A Surrey city councillor has challenged her council colleagues to disclose their legal fees in light of criticism of the City of Surrey’s decision to cover Mayor Doug McCallum’s lawyer’s bill.
While some stepped up to that challenge, others say they have been directed not to.
During last week’s (Dec. 22) finance committee meeting, where the city’s 2022 budget was discussed, South Surrey resident Sarah Rush criticized the city’s decision to pay for McCallum’s legal fees relating to his public mischief charge.
“There doesn’t appear to be a line on the budget for legal fees,” Rush said. “It’s not shown how much the council has for legal fees to cover its indemnity bylaw. Is this under other department expenditure?”
Rush expressed her “opposition that my property taxes will be used this year for an expensive lawyer defense for what I consider an incident that was outside of council business.”
Later on in the meeting, Coun. Laurie Guerra referring to Rush’s comments, said she knows how much she’s spent of taxpayer dollars on legal fees – a “big, fat zero.”
“I think in the name of transparency, everyone one this council should be able to tell the public or can tell the public what they’ve spent on their legal fees and what tax dollars have been used to spend on legal fees,” Guerra said. “Each one of us, I would challenge us to do that in the name of being transparent, and I think that would be very good information for the public to have.”
Coun. Mandeep Nagra stepped up to her challenge and said his is $2,700 to date.
Coun. Allison Patton then confirmed with the city’s lawyer in attendance whether and individual councillor could disclose their own legal fees, which he said is “information belonging, essentially, to the councillor’s control.”
Patton then said she did not have any legal fees to disclose.
Following the meeting, Guerra told the Now-Leader that in the last few weeks she’d been hearing in the media about people not wanting their taxpayer dollars to go toward paying the mayor’s legal fees.
“I thought, you know, that’s fair enough,” explained Guerra.
“But I think in all transparency when you become a city councillor or mayor … there’s indemnification that can be paid on your behalf or if you’re defending yourself against a potential code of conduct breach, all of those issues can be paid for by the city on a councillor or mayor’s behalf in the line of doing your job or something to that effect.”
But she added it’s “really not fair” when other councillors have been critical of the city paying the mayor’s legal fees.
Asked if it’s easier for her to disclose, having not had to use taxpayer dollars, Guerra said she would “never have criticized somebody else for having the city pay their legal fees. I just think if it’s good for one, it should be good for all.”
Also asked if she thinks there should be a limit, Guerra said she doesn’t know what she thinks about that “at this time.”
“To me, legal fees are outrageous. Even if you’re doing something other than small claims court, legal fees can go crazy. I don’t know that I would be the one to put a cap on it. I know that if I ever needed a good defence or anything like that, I would want the best,” she noted.
Meantime, councillors Brenda Locke, Jack Hundial and Doug Elford did not disclose their legal fees.
Locke said that following the finance committee meeting, she talked to her own counsel and they “recommended I not disclose.”
“The problem isn’t about disclosing the number, the problem is about disclosing the transparency behind the number.”
Hundial said while he’s a “firm believer of transparency,” he spoke with his own solicitor “who cautioned against it because … disclosing, even your own, actually impacts your solicitor-client privilege, so there are some legalities around that.”
“But certainly, after the mayor has had his trial, I’ll be more than happy to disclose anything for the public, provided the mayor does as well.”
Elford was also unwilling to share a dollar figure but said, “my legal fees are not really relevant to the conversation, to be honest with you. It’s not something that any Surrey taxpayers have to worry about. Let’s go with that statement.”
Coun. Linda Annis, however, said that since being elected in 2018, her legal fees paid by the city are in the amount of $11,278.
“I did not initiate the legal action and I wish I could disclose what these legal fees were for and what the outcome was. Unfortunately, I am not able to do so because of the current bylaws.”
Annis said the city’s bylaws “do not allow that transparency and I believe that needs to change.”
She added that while it’s reasonable for the city to cover legal costs “for the mayor and council in line with our duties and work as elected representatives,” the fees “must be reasonable and appropriate in the circumstance with hourly or daily limit in all cases.”
McCallum and Coun. Steven Pettigrew, who wasn’t at the finance committee meeting, did not respond to calls and voicemails from the Now-Leader.