Legal bills nearly double at Kamloops city hall

Legal bills at city hall in Kamloops, B.C., have nearly doubled in two years, according to newly released financial documents.

A statement of financial information (SOFI) report shows the city paid five law firms a total of $1.15 million in 2023, up from the $650,000 paid to two law firms in 2022.

In 2021, the city paid $510,000 to law firms. In 2020, it paid $415,000

The numbers don't include firms paid less than $25,000 and funds paid "in trust," which are typically reserved for real estate transactions, settlements and other temporary holding reasons.

The SOFI report also does not indicate what specific services the legal fees were for or why the fees have been rising.

City of Kamloops corporate services director David Hallinan said the increase in the city's legal bills is due to a number of factors, including freedom of information requests and a new council code of conduct that came into effect in 2023.

According to documents provided to CBC by the city, 20 code-of-conduct investigations have cost taxpayers $144,000 since July 2023, when the new policy came into effect.

Complaints have been filed against the mayor, councillors and other unnamed people for a variety of reasons, such as discrimination, bullying, harassment, giving misleading information, breach of privacy, mistreatment of staff and more. The investigations are conducted by lawyers who are paid by the city.

Hallinan also said some city contracts are becoming more "complex," requiring legal consultation.

Additionally, the city recently settled a labour dispute with union employees, which came with undisclosed costs, and court records also show the city is listed in nine civil lawsuits this year, up from five the year before.

The city is also dealing with several disputes involving the mayor and council for which legal counsel has been retained.

Disputes between mayor, council

One notable dispute is a lawsuit brought by Mayor Reid Hamer-Jackson against Coun. Katie Neustaeter for defamation after Neustaeter read a prepared statement on behalf of herself and the rest of council criticizing the mayor's approach to committee appointments.

Neustaeter's legal fees are being covered by the city.

The lawsuit shows that the law firm defending her is Harper Grey LLP, to which the city paid $33,000 in 2023, according to the SOFI report.

Kamloops Mayor Reid Hamer-Jackson, left side in a grey suit, sits next to several city councillors during their swearing-in ceremony in November 2022.
Kamloops Mayor Reid Hamer-Jackson, left side in a grey suit, sits next to several city councillors during their swearing-in ceremony in November 2022. (Marcella Bernardo/CBC)

Neustaeter said any money recovered for her legal bills will depend on the outcome of the court case.

Court documents filed in Neustaeter's defence in the defamation suit ask that the case be tossed out and include a push to recover legal costs from the mayor.

In a previous interview with CBC after council voted to temporarily dock the mayor's pay by 10 per cent for refusing to apologize for a code-of-conduct breach, Kamloops Coun. Dale Bass said she has been on the city council for five-and-a-half years, and lawyers were infrequently at city hall but are now there "constantly."

She placed some of the blame directly on Mayor Reid Hamer-Jackson, who, she says, has sparked multiple reviews and legal action since being elected in 2022.

"The mayor seems to feel that he's king and he can do what he wants," Bass said. "Which means he ignores the community charter; he ignores the code of conduct; he ignores privacy laws, and we have an obligation to our staff to protect them. We have an obligation to the city to make sure that the mayor does not continue to break laws."

The SOFI documents also show a workplace law firm from Vancouver, Roper Greyell LLP,  was paid $357,000 in 2023. The law firm was involved in the Honcharuk report, a code-of-conduct investigation into workplace misconduct allegations against the mayor.

Concerns about the mayor's conduct were also raised in a report from provincially appointed adviser Henry Braun, who in May warned the mayor's actions, including violating confidentiality rules, could open the city up to legal liability.

Hamer-Jackson called the city's rising legal bills "terrible" but questioned how much of it was related to issues before he became mayor.

Asked specifically about the costs related to his lawsuit against Neustaeter, Hamer-Jackson said, "I don't feel responsible," while indicating he is paying for his lawyers in the case out of his own pocket and suggested Neustaeter should be doing the same.

"I'm paying for my fees. What I learned … was that as an elected official, if you defame somebody, you're on your own. But this particular council, councillors, went into a room, and they decided they were going to pay for her legal fees, and I don't think it's right. I think it's wrong."

The mayor has said he is planning to sell commercial property in Kamloops to pay for his legal bills.