Blog claims to expose ills within city hall
Third Floor News claims to be work of city employee; lawyer says many statements are libelous
Saturday, Jun 14, 2014 06:00 am
It’s the long-suffering employee’s dream – write an anonymous blog airing all the dirty laundry about your tyrannical boss. But some in St. Albert affected by just such a new blog, Third Floor News, are concerned about its accuracy and honesty.
“St. Albert Third Floor News, News from the Office of the St. Albert Mayor and Administration” was touted to the St. Albert Gazette in a May 17 email as a “New website to hit the St. Albert Internet network. Stay tuned - the website is below. www.stalbertthirdfloornews.wordpress.com.” The message was sent by a hotmail address, email@example.com.
The blog already has several articles, the topmost referring to a city employee convicted of a criminal offence in 2012. But the blog, under the headline “Misuse of city funds,” claims the employee, who was using a city account to purchase material for his private business, was never charged, and walked away from the city with a severance implying the city knew about the criminal behaviour and did nothing about it.
“How did the city deal with this individual?,” asked the anonymous blogger. “Most companies would investigate the individual and have him/her charged with theft. St. Albert had a different plan. The individual was a union member, so rather than fire him/her, the city forced the person to leave with a package. Yes, a payout. Why would that be? Is there something to hide? Maybe the city didn’t want to be embarrassed, so they paid the person to go away? It does not seem out of question and it is definitely not out of the norm for the city.”
The St. Albert city manager at the time, Bill Holtby, confirmed to the Gazette Thursday he posted a response to the blog’s accusations. Holtby stated the blog was untrue when whoever wrote the article claimed the city knew about criminal behaviour and didn’t hold the perpetrator responsible.
“This happened when I was City Manager and you may want to read the March 9, 2013 Gazette Court Briefs,” wrote Holtby.
Holtby posted a copy of the Gazette’s court briefs in question, which noted a former public works operations supervisor defrauded the City of St. Albert for about $8,000 and pleaded guilty in a criminal court March 4, 2013 to one charge of fraud over $5,000.
The blog writer and website, hosted by a company called Word Press, give the impression it’s written by someone who works for the City of St. Albert. In fact, the blogger responded to Holtby’s post by stating, “By the way, we all knew at public works that this was not all that was taken.”
The Gazette attempted to contact firstname.lastname@example.org through email June 4, but received no response.
Word Press, the blog hosting site, refused to divulge information about the blog author. Contacted by the Gazette June 5, Word Press staff member “Timmy” stated, “For privacy reasons I can not disclose contact information of a blog's owner.”
Fred Kozak, a media lawyer who works for Reynolds Mirth in Edmonton and advises the St. Albert Gazette, said, after reading the topmost item on Third Floor News, the blog is publishing defamatory comments.
“I think that the original blog states city employees acted improperly in covering up a theft to avoid embarrassment,” said Kozak Friday.
“There is no doubt that statement is defamatory.”
Kozak said blogs, and other Internet sites, are treated in Canadian law just like newspapers, radio stations and other media outlets when it comes to defamatory material.
He also said hiding the identity of the writer doesn’t matter when it comes to responsibility for a defamatory comment.
“The person posting the blog and those posting in the blog can’t avoid responsibility by using anonymity,” said Kozak. “The Internet is anything but anonymous.”
Kozak pointed out the victim of defamation can seek a Norwich Order, which forces an Internet service provider to hand over information on the blogger’s identity.
“The clear message is you shouldn’t be making defamatory statements in blog postings thinking there won’t be any consequences because you haven’t attached your real name to what you said.”
Dan Carroll, a lawyer who works for Field Law in Edmonton and does work as a libel expert for the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association (of which the St. Albert Gazette is a member) said blog posts can defame.
“Generally speaking, however, there is a commonly held belief that one can say on the Internet whatever one wants,” he said Thursday. “While the medium is rife with informal and colloquial communication, the fact is that the law will protect personal reputation whether it is attacked in print, on TV or over the Internet. There are civil remedies for defamation and criminal remedies for defamatory libel.
“The fact a blog can be published anonymously gives some encouragement to unbridled speech, but even that apparent protection can be pierced by court order.”
City manager Patrick Draper declined an interview, but sent the Gazette the following statement Thursday regarding the blogger’s claim to be a city employee: “I am not going to respond directly to unsubstantiated and inflammatory accusations from an anonymous blogger.
“As city manager, I’m proud of the work by city staff and I know that they do their work in an ethical, open and effective manner.
“If a resident has any concerns about how the city operates, I encourage them to contact me directly. Residents can also contact the mayor and councillors directly, or they can ask questions at any council meeting.”
Mayor Nolan Crouse was more blunt when asked what he thought of the blog and the claims it’s written by at least one city staff member.
“First of all, the blog is full of lies, full of inappropriate comment,” said Crouse Thursday.
“There is no truth within this blog and in fact it borders on 100 per cent inappropriateness and I think the author needs to be careful.”