC reporter Bob Jones followed the entire trial and said the $100 damage estimate is known as contemptuous damages. Jones said it's a signal from the jury that the lawsuit is frivolous thus indicating the jury thought lawsuit should not have happened in the first place.

Ferguson embraced friends and family after the verdict was announced.

"I thought that they came to very reasonable decisions throughout. They went through every aspect of every comment that I ever made, and they determined each step of what was defamatory and what was not, and ultimately if I acted in good faith.  So I’m pleased with the decision, I’m very pleased with the decision."

Fees soared

Ferguson’s lawyer, Rod Gillis, said the trial was a complete waste of money. Ferguson will be asking for more than one million dollars from the pension board to cover the costs, which Gillis estimates at more than $2.5 million for each side.

But Gillis called the decision a good day for elected officials.

"For the pension board of today to deal with matters, in closed session or in private, that affect all of the citizens of the city of Saint John is wrong," he said. "The public understands what the issues are, and is prepared to do the right thing. They're not prepared to continue paying taxes indefinitely for decisions made by bureaucrats."

Ferguson, who is no longer a city councillor, said it’s time for everyone to get on with their lives and get back to business.

"I think that the most important thing now is for Saint John to get on with dealing with a very serious problem and I’m looking forward to going back to St. Stephen."

Ferguson had few words for the pension board.

"I wish them all the best and I hope they’re able to solve the problems that they have."