After 49 years of reporting on local governments, here’s how I see it.
The “sue your critics” resolution in the news this week — introduced but not yet adopted as official policy in Peachtree City — is on the City Council agenda Thursday night. [See correction below.]
It’s the most dangerous local resolution I have ever seen — dangerous to democratic representative government and to the very citizens it is targeting.
The resolution — at the public urgings of at least the elected Mayor Vanessa Fleisch and the unelected City Manager Jon Rorie — would allow a thin-skinned elected council member or a self-important city official to turn the money, power and legal apparatus of a local government like a loaded gun into the faces of ordinary citizens and haul them at great expense into Fayette Superior Court and sue them for “defamation.”
Both Fleisch and Rorie are on TV stations’ video proclaiming that such a big gun is needed to … to … to do what? To stop citizens from saying bad things about them. How? By threatening and then suing the very citizens these elected and hired officials are supposed to be serving.
Are Fleisch and Rorie unable to avail themselves of the very same legal recourses available to every ordinary citizen. No, each of these aggrieved public officials has every right to hire lawyers with their own money and go after their defamers in that same superior court just like every other citizen.
But here’s the defining difference: Fleisch and Rorie and whoever else at City Hall supports this resolution can’t seem to stand the heat in the kitchen. We ordinary citizens — if defamed — would either let the insults roll off our backs — like grownups — or pony up our private money to hire a lawyer and sue the ones who offended us, with our own money at risk.
But Fleisch and Rorie and the supporters of this loaded municipal cannon aimed at the very citizens who pay their salaries must think themselves to be very special indeed, much more special than you and me. So special and elite that the taxpayers should pay for them to hire big-bore lawyers and turn them loose on the very people who will be paying the bills. Fleisch and Rorie and their supporters should not be bothered to be like the rest of us mere citizens and pay for their own legal forays seeking retribution for words said against them.
That alone would be worthy of sending them to the time-out corner. But here’s the big danger.
Who among us ordinary citizens can afford to defend ourselves against even a misguided thrust of revenge from an official backed by the power and pocketbook of a municipal government?
Suppose three of the five council members took great offense at a political sign you placed in your yard. Suppose they accused you of defaming them. Suppose they bring suit against you for defamation. And suppose your homeowner’s insurance policy covered you for a nominal amount, but you would first have to pay a $10,000 deductible. And the city has nearly unlimited ability to pay its lawyer to hound you into bankruptcy.
Would you meekly take your sign down rather than face bankruptcy? And would you ever raise even a meek criticism against those three again? Would you ever criticize them on social media again? Would you ever publicly oppose them with their cannon pointed at you?
Sure, you could cast a secret ballot against them the next time two of the three came up for reelection. But would you dare to publicly campaign against them?
That’s the point that the aggrieved officials cannot seem to understand: This city-funded lawsuit threat is tailor-made to facilitate abuse of power and position. It is turning the power of the government against its own citizens. It will chill even modest exercises of free speech. Who can afford to be dragged into court over what you said, not even for what you did?
Do you trust this bunch not to abuse their power?
They’ve abused it already with this proposed resolution. The taxpayer-paid officials who conceived this unprecedented resolution took our tax money and used their city-paid time to try to weaponize the city’s legal resources against us taxpayers. We citizens deserve a refund.
The taxpayer-fleecing resolution is not for the benefit of the citizens of this city. It is a rule against political speech that serves only for the benefit of those in power who are supposed to be serving us. It is the most self-serving resolution that can be imagined. It exists to give them even more power over us that none of the rest of us can ever have access to.
Remember — all of us have access to the same legal system to seek redress if we are defamed. All of us, including the ones with hurt feelings at City Hall. But only this bunch — in all of the state of Georgia — will have access to the city treasury to come after us.
Our own money turned against us. Nothing like this exists anywhere else in this entire state. Only in Peachtree City. Because some of our Peachtree City public officials — elected, appointed and hired — seem to think themselves to be more special, more deserving of special treatment, than the citizens they are sworn to serve.
If this misbegotten sop to super-inflated egos is approved Thursday night, whoever votes for it will have declared war on the citizens of this city. Our city officials will have declared themselves to be better and more deserving of special privileges than the people who elected them and who pay them.
If this passes, who can trust such self-absorbed, self-important, self-inflating egos to do what’s best for the citizens if they are so fixated on salving their own hurt feelings and seeking revenge on their critics — at taxpayers’ expense? That’s bad news for the city’s future and certainly bad for its reputation.
The citizens of Peachtree City deserve better than this self-serving resolution. It should be voted down 5-to-0 with special instructions for those with too-tender feelings to either get over themselves or find another line of work more protective of their vulnerabilities.
The City Council meets at City Hall at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Doors open at 6. See you there.
CORRECTION and CLARIFICATION — The word “ordinance” is replaced in all occurrences in this article and replaced by the word “resolution.” What’s the difference?
“An ordinance passed in pursuance of express legislative authority is a law and has the same effect as a local law,” according to uslegal.com.
A resolution, on the other hand, “is an expression of opinion or mind or policy concerning some particular item of business coming within the legislative body’s official cognizance,” according to uslegal.com. Adopting a resolution sets new city policy.
In the resolution before the council, a majority vote would revise the city’s current policy of insurance protection for its employees, commissions and council members that defends them from outside lawsuits, a defensive posture.
The proposed resolution would expand the current insurance indemnity coverage and change one aspect to an offensive posture.
The new city policy would allow city officials who believe a person or firm has defamed them to bring a defamation lawsuit against a person or group making the statements with the city footing the upfront legal costs, including attorney’s fees. The indemnifying policy would repay the city — minus a likely deductible — for any legal costs not recovered from the defendant.
[Cal Beverly is editor and publisher of The Citizen newspaper and TheCitizen.com. He has been a resident of Peachtree City since 1977.]