Several councillors have confirmed they were not explicitly made aware of a civil suit filed against the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake by residents Colin Telfer and Jennifer Elliott.
“We have not passed approval of anything (relating to the suit),” Coun. Sandra O’Connor said in an interview.
“It was a surprise when it came out in the media,” she said.
As reported last week, Telfer and Elliott are suing the town for $100,000 for damages and legal fees after they were refused a bed and breakfast licence due to an anonymous complaint from a neighbour.
That neighbour turned out to be Dan Williams, husband of Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
They also want an independent investigation to determine if there was any wrongdoing or abuse of power on the part of Disero.
“It was not addressed in the past. Nor would I expect it to be addressed,” Coun. Allan Bisback told The Lake Report.
He suggested several reasons why the file did not need to come directly before council thus far.
“We have many files that represent litigation on both sides – either the town defending itself or its position, or individuals not agreeing and trying to litigate against the town,” he said.
“That wouldn’t come to council unless it was at a point that the lawyer wanted direction or wanted a decision made.”
Another reason is that Telfer and Elliott never filed an appeal about the decision to deny their bed and breakfast licence.
An appeal process would have brought the matter to the public sphere and before council for a final decision about whether to grant the B&B licence, he said.
Bisback explained how money to fight the suit could have been approved without going before council.
Chief administrator Marnie Cluckie “has the authority to engage with a lawyer,” he said.
“If it’s a preliminary investigation then there is money in the budget to start that because you have to respond to a complaint.”
“I don’t want the CAO to come to council every time to spend a couple hundred dollars to start the file,” he said.
But Bisback said repeatedly that most of what he knows about the situation is from the stories in the media.
And, based on what he does know, he doesn’t have any particular concerns about Disero’s conduct.
During a council meeting on July 25, Coun. Wendy Cheropita asked town staff to provide an update on current litigation being handled by the town.
She and Bisback said councillors are supposed to receive such updates quarterly and the current one is a little delayed.
Disero declared a possible conflict of interest and left the council chambers when Cheropita broached the subject of litigation.
“I’m going to declare a conflict. I don’t want to be put into a position where we’re discussing something that I may have a conflict on,” Disero told councillors during the meeting.
Elliott and Telfer filed their suit last year. So, why had it not come up in one of the quarterly reports?
Bisback said it did in May, to his best recollection.
“I actually recall that there was a reference to a claim that had started because I recognized the name but there was no detail to it,” said Bisback.
“We get claims for a fall on the sidewalk or a trip or whatever. But this didn’t stand out as an issue. I remember seeing the name but I didn’t connect it to a potential B&B licence issue,” he said.
Media reports last week said the suit was going to be discussed in a closed session on Monday. That never happened.
“Interestingly enough, there is potentially a special council meeting being called for this week.”
“So, that would suggest to me that it’s decision time as it relates to a legal issue in regards to the residents in the town.”
Town staff requested more time to respond to questions from The Lake Report due to the complex nature of the suit and the fact that it is in litigation.
Telfer and Elliott were unavailable for comment before publication.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report