Re: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Payment of Legal Expenses of Phyllis Morris and the defamation action of Phyllis Morris v.Johnson et al.
An Open Letter to the Aurora Town Council and the Citizens of Aurora.
I am writing this as an open letter to the current Aurora Town Council and to the citizens of Aurora as I believe others may have similar questions and concerns in relation to the defamation action of Phyllis Morris v. Johnson et al. I stand open to being corrected if anyone has any new information to be shared and I look to others for answers and clarification as I don’t believe that the current information in the public domain is sufficient to explain how this action was authorized by the Town of Aurora. It is only by sharing the following questions and subsequent answers (and any questions that other Aurora citizens may contribute) that we may all learn and come to understand how this action proceeded to its present state. A considerable amount of Aurora tax money is now authorized for payment of external legal fees for this case but more importantly to me three private citizens of Aurora are still involved as defendants in this action which may take years to resolve and which may jeopardize the financial futures of their families.
I realize that there are those that support Ms. Morris’ argument and reasoning for her defamation suit as equally there are those that support Richard Johnson, Elizabeth Bishenden and Bill Hogg (Johnson et al) and I respect their difference in opinions. I was from the start and still remain in support of Johnson et al but it is not my intention here to argue the legal aspects of their case as this is now in the hands of our judicial system and the lawyers. It is my intention to learn and better understand how this action was authorized by the Town and to understand how it was deemed to follow the proper legislative and administrative procedures.
I recognize that Mayor Dawe and some of the current councillors that ran on a platform that included stopping the Town’s involvement in the lawsuit. I commend them for following through on this promise once they were sworn into office. I also commend those councillors and mayoral candidates that also supported stopping the Town’s involvement but who were not successful in the recent election. I can appreciate that Mayor Dawe and the current Town Council has had to responsibly deal with the matters opened by the previous council and administration and were faced with the difficult decision to authorize the payment of external legal fees to December 14, 2010. I further recognize that there may still be some legal privacy issues in answering some of my questions but that does not prohibit me from asking these important questions and seeking these answers even if they may still be forthcoming in the future when this case is resolved.
In the following, I will reference the letter by George Rust-D’Eye of WeirFoulds LLP entitled EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Payment of Legal Expenses of Phyllis Morris (to be known as the “Executive Summary”). This letter was made public on March 30, 2011 as a Media Advisory by the Town of Aurora. It was authorized for release by order of the Aurora Town Council at its March 29, 2011 meeting and it can be found on the Town website at the webpage http://www.town.aurora.on.ca/aurora/index.aspx?CategoryID=27&lang=en-CA under 2011 Media Releases (March 30, 2011).
It was after reading George Rust-D’Eye’s Executive Summary that I was compelled to ask the contained questions and to seek the assistance from others to help me and the citizens of Aurora better understand how Phyllis Morris v. Johnson et al was initiated by the Town of Aurora. It is the Executive Summary that makes me question past information and/or lack of information to the public in this matter.
I am numbering my questions so that anyone responding to this letter can do so accordingly by the question number.
1. Who has the legal authority at the Town to proceed on the Town’s behalf with a lawsuit?
2. What are or in fact are there any legislative steps that must be complied with by the Town Council in order to initiate a lawsuit? What is the involvement and authority of the Mayor and the Town’s administrative staff, be it the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), the Town Solicitor or any other Town staff in initiating a lawsuit?
3. I recognize that this matter started with the Council directive from the Closed Session of the Town Council Meeting of September 14, 2010. From that point onwards what were the steps and who further authorized that this matter was to be handled directly as a lawsuit?
As stated in Question 3, this matter started with the Council directive from the Closed Session of the Town Council Meeting of September 14, 2010 (Please see 2nd attachment). The entry for this motion is as follows:
Council recessed into Closed Session at 11:33pm
Mayor Morris left the meeting at 1:10 am.
Council reconvened into Open Session at 1:11 am with Deputy Mayor McRoberts in the Chair.
Moved by Councillor MacEachern Seconded by Councillor Gaertner
THAT the Council rise and report from the Closed Session to confirm the direction from Closed Session regarding the potential defamation; and THAT the Town Solicitor be directed to retain external legal counsel and to take any and all actions to bring resolution to this matter.
The September 14th Council meeting initially had Mayor Morris and all eight Councillors in attendance. In the minutes it is noted that Councillor Collins-Mrakas left the meeting at 10:16 pm and Councillor Buck left the meeting at 11:01 pm. The Closed session would then have included Mayor Morris (who subsequently left at 1:10am just before reporting out and before the vote) and Councillors Gaertner, Gallo, Granger, MacEachern, McRoberts and Wilson. There is no indication in the minutes as to if any Town staff may have been involved in the closed session but since it involved litigation I would assume that the Town’s CAO and the Town Solicitor would be present, though I stand corrected if they were not present and/or if others were present.
From the Executive Summary (after the September 14th Council Meeting and after the Town retained Aird & Berlis LLP (“AB”) as its external legal counsel): “Then-Mayor Morris requested the Town to pay for the litigation, following the receipt of a legal opinion from AB in which it was advised that the comments were made against the Mayor, as well as the Town Solicitor and the Integrity Commissioner, in their capacity as elected officials or employees of the Town.”
4. Given the answers to the above questions 1, 2 & 3 and the statement “Then-Mayor requested the Town to pay for the litigation”, were the steps taken by the Town in accordance to the accepted procedures and in such a way that Mayor Morris could not be seen as having a conflict of interest as she had direct involvement in the case being that she would be the plaintiff, that the Town would be financing this action and that she would be the sole beneficiary of any awarded damages?
5. As I see no further reference to this action in any other subsequent Council Meeting in the above statement “who” is the Town? Was this a Town staff member with authority to authorize payment for the litigation?
6. Again, who at the Town had the authority to proceed with litigation? If it was the Mayor was it not a conflict of interest for the Mayor to request the Town to proceed? If it was the Mayor, should not another person (be it elected or Town staff) have taken the lead to this action?
7. Was there a reason why this matter was not taken back to Council be it in a closed session to authorize such litigation and the accompanying expenditures?
From the Executive Summary: “The retainer letter signed by the Mayor and the Town on October 6, 2010 leads to the conclusion that both are jointly and severally liable for paying the legal expenses incurred for the defamation action.”
8. Thus the Town and Ms. Morris were equally and separately responsible for the full amount. The Town has now authorized payment of legal fees to December 14, 2010. Should the Town not be demanding that Ms. Morris reimburse the Town now for at least ½ of the Town external legal fees instead of as recommended in the Executive Summary “that the Town give notice to Phyllis Morris of the intent by the Town to look to her for indemnity in respect of legal services paid for by the Town out of any damages or cost recovered by her in the proceedings”? The only way that the Town will be reimbursed will be if Ms. Morris is successful and the 3 Aurora citizens are not and this does not guarantee any funds to the Town as there is no signed agreement for this option.
9. Would the Mayor have proceeded or initiated such action given that she would have to pay ½ the current legal expense?
(This is now a hypothetical question and does not require an answer).
From the Executive Summary: “it appears that, at the time of the meeting of the Town Council on September 14 and 15, 2010, it was accepted by all concerned that the abuse being heaped on the Mayor and other municipal officials by third parties, was seen as an attack on the reputation of the Town itself, affecting the reputation and perceived integrity of Council and staff, and that there was an agreed-upon strategy to vindicate the Town’s name and reputation, which was seen at least as much the target as was the Mayor herself;”
10. Are we to understand that the “agreed-upon strategy” that Mr. Rust-D’Eye writes of was simply the wording in the Council Meeting Minutes of September 14, 2010 “THAT the Town Solicitor be directed to retain external legal counsel and to take any and all actions to bring resolution to this matter”? And that it was this directive that gave authorization to an open-ended mandate and a blank cheque to external counsel without further advice, consultation or authority from Council. (A separate rhetorical question but if there was not an election and a change of Council to stop payment to AB how high would the lawyer’s bill have gone?)
11. If it was an “agreed-upon strategy” then why if I recall correctly were some councillors apparently surprised when the news of the litigation came forth?
12. Were these instructions sufficient to proceed with the defamation suit? (Thus my earlier questions on legislative procedure).
13. Did the Town Solicitor or whoever instructed the external legal counsel of Aird & Berlis have the authority to proceed with litigation without further approval from Town Council?
14. Was the motion from the September 14th meeting so broadly worded that it could be ambiguous enough so that legal proceedings could commence without further authorization or approval from Council?
15. Did council discuss litigation as part of their closed session meeting? Was it understood that litigation was the only option that external legal counsel should pursue? (I realize that this may never be known as it was a closed session). If so, then they knew it could proceed to the current situation along with the financial burden to the Town. If not, then did someone at the Town over-step their authority (thus my earlier questions as to procedure in authorizing litigation)?
Please help me understand how we arrived at the current state of affairs.
It is my opinion that the council directive was far too vague and could be viewed as irresponsible as it did not provide specific direction and limitations and any need for the external legal counsel once engaged to seek further direction and authorization from council. Given the particular care that councillors take in wording their motions and given the fact that this was done at the end of term with councillors having a minimum of 4 years of experience (excluding Councillor Gallo) in their seats as opposed to being inexperienced councillors at the beginning of term it is surprising that this motion as worded was ever approved. It makes me wonder whether there is any part of this incident and/or subsequent actions that could be deemed in any way to violate the Municipal Act and/or the Town’s business and legislative procedures and if so who are we to hold accountable for their actions.
I note that Councillor Bob McRoberts disavowed his approval of the September 14th motion at the September 29, 2010 Council meeting and stated on October 14, 2010 on Rogers TV First Local News, “The arguments presented by town staff and council members didn’t match my understanding of the Municipal Act. I do not agree with the rationale provided. I do not agree that the matter is a matter for Council”.
I have to ask – what would have happened to the Town of Aurora if this past Council were to have directed other external contractors “to take any and all actions” for litigation against land developers in Aurora or for the repair to all roads or to improving Aurora’s water and sewage systems or to providing recreation facilities?
I believe that there is still much to be disclosed to the citizens of Aurora so that we can all understand how Phyllis Morris v. Johnson et al was authorized by the Town of Aurora. I should think that the answers would be simple and straight forward.