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Prince George councillor guilty of breaking privacy law

Prince George City Councillor, Brian Skakun with his car on a long strech of Highway 16 East near Prince George as a fuel transport truck passses by.

Dave Milne for The Globe and Mail/dave milne The Globe and Mail

Prince George city councillor Brian Skakun says he could possibly do it again.

In an unprecedented ruling, B.C. Provincial Court Judge Ken Ball on Tuesday found Mr. Skakun guilty of violating B.C.'s privacy law by giving CBC an internal report on allegations of harassment of civilian employees by the superintendent at the local RCMP detachment.

Mr. Skakun said shortly afterward that it was "a one-time thing" and that he did not see it happening again. But then he wavered.

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"But if there is an issue of this magnitude that the public should know about, then I have to make a decision based on that," Mr. Skakun said in an interview from Prince George.

He said he still believes he did the right thing. "There were serious things going on and I was very concerned," he said.

Mr. Skakun, who is now serving his third term as a councillor, was convicted of violating the B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. He was fined $750.

The case is the first time in B.C. that a politician has been prosecuted under the privacy act for disclosing confidential information. His conviction and fine do not require him to be removed from office or require him to step down, a provincial government spokesman said.

Mr. Skakun testified during the two-week trial that he felt city officials were attempting to cover up controversy over harassment at the RCMP headquarters to protect favoured employees. He readily admitted in court that he provided the confidential report to the CBC in 2008. Three years later, he still feels the public had a right to know the information that he released, he said in the interview.

He was "absolutely dumbstruck" by the ruling, Mr. Skakun said. "I could not believe it."

The conviction did not hurt his popularity. As he left the courthouse, someone offered to pay the first $100 of his fine. Local businesses and individuals had previously pitched in close to $15,000 to help him with his legal bill. "They figure this is so wrong," Mr. Skakun said.

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His lawyer, Jon Duncan, said the ruling was a surprise that may have ramifications across the province.

The court ruled that Mr. Skakun was an officer of the municipality and subject to provisions of the privacy law. Mr. Duncan had argued in court that Mr. Skakun was an elected official with a role in overseeing the bureaucracy and the privacy law did not refer to elected officials.

Municipal law traditionally assumes a distinction between elected officials and officers who handle day-to-day affairs, Mr. Duncan said. The court ruling may open the door for lawsuits directly against city councillors for actions taken by city hall, he said. "This is going to be an extremely important ruling, that elected officials have the obligations and responsibilities of an officer," Mr. Duncan said.

The court also dismissed Mr. Skakun's whistleblower defence, concluding that a city councillor could not be a whistleblower, Mr. Duncan added. Whistleblowers are normally employees who are entitled to protection under the legislation from their employers. However, the judge decided that a city councillor was an employer.

Mr. Duncan said he intends to recommend the ruling be appealed, but Mr. Skakun indicated he was ready to "move on." Mr. Skakun questioned why the charge against him was pursued while the courts do not have time to hear criminal cases.

"How many impaired driving or drug charges were dropped because we took two weeks of court time?" Mr. Skakun asked, referring to cases that have been dismissed because they took too long to come to court. "They are letting criminals go because they do not have enough court time. It's mind boggling, There is something wrong," he said.

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A spokesman for the Community Ministry, which is responsible for municipal affairs, said the minister, Ida Chong, had not seen the ruling and could not comment.

Judge Ball read out the ruling from a Surrey courtroom. The decision was broadcast into a Prince George courtroom by closed-circuit television. A written copy of the decision was not available on Tuesday. Crown counsel Judith Doulis did not respond to a request for an interview.

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