City legal fee policy debate

Holly ThompsonSound Telegraph
City of Rockingham building
Camera IconCity of Rockingham building Credit: The Sunday Times

A controversial policy aimed at updating laws to allow for City of Rockingham staff and councillors to receive up to $10,000 for defamation cases will now go out for public comment.

The proposed change in laws sparked a debate between Rockingham councillors last week, with the draft policy approved for public comment by a vote of six to four.

One key opponent of the policy was councillor Lorna Buchan, who said the policy, if implemented, could deter the community from stating their opinions.

“I have had a lot of feedback already and it is not favourable to say the least,” she said.

“From a personal point of view if you take up the role of councillor you have to accept community views of you and your decision making as part and parcel of the role. It comes with the territory. I would note that previous policy extended to funding of legal fees to defend actions made against councillors and staff.

“This new proposed policy is now offering funding to pursue others for defamation. A highly expensive and complex area.”

Cr Buchan also said the policy was based on the model produced by the Department of Local Government but it had been “significantly altered” to allow the chief executive to instruct lawyers and prepare and serve concerns notices.

Lorna Buchan.
Camera IconLorna Buchan. Credit: Supplied

“I definitely do not want the CEO instructing lawyers, preparing and sending concerns notices on behalf of individuals ... there isn’t even a limit suggested on the number of concerns notices any one person can request,” she said.

“Why does the CEO, staff or councillors want these extraordinary powers given under a council policy and at ratepayer’s expense?

“Residents do not want their ratepayer funds to be used by a select few to pursue, or threaten to pursue others in the community without the same access to rates resources.”

Cr Deb Hamblin took the opposing side and said the policy was about defamation and not about “criticism on social media”.

“We need to make sure that our officers and us as councillors have a safe workplace. These costs will only be approved in exceptional circumstances,” she said.

“What we are doing is not unusual; Mandurah, Melville, Gosnells, all have this policy.”

Cr Hayley Edwards said the policy would give the CEO the tools to “act swiftly” if someone was being “targeted maliciously” and it helped to provide a “safe working environment”.

Mayor Barry Sammels said the draft policy was not intended to address comments “that merely offend or upset anyone”.

“It is specifically aimed at addressing comments that amount to defamation in accordance with Western Australian law,” he said.

“The draft policy is aimed at assisting the City to fulfil its duties at law, including those under the occupational health and safety legislation relating to its duty of care to provide a safe workplace.”

The draft policy was approved for public comment, with councillors Buchan, Craig Buchanan, Mark Jones and Rae Cottam voting against.

Rockingham Mayor Barry Sammels.
Camera IconRockingham Mayor Barry Sammels. Credit: Supplied

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