Cash for Winnipeg’s over-stretched legal department held back as councillors question courtroom track record

By | July 9, 2020

Just a day after the City of Winnipeg lost a major court battle over imposing impact fees on developers, the finance committee decided to hold back on giving the legal department an extra $798,000 to cope with a massive case backlog.

A number of city councillors are raising concerns about the city’s growing loss record in court and ever-increasing legal fees paid to outside firms.

The legal service department had 700 hundred files still open at the end of 2019 and estimates it receives between 200-300 new requests from other city departments for assistance every month.

In the report to the finance committee, the legal department said the cost of fighting developers over impact fees was $628,000.

The request for extra funds to pare down the backlog is based on early estimates of expenses and all the money may not be needed, said city solicitor Doug Brown, the director of legal services.

The finance committee voted to hold over a decision on giving the service extra funds until September.

Finance chair Scott Gillingham, who voted not to approve the extra funding for the legal service department, later told reporters he has some issues of confidence with the legal advice the city has received in recent years.

“I believe there is an issue with this many losses to the city in a row that has to be addressed,” Gillingham said, though he also said the decision not to approve extra funding for the legal services department wasn’t connected to Wednesday’s defeat on impact fees.

City council finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James) says he has some issues of confidence with the legal advice the city has received in recent years. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie told the finance committee he was increasingly concerned with the growing legal costs the city is incurring under Mayor Brian Bowman, who he noted is a lawyer.

The city lost a legal challenge from the Winnipeg Police Association after an attempt to change officers pensions, resulting in $600,000 in penalties.

“That was a total lost cause,” Eadie said.

A judge has also ruled against the city in the Parker lands case. The judge found the City of Winnipeg in contempt of court after it ignored an order to consider developer Andrew Marquess’s plan to build new residential units on the Parker lands.

In the legal loss over impact fees, the judge ordered the city to return $30 million it collected in fees it charged for construction of new homes in some Winnipeg developments.

Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood Coun. Kevin Klein, who also spoke about the city’s current lack of success winning legal fights, said members of the finance committee must make sure the legal department has all the resources it needs to be successful.

“If you are going to spend someone else’s [taxpayers’] money … you want to win,” Klein said.

The finance committee should demand to see the top 10 cases the city is fighting and their associated legal costs, he said.

“How much is at risk?” Klein asked.

Legal services has also been swamped with more than 200 additional requests from departments across the city during the pandemic emergency.

The head of the legal service told councillors every time the province issued a new health order related to COVID-19, it generated requests for legal analysis.

Doug Brown told councillors he has a “dedicated and strong staff and wasn’t concerned with weaknesses that way,” but the service was coping with a very high volume of requests from the other city departments.

Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason wonders whether the city’s legal battles are worth the cost. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason asked Brown about the city’s win-loss record in court and whether “in the court of public opinion, is this money a wise spending of public funds?”

Brown declined to speak about specific cases, but said his department might be forced to “fold back matters … that are part-way done, part-way finished.”

Not getting financial support could expand the legal backlog even further, but the department can get through the summer on the funds it has currently, he told councillors.

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