SURREY - A former Surrey mayor says the city covering Coun. Tom Gill's legal bills in a defamation suit is "a mess."
"This is a really sticky issue," said Bob Bose, who sat as the city's mayor from 1988 to 1996 and spent more than two decades as a councillor.
The issue, for Bose, is whether Gill was acting on city business when he allegedly made the comments he's being sued for.
"In my political life I've been involved in a number of lawsuits, all of which arose from my discharge of my duties as a city councillor or as a mayor," Bose stated. "It was strictly and clearly and absolutely consistent with my duties as a member of council."
To Bose, Gill's case is not as clear. "On the face of it, it would appear that this does not involve Tom Gill's discharge of his civic responsibilities," he said, calling the rationale for the city to pay his legal bills "a stretch."
Gill is being sued by Surrey businessman Harjit Atwal over comments Gill made to the Surrey Leader about a violent 2010 incident involving a family member, prominent Surrey broadcaster Maninder Gill, who still faces criminal charges over that matter.
The defamation case filed by Atwal, who was shot in the thigh outside a wedding at Newton's Guru Nanak temple, is set to go to trial before a B.C. Supreme Court judge in New Westminster this week.
Doug McCallum, who sat as Surrey's mayor from 1996 to 2005 and lost his reelection bid last fall, echoed Bose's concerns, saying the comments "appeared to be part of a private family wedding, and to me that's outside of what the bylaw says."
The Surrey bylaw states that municipal employees should have their legal costs covered if they're facing a court action "in connection with the exercise or intended exercise of the person's powers or the performance or intended performance of the person's duties or functions."
Asked what he thought of the city deciding to foot his legal bills in this case, Gill deferred comment to the city solicitor.
"I'm not going to speak to this file," he said Thursday, but added, "there was a legal opinion done outside of city hall and that legal opinion was consistent with the direction that both I and staff took."
Amid rumours the case had just been settled out of court, Gill said it would be "premature" to comment.
"It's in everybody's best interest that it gets resolved," he said.
Surrey city solicitor Craig MacFarlane wrote in an email that the decision to indemnify Gill was made in consultation with legal counsel and the city's risk management staff in December of 2013 and is subject to solicitor-client privilege.
MacFarlane said the amount of legal fees paid thus far couldn't be released because it is also covered by solicitor-client privilege.
Federal Conservative candidate and former mayor Dianne Watts said she would have liked to see the issue forwarded to council "in terms of transparency" but didn't take a position on whether the city was correct in agreeing to pay the fees.
Mayor Linda Hepner said she and council weren't involved in the decision, and that's the way she wants it to be in these cases.
"That was the first I heard about it, was reading it in the newspaper," she said. "I'm not supportive of it not being in a subjective arena and I think that's what the policy protects against."
Hepner said when she approached the city manager on the issue, she was told Surrey's legal team got an outside opinion on the policy of indemnification, and learned Gill's situation fit within those parameters.
"This is not a political decision, this is a policy analysis decision and I believe steps were taken within the legal framework of indemnification and I would not want it to ever be put to a political decision-making body to say 'yay or nay,'" Hepner said.
"It would be a football. I'm very fortunate because I've got a good team on council but
on split councils you can see where that kind of decision-making within a political arena would just be a football going back and forth, for reasons that have nothing to do with policy and indemnification and more to do with political agendas. And you would never want to see that. So I honour the process."
But Bose calls on council to take its own action.
"The important thing is the credibility of council, the accountability of council, is lacking right at this point," he stated.
Bose believes Surrey council should seek out another legal opinion.
"The most important thing is that the council takes responsibility here and not just leave it with the city solicitor. The city solicitor has made a decision and I think council needs to also make a decision," he said.
In addition, Bose has concerns about the case settling outside of court.
"You'll never know whether Tom (Gill) is paying, or whether the city is paying to settle it.... In my mind, it's absolutely cut and dry. But I'm not a lawyer. This is the first case I've heard of where there's such obvious uncertainties."
When called Thursday for comment on the current case, Atwal said, "my lawyer told me not to say anything."
This isn't the first spat between Maninder and Atwal. At the time of the 2010 incident, the two were reportedly feuding over another defamation case.
Atwal had sued Radio India and a dozen staff members, including managing director Maninder, alleging defamation and libel over comments made on the air. In 2011, Radio India was found guilty.