Prominent defamation experts McConchie Law Corporation began work for the city as early as November 1, according to information obtained by News Nanaimo.
The North Vancouver-based firm has viewed Internet postings by residents and news articles critical of city staff and council.
McConchie has been involved in several prominent defamation cases. The firm represented Taseko Mines in a landmark strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) suit against the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in 2016, which is currently under appeal.
SLAPP suits are meant to silence critics by crushing them under the weight of legal costs and red tape until they give up their opposition. BC’s NDP-Green government may bring in laws to ban the suits.
Samra angry about critical comments
It’s understood that most of council learned about McConchie’s hiring for the first time on Monday. That’s when city manager Tracy Samra asked council to approve removing the city’s Facebook page if comments could not be shut off.
She provided councillors with a written opinion from McConchie that said the city could be held liable for defamatory comments posted on its Facebook page.
Ms. Samra was angry about critical comments posted on a video of her talking about the city’s budget and achievements over the past year. She told council she could sue the city for the residents’ comments.
Council voted 8 to 1 to remove the city’s page if comments could not be turned off, which is not possible on Facebook’s “Pages” for organizations. The page is still available two days after the council vote but comments are being hidden or deleted.
Mayor Bill McKay voted against the move, which has been widely criticized as heavy-handed and hasty by experts and residents alike.
“Using taxes to suppress criticism”
News that the city had hired a defamation law firm was swiftly criticized. Prominent council critic Don Bonner, who manages the A Better Nanaimo Facebook group, said he was “appalled” by the news:
“The city should not see our taxes as a slush fund to suppress legitimate criticism of how our city is run with our tax money. This is yet another example of the city using taxpayers’ money to chill criticism and public debate,” said Mr. Bonner.
In April 2016, the city used another law firm, Valkyrie Law Group, to write letters to Mr. Bonner and several other Facebook group administrators asking them to censor posts and comments that mentioned city staff. That action was criticized by free speech advocate David Sutherland.
Former city manager Jerry Berry, who regularly posts on Facebook, said it was inappropriate for council to use taxpayer funds to either sue critics or defend councillors from defamation suits.
“I would rather see a Council less worried about critics and more worried about defending and honouring the rule of law and the Charter of Rights for its citizens,” he said.
News Nanaimo asked all council members whether they would vote to use taxpayers’ money to sue residents for defamation, and whether residents should now be fearful of criticising them or city staff. None responded by publication time.
Messages left for representatives of McConchie Law Corporation were not returned by publication time.
Ms. Samra also did not respond to questions about why she had hired McConchie, how much the firm was costing taxpayers, and whether she obtained prior approval from council.
Crackdown on public and media
News of the defamation firm’s hiring comes on the heels of a general crackdown on public and media interactions at the city, all with at least tacit approval from council.
In October, Ms. Samra stunned councillors and the public by imposing a new rule forcing residents and media to submit their questions at council meetings to staff for approval.
This requirement was slammed as “irregular and inappropriate” by Dermod Travis, executive director of non-profit political watchdog IntegrityBC.
A week later, she ordered that all staff leave the council chamber during question period because residents could potentially create a toxic work environment for herself and staff.
Meanwhile, managers at the city have been told to refer all media inquiries to city clerk Sheila Gurrie. Previously, managers were trusted to speak directly to journalists without prior approval or vetting.
The crackdown on interviews with the media came shortly after former director of community engagement and communications Philip Cooper was escorted off city premises on September 20 after his post was eliminated in a “restructuring.” Mr. Cooper was highly regarded by reporters for his professionalism and responsiveness.