Spectator columnist makes us look better than we are - but thanks - there is more to come on this story.

opinionandcomment

February 11, 2016

BURLINGTON, ON

 

My colleague, Joan Little, a former Burlington alderman and Halton councillor, writes a regular column for the Hamilton Spectator. We share a table in Council chambers reserved for media.

More often than not, it is just me from the Gazette and Joan from the Spectator – the Post gets a reporter to about half of the meetings.
Little and I share views on what we see taking place – we use each other to check on what we thought a council member said – we confirm with each other how a member voted – there are a couple that you would swear did not want the public to know how they had voted.

In her most recent column, Little wrote the following:

Monday saw the end of the online Burlington Gazette.  (Not completely correct Joan – but do read on.)

Burlington’s online news and opinion journal has been produced by resident Pepper Parr for over five years, initially as Our Burlington. Although a resident for under six years, he seems to know almost everyone in the city and at City Hall.

Mayor Goldring once described the Gazette as almost better than sliced bread – he has changed his mind about the Gazette and the Gazette changed its mind about him.

This is what the original Burlington Gazette office on Brant Street used to look like.

This is what the original Burlington Gazette office on Brant Street used to look like.

The demise of the Gazette is sad, because the outspoken Parr always evoked interesting feedback, and left Burlingtonians with something to mull over. He seemed to be everywhere — city hall meetings, community activities, even sports and arts events. And he strongly promoted local endeavours.

But litigation takes its toll. Always outspoken, Parr regularly made on-the-edge observations. Whether actually litigious, only a court could rule, but he upset companies and individuals enough to attract two challenges over the years, neither of which has been heard yet, according to Parr. They cost money for consultations with lawyers.

He had been increasing the Gazette’s advertising revenue recently, but the time needed, and the confluence of the cost of running an online journal and defending against legal threats took its toll.

One company suing is Burlington Executive Air Park, which itself was sued in 2013 by the City over the amount of fill it imported to its Bell School Line site. The City claimed importation of fill is covered by its site alteration bylaw. The Air Park said it was exempt because airports are under federal jurisdiction. Burlington initially won, but the issue is still before the courts as the result of appeals.

Besides the Gazette, North Burlington citizens Monte Dennis and Vanessa Warren were also sued for comments they made. Dennis wrote a Letter to the Editor to the Spectator in response to a submission by Air Park’s Vince Rossi. The Rural Greenbelt Coalition is raising money to help fund their defence.

Another recent corporate threat was from Adi Development Group. Adi is proposing the 26-storey condo at Martha and Lakeshore, which is the subject of a March OMB hearing.

Adi demanded an apology for comments in two November columns which it claimed damaged its reputation. The apology appeared Monday, and the offending columns were retracted.

A question that troubles citizen activists and journalists is whether they might become the targets of libel chill (the threat of being sued for libel to shut them up). Having a second pair of eyes check columns before publication is a plus. On one occasion my Spec editor was concerned about a column’s content, and cautioned me. Grateful for the advice, I amended it, or could have been in that situation.

Ontario passed legislation in October, “The Protection of Public Participation Act”, aimed at protecting against SLAPP suits (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation). It reduces the risk of suits (which are often dropped before getting to trial anyway) and fast tracks the process.

Unfortunately it won’t help Dennis or Warren, because they were sued before this legislation was passed. Such suits can cost defendants thousands. How many people have that kind of spare change?

Meantime Parr has shut down the Burlington Gazette. Asked what he will do now, he said he wasn’t sure, but is considering a couple of options, and will enjoy expanded participation in his church community.

Burlington owes him a debt of gratitude for demystifying some of the operations of city hall, and for providing a local sounding board.

Clearly disappointed, he noted that one of the main things he tried to do was educate citizens about how City Hall works, and how to effectively present their positions. In that, he succeeded brilliantly.

He definitely knows more about the internal workings of City Hall than most people as the result of investigations he’s done. And he has acted in the past as a consultant for small business.

Who knows? He could show up on a council ballot.

Little got most of it right. The Gazette has not shut down – it has just limited what it publishes for a very short period of time.

The apology we were required to publish, if we wanted to avoid a very expensive libel suit, which we thought we could win but could not afford to fight, was to be the top story on the paper for a period of forty – eight hours.

If we published our usual daily volume that apology would have been shoved off the front page with a day or two. So we published very little – and let the apology – that we didn’t write, got top billing.

That 48 hours is coming to an end and we will get caught up.

However – and this is critical – the Gazette needs to change its financial model if it is to continue and find a way to get more advertising into the paper so we can pay our bills and have a cookie jar with some fall back on cash.

I have put everything I had into the Gazette – it cost me a marriage that I did not want to see end and it requires me to move from the accommodation I have now to something that is closer to the pension money I get. It is going to be bumpy for a while

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6 comments to Spectator columnist makes us look better than we are – but thanks – there is more to come on this story.

  • henri de beaujolais

    Keep the faith Pepper. You have more friends in this City than you know of.

    City Hall talks about citizen engagement, but miss the mark miserably. The Gazette is THE only place Burlingtonians can exchange ideas about issues impacting our lives and the future of the City with each other and hear diverse opinions. That is true engagement.

    You provide us with detailed interpretation and insight of what is going on behind the slick, slight of hand we are being fed by City Hall.

    Keep your chin up – and your left guard!

  • henri de beaujolais

    PS Which person are you in the original photo? The one in the middle? LOL 😉

  • Joe Gaetan

    S.2B of our Charter of Rights, declares freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication as fundamental freedoms. The Star Chamber who amongst other things, introduced censorship to control printing and publishing, was abolished in 1641, but censorship in another form appears to still exist in Canada in 2016.
    Freedom of the press is an important and fundamental freedom, normally allowing truth as a defense in such cases. Truth of a publication is a protected defense, and even though it is contrary to the presumption of innocence, this particular situation exposes a serious flaw in our jurisprudence and appears to be in conflict with the presumption of innocence under S11 (d) of the Charter. In this case the reverse is in essence true and the accused must either back away or absorb the cost to establish the truth. A costly proposition for the normal citizen and in this case our local online newspaper.
    Thank you Pepper for your valued service to the community of Burlington.

    • Tom Muir

      Joe,

      Well put statement of insight into the situation and the legalities and protections that we are supposed to have, but that nonetheless appear to have let this travesty unfold. Thank you.

      I think the ADI legal statements are called “pleadings”, and I learned in the Red Hill Expressway lawsuit of the city of Hamilton against the Fed, that these guys can say and claim anything they want in these things.

      Then, as you said, the party that is sued has to ante up the cost of a defence against what can be any claim at all, or plead guilty.

      A costly proposition indeed.

  • Marie Watson

    Something to note: No corporation has ever made me view it in a better light by threatening to sue and demanding an apology.

    Quite the contrary. As a newcomer to the area, I wasn’t even aware of this company. This may be a small example of the Streisand Effect (Google it).