About three people sent me the link in quick succession, and by the end of the day I had talked to maybe another three people in person about the fact that Gerry Barker was being sued by one of the City of Guelph’s upper managers. Barker, the erstwhile creator and provocateur of Guelph Speaks, has made it his business to talk smack about anyone at the City of Guelph, he thinks, make his taxes too damn high. Frankly, given his acid tongue and one-track mind, it’s a wonder that this is the first time someone’s taken Barker to court, but to be honest, as good as it feels to see him sued for half-a-million dollars, this isn’t the way to do it.
To recap, it was revealed this week that Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Mark Amorosi is seeking $400,000 in general damages and $100,000 in “aggravated, punitive and exemplary” damages in Ontario Superior Court against Barker. According to the suit, several blog posts on Guelph Speaks mentioning Amorosi by name where “false and defamatory” expressing “malice, spite and ill will” towards Amorosi, which entitled the DCAO to “an award (for) aggravated, exemplary anunitive damages.” Barker wrote eight blog posts in November, seven of them prominently mentions Amorosi, and two mentioned the DCAO in the headline. With this level of obsession, one almost expects Barker to turn up at police headquarters with Amorosi’s head in a box, you know if he wasn’t so ticked off about the cost of the renovations there…
I mock because that’s about the only way to treat Barker and the Guelph Speaks “brand”; Gerry likes to bill himself as a journalist, but he only really has one issue, and that is that we play too much taxes and there ain’t nobody at City Hall with the gumption to do something about it, like fire the communications staff. I sometimes joke that I only go to the Guelph Speaks site when simple procrastination isn’t enough, because really there’s nothing else new there. If you read one tormented screed about how life treats retirees that spend half the year in Florida unfairly, you’ve read them all, which is why for the most part, I think it better to let Gerry and his few associates to be taxed by their demons in peace.
Still, I can’t say I was surprised for even a minute that someone might have been fed up Barker’s acidic keyboard, although I was kind of surprised it was Amorosi that finally took him to court. It’s been two years since she was voted out of office, but former Mayor Karen Farbridge is still mention with startling regularity in Barker’s posts, as is former CAO Ann Pappert, who resigned this past spring. Barker’s seeming obsession with them almost bordered on misogynistic, to the point you almost felt dirty reading their names on his blog. At least I did. Which is all a way of prefacing this thought that surprised even myself: this is not the way to treat Gerry Barker.
Let’s leave aside the idea that if today they come for Guelph Speaks, then they might come for Guelph Politico tomorrow. I try not to attack anyone without reason, and I’m far from a one issue blogger, but as I do believe that if your mission statement is journalistic in nature then the powers you’re covering shouldn’t be suing unless they can prove libel. Notice that the word “libel” is no where to be found in the article, just that Barker’s posts have been “defamatory” and while that understandably can cause some stress, the law isn’t meant to stop you from feeling bad. You may feel that Barker is not a journalist, and that thing he does called “Guelph Speaks” is not doing journalism, but it’s not for the City to decide that he’s not, and it’s not. That road goes nowhere good because one day it might an outlet you believe in.
On top of the philosophical objections, there’s also the fact that the City is footing the bill for Amorosi’s lawsuit, which puts the $500,000 settlement being sought in the realm of a SLAPP suit. Governments, including the City of Guelph, have been accused of pursuing so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation in order to silence critics by seeking outrageous judgments that they know they won’t get, but the true intention of the suit is make people abandon protests out of concern for legal costs and spending time in court. Last fall, the Government of Ontario passed the Protection of Public Participation Act to end the use of lawsuits as political intimidation, just as Guelph did in 2011 by suing five people involved with organizing the occupation in the Hanlon Creek Business Park.
Currently, there are a couple of cases in court that will test Ontario’s anti-SLAPP lawsuit, one of them involves a former Richmond Hill councillor named Nick Papa who’s chasing a $1 million suit against resident Frank Zeppieri for taking out an ad in the local paper accusing Papa of supporting a controversial development, and creating an opposition Facebook page that prominently featured the rapper Snoop Dogg, which Papa took as defamatory because Snoop is “known as a person who uses drugs and has been associated with criminal activity.” Interestingly, Zeppieri’s lawyer is Iain MacKinnon of Toronto firm Linden & Associates, now the same lawyer suing Barker on Amorosi’s behalf.
It’s hard to think of a more innocuous form of defamation that comparing someone to Snoop Dogg, the man now has a cooking show with Martha Stewart for crying out loud. It’s certainly no where near the seriousness of Barker’s charges against Amorosi that the DCAO is driven by corruption, incompetence or managerial impotence (or some combination of all three) to keep Guelph taxes high, and increase the spending limit of the City to the demerit of its citizens. Barker’s ravings also do little to address the macro concerns of how the cost of anything only keeps going up, or how higher levels of government have downloaded greater responsibility on cities while doing nothing to allow more flexibility with revenue options. It’s easier to throw eggs at a straw man than do the hard work, so Barker throws eggs.
That’s why taking Barker to court is not such a great idea. Giving legitimacy to a man who has nothing to offer but complaints and convictions does nothing for people actually working to solve the problem, just look at what’s happening south of the border. Suing Barker says that the bombs he throws are powerful enough to be a concern to those he’s throwing them at in City Hall, and if they’re concerned, then maybe Gerry’s bombs are hitting close to home. There are things to be worried about at the City of Guelph, of course. The revolving door of high level staffers and too much discussion on important matters happening behind the closed doors of meetings are two of them, but accusing Amorosi and others of being puppet masters stuffing cash into suitcases, like Barker has, does not help lift the veil, and indeed makes the issues go deeper underground.
Barker is a parody, no question. His GrassRoots Guelph advocacy group was supposed to be a non-partisan voter outreach and engagement platform, and the City’s media, myself included, went along with it. But it was a platform created by Barker to push candidates he thought agreed with him and his politics, and the website for GRG was folded quickly the day after the 2014 election. The man who accused the Guelph Civic League for years of pushing an agenda, by pushing specific candidates – namely Farbridge – learned the lesson well, but he’s been dissatisfied with the results. His new boogeyman is city staff, and if Amorosi left town tomorrow and never came back he’d turn his attention to Scott Stewart, or Colleen Clack, or new CAO Derrick Thomson. When you don’t have practical solutions, all you can do is find a new person to blame for the problem, and that’s the reality a lot of Trump supporters might have to look at in a few years.
As for Gerry Barker, once the budget is passed he’ll be on his way to Florida where he will stew in the sun, and continue to publish his diatribes; safely ensconced in Trump Nation where the Amorosis of the world can only hurt him in his nightmares. I would never argue that Barker’s point of view, or the following he’s developed, is harmless, but I’d rather see him keep cranking out the crazy on Guelph Speaks than be forced underground where bitterness and resentment grows better in the dark. Barker has proudly established the fact that he’s not part of the solution, so just keep him out of the conversation. Suing him’s only going to feed his persecution complex, and something tells me he already thinks the whole world’s against him anyway.