Taxpayers will be footing the bill for more than half a million dollars in legal fees that Mississauga, Ont., Mayor Hazel McCallion racked up last year defending herself in a conflict-of-interest case.
On Thursday, Peel Region council voted to amend a by-law that specifies which costs incurred by members of council are eligible for reimbursement. The revised by-law now covers the cost of legal fees of members who are found innocent in conflict-of-interest cases.
Peel Region solicitor Patrick O'Connor presented the drafted amendment of the by-law to council, who voted unanimously in favour of it.
"Council recognized that Mayor McCallion was found not to have contravened the Act in performing her duties on Regional Council and decided to cover her legal fees based on that finding," Mr. O'Connor said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail.
In 2013, Ms. McCallion was taken to court by Mississauga resident Elias Hazineh, who alleged she had contravened the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act when she supported motions in council and later voted to amend a development charges by-law in 2007. Mr. Hazineh said the mayor supported the extension of a transition period for new, higher development fees because it could potentially save her son $11-million on a major real estate project – a project that never came to fruition. After a spring hearing, Justice John Sproat ruled in Ms. McCallion's favour and awarded her $170,000.
Earlier this month at a regional council meeting, one of Ms. McCallion's allies on council brought forth a motion that the region pick up the tab for Ms. McCallion's legal fees, which totalled $563,420.58. Only $50,000 was covered by the region's insurance policy. Rather than voting on this reimbursement case on its own, the council decided to take another look at its by-law as a whole. The council requested the region's solicitor draft an amendment so members would be financially protected in future conflict-of-interest cases if they were in fact not guilty.
"The one thing I'm concerned about is the amount," said Councillor Paul Palleschi during Thursday's meeting. "In the future, if somebody is accused of something and they go out and get legal counsel, if there's no limit to the dollar amount, you could find the world's best lawyer."
Ms. McCallion hired a team from boutique Toronto law firm Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre Cornish to represent her last year.
While the by-law does not specify a dollar amount, Mr. O'Connor said the region will have the right to limit the amount it will cover.
The by-law states that the Regional Municipality of Peel can "set a reasonable global upset limit to such costs and to establish a reasonable hourly rate that it is prepared to pay."
Mr. Hazineh said he was "absolutely disgusted" with the members of council who voted in favour of the amendment. "This is beyond what she was awarded. This is beyond what she asked for," he said.
The amendment of the bill means he will no longer be on the hook for the $170,000 that Justice Sproat awarded the mayor last summer.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "It's a relief, but taxpayers are getting stuck with a bill they don't deserve to be stuck with."
Ms. McCallion could not immediately be reached for comment.