Invermere councillors opted to give a letter of support to Mayor Gerry Taft in his efforts to get municipal insurance extended to cover costs stemming from his legal battle with deer cull opponent Devin Kazakoff.
The three council members present in the room voted unanimously on the measure, during the Tuesday, September 12th meeting, and the official letter from the District of Invermere will join a similar one from the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK), both of which Mr. Taft will use in his application to the Municipal Insurance Association of British Columbia (MIABC) to have the district’s liability insurance cover some of the more than $100,000 in legal bills that he has accrued as a result of successfully being sued by Mr. Kazakoff earlier this year, for incorrectly referring to Mr. Kazakoff as a “convicted felon” in an online comment.
The decision came after a heartfelt plea on Mr. Taft’s behalf from his sister Shari Taft at the meeting, outlining the precarious financial situation her brother is now in. Mr. Taft had left the room during discussion on the matter due to the conflict of interest, as had councillor Justin Atterbury, who is currently employing Mr. Taft.
“Gerry has already paid $35,000 in legal fees for the initial trial, and $30,000 on legal opinions for an appeal (in addition to the $75,000 the judge in the case ordered Mr. Taft to pay Mr. Kazakoff). Of these costs, the District of Invermere has contributed zero, despite the lawsuit only coming to fruition because of Gerry’s position as mayor of Invermere. I find it disappointing that after 15 years of service to this community, my brother is now being pushed to the brink of bankruptcy over a comment that he made,” Ms. Taft told council.
She continued that most councillors, including her brother, knew that by stepping forward to be on council they would be put under constant scrutiny, even outside the district’s office building and outside their roles as council members.
“But I bet you felt like it would be worthwhile. That your dedication to this town would be appreciated, and that if push ever came to shove, the district of Invermere would reciprocate your loyalty, and would back you up, even on the work you do from outside this building, and on your own time,” she added. “I bet you never would have thought that an already thankless 24/7 job may someday result in a lien against your home. Well neither did my brother, and yet that is exactly where he is at today.”
The three council members left in the room each went to pains to outline that they felt Mr. Taft had made a significant mistake, but that they also felt the lawsuit and its result were at least partly due to Mr. Taft’s position as mayor and his role as council’s main spokesperson on the deer cull issue (the MIABC, in its reasons for initially declining insurance coverage in the case had said Mr. Taft had made the comment via his personal Facebook page, and that he had been in his home when he did so). The three each also emphasized repeatedly that they had gone through legal consultation on the issue and had determined that writing the letter of support would not have any financial repercussions whatsoever for Invermere taxpayers.
“We’ve batted this around the council table. It’s caused friction. It’s caused uncertainty. We’ve had to reach out for legal advice — extensive legal advice. What he (Mr. Taft) said was inappropriate, there’s no question. It shouldn’t have been said. But I certainly agree that sometimes you can make a mistake. And this one was done electronically, so it was there for the whole world to see for a long time after,” said councillor Al Miller. “Although I disagree with how Gerry handled this, I also disagree that it should result in a lien on his house.”
“It’s definitely a sensitive issue. Gerry, as mayor, is our voice, and he definitely made a mistake,” said councillor Paul Denchuk. “But we did ask Gerry to speak for us to the media and reporters on the deer cull. I’m okay with the letter, but I’m not taking it lightly. I found it reckless what Gerry did. You just cannot engage with some people online, especially when we’re under a microscope.”
The letter of support from the district and the RDEK do not guarantee that the district’s liability insurance will be extended to cover Mr. Taft’s costs. The final decision on the application, which has yet to be formally made, will rest with the MIABC.
The lawsuit involving Mr. Taft and Mr. Kazakoff occurred this past May. Mr. Taft’s “convicted felon” comments were made in early 2016. Mr. Kazakoff had in spring 2015 pleaded guilty to tampering with deer traps in Kimberley, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay fines. He did not get a criminal record as a result of his actions in that case, and is correspondingly not a convicted felon.