No apology from Penticton woman accused of defamation
Elvena Slump said she is not going to quietly offer up an apology to avoid a defamation lawsuit from the City of Penticton.
“I could apologize,” said the 75-year-old Slump, with a pause. “If I was wrong.”
According to Mayor Garry Litke, the city is pursuing a defamation suit against Slump because of a series of comments the prolific letter writer and council watchdog made directed at city staff.
Standing on the steps of city hall Wednesday, Slump told a small crowd of about 30 supporters how she received a letter last week from Bryan Baynham of Harper Grey LLP — a Vancouver law firm retained by the city to act in this matter — giving her a week to respond with an apology for personal attacks on staff members.
“I don’t believe at this point that I have done anything wrong,” said Slump, who provided copies of letters to the editor she said Baynham referenced.
In one open letter to council, Slump singles out two staff members, questioning their suitability for their jobs, and in one case, suggesting the city terminate the individual, saying her veracity (truthfulness) must be questioned.
Other letters bring into question chief administrative officer Annette Antoniak and chief financial officer Colin Fisher.
“Mr. Baynham claims in an email sent on Aug. 19, that I said that the CAO was an unelected power broker who was using illegal in camera meetings to bully and abuse members of council,” said Slump, pointing out that letter does not reference the CAO directly. “Nowhere do I mention the CAO in my letter.”
The city, Litke said, has a responsibility to protect its employees from personal attacks and harassment. Politicians can defend themselves, according to Litke, but staff, who aren’t public figures, don’t have the same ability.
“The only way staff can defend themselves is by invoking this process,” said Litke.
This legal action, however, was launched without council’s knowledge or approval according to Coun. John Vassilaki, who attended Slump’s press conference.
“The first I heard of this was on Monday night,” said Vassilaki. “City council did not vote on this, we did not participate in it. And don’t ask me who brought this forward because I have no idea. We were never informed.”
Litke said he approved the legal action, but it was initiated through the city’s human resources department, who have the responsibility to ensure a safe and harassment free workplace, complying with WorksafeBC legislation.
Since it was a matter of conforming to laws, Litke said there was no need to involve council.
“You either comply with the law or you don’t,” he said, explaining that it was not a debatable issue. “These are Worksafe regulations we are talking about.”
Dave Perry, who spent 15 years as councillor and mayor, disagrees that council shouldn’t have been involved.
“It is an embarrassment to have a councillor stand out on the steps here and say I didn’t know anything about it,” said Perry. “If I were on council and not mayor, I would be absolutely furious.”
Perry said there were many legal issues during his time on council that were discussed in camera, with the group deciding how to proceed.
“The decision was pretty much always not to go ahead with a lawsuit, because that is not what municipalities do and certainly not to take on the free speech issue like happened here, so I am shocked,” said Perry.
Slump said the grey skies above the city Wednesday reflected her feelings.
“Penticton is weeping today, because today free speech is dead in Penticton,” she said, adding her interpretation of the message the city was sending.
“Do not offer any advice or criticism. If you do, we have unlimited tax dollars to hammer you into the ground.”
Slump held a press conference on the steps of city hall Wednesday to discuss the letter she received last week from Bryan Baynham of Harper Grey LLP, a Vancouver law firm retained by the city to act in this matter.