“The fact that these lawsuits can occur goes against what municipal councillors are there for.”
– STU BRIESE, MEMBER OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY
Should municipal councillors, reeves and mayors have legal protection if someone tries to sue for something said during council meetings?
Last fall at the Association of Manitoba Municipal convention a resolution passed calling for a legal defence against defamation claims to be extended to local government.
This spring Member of the Legislative Assembly Stu Briese (C -Ste. Rose), raised the matter again through a private members’ bill, Bill 230, which called for an amendment to the Municipal Act and the City of Winnipeg Charter.
“The fact that these lawsuits can occur goes against what municipal councillors are there for,” said Briese during a debate in the legislature May 13.
In an interview, he said councillors, reeves and mayors should have some immunity against vexatious suits that are occasionally launched for things “taken out of context” at meetings.
“It saves you harm from some frivolous comment that you might make in a council meeting, maybe in the heat of debate, from litigation,” he said, adding that suits take up time and money. Fear of getting sued is also what tends to drive councils in-camera.
Briese added that it may also make otherwise good potential candidates wary of running for office.
For now, Bill 230 goes nowhere. A debate in the Manitoba legislature May 13 ended without a vote.
Minister of Local Government Ron Lemieux said while his government is “sympathetic to the intent” of Bill 230, there are “intractable reasons” why it can’t go forward.
The parliamentary system cannot be forcefully transplanted into the municipal setting “as per more than 300 years of precedent,” Lemieux said speaking in the legislature last month.
He pointed out that the particularities of the parliamentary system balancing the freedom to speak are missing at the municipal level. “These include parties and thus party discipline, a fair and unaligned Speaker and a comprehensive verbatim of all words spoken in Hansard,” said Lemieux.
“Even though we have the privileges we have inside this chamber, we are not allowed just to say anything and everything and slander anyone we wish,” he said.
Lemieux added that the problem is not as big as Bill 230 supporters would make it out to be. Very few councillors are sued, because they understand they cannot just say and do whatever they want, he said.
But many councillors are nervous about this, says AMM president Doug Dobrowolski, adding that the issue was sparked by a lawsuit launched against two municipal councillors in the City of Portage la Prairie for a remark made at a public meeting. The matter is still before the courts.
“I think it’s going to force more councils to have more in-camera sessions,” he said.
According to a legal consultant with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), the defence of “absolute privilege” as a rule does not extend to municipal councils because these bodies are not considered, under common law, as being of the same nature as the provincial legislatures or Parliament.
Municipal councils do not derive their authority from the Constitution but rather from a number of provincial statutes and are therefore not covered by the defence.
Municipal leaders are not personally or financially liable for legal costs of a claim against them, however. The Municipal Act requires that municipalities cover those.
In an interview Briese said he may introduce another version of Bill 230 at some point in future.
“At least we’ve raised the issue,” he said.