Toronto taxpayers will foot the initial legal bill for a senior manager who is suing the Toronto Star over a series of articles on organics collection.

A lawyer for Geoff Rathbone, general manager of the city’s solid waste management services division, served a notice of libel on Friday, arguing the July articles by reporter Moira Welsh are defamatory. The stories examined the city’s green bin organics program and questioned whether claims for particular diversion rates were accurate.

City policy, approved by council in 2005, allows the city solicitor to recommend, with the approval of the city manager and chief financial officer, advancing up to $25,000 to cover the initial stages of any lawsuit launched by a manager.

It’s not clear if this is the first time a city manager has used the policy. Any further financing would need approval from the employee and labour relations committee and city council. A recent staff report says a libel case could cost $150,000 or more in legal fees if it goes to trial, although actions are often settled before trial.

But the news comes about a week after city council voted not to have a policy giving politicians financial backing to sue citizens on the taxpayers’ dime. Instead, requests by council for cash to launch lawsuits would be approved on an individual basis, as was done for Councillor Sandra Bussin at the same meeting.

The decision to fund Rathbone’s case is part of a wider indemnification policy that applies to staff at the middle management and management levels because unionized employees are covered under collective agreements. The policy also applies to cases where a civil action or proceeding not covered by the city’s insurance policy is brought against an employee.

City spokesperson Patricia Trott said she would not get into specifics of this case, but that the city is following the existing policy.

“This is a legal action. I don’t want to comment on how the decisions were made,” she said. “There is a policy in place, and it describes circumstances under which an individual can be compensated for legal costs with approval from city officials. And that’s what has happened.”

The city did not launch legal action against the Star because, legally, a municipality cannot be defamed.
In a 2006 case, Superior Court Justice David Corbett ruled that the town of Halton Hills could not sue a resident for comments he made on his website.

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