Former Norman Wells mayor Nathan Watson points to his Read the Transcript hat at an earlier court hearing in Yellowknife. James O'Connor/Cabin Radio
The former mayor of Norman Wells is suing the town, its current mayor, and senior administrative officer for $1.5 million, claiming they made false and defamatory statements that harmed his reputation.
Nathan Watson, mayor of Norman Wells from 2015 to 2017, filed a statement of claim with the NWT Supreme Court early last month, as first reported by CBC.
In that statement, he says he has “been subjected to ridicule, hatred, and contempt” and has lost income from trucking operations as a result of statements made by the defendants related to an ongoing legal battle between the town, Watson, and Norman Wells’ former senior administrator, Catherine Mallon.
In May 2019, the town filed a suit against Mallon, Watson, and his company, alleging the pair had conspired to defraud the municipality of $1,259,479.15. The town claimed Watson amended Mallon’s employment agreement without the approval of council and withheld information about it, further alleging that Mallon and Watson were in a relationship.
Watson, however, said he never “engaged in theft, political corruption, or fraudulent activity,” was never in a relationship with Mallon, and never received money as a result of conspiracy or fraud.
Watson said the allegations in the town’s suit had since been “widely publicized,” including at a public meeting in Norman Wells in May 2019, in media interviews, and through publication on social media and the town’s website. He claimed the public statements were made to paint him as someone who “is of bad character and cannot be trusted,” is “incompetent,” and a “criminal and a fraudster.” As a result, he said, he has “been judged harshly and wrongly in the court of public opinion.”
Watson is claiming $500,000 in general damages, $1 million in special damages for lost wages, and further damages to “ensure that the defendants are appropriately punished for their conduct, and that they are deterred from such conduct in the future.”
No defendants have so far filed a statement of defence in response to the claim. Mayor Frank Pope told Cabin Radio he could not comment, other than to say none of the defendants had been served with the lawsuit.
According to the rules of the NWT Supreme Court, a statement of claim must be served within 12 months after it is filed, unless a judge orders otherwise.
‘I never wanted to sue the town’
In an interview with Cabin Radio, Watson said he waited until the last possible day to file his suit – two years after the town sued him and Mallon.
“I never wanted to sue the town I spent my entire adult life in,” he said. “I really wish none of this would have happened … It makes me nothing but sad.
“It’s just really very difficult in a small, isolated town to have this hanging over you. It’s difficult for me, it’s difficult for my friends, my co-workers … I don’t know how common it is to get sued for $1.5 million but it’s no fun, I can tell you that.”
Watson said his hope for the outcome of the legal battles is that “calmer heads prevail.”
The issues behind the lawsuits stretch back years. Watson referred to the overall picture as “a play with a cast of a thousand characters.”
According to his suit, when Watson was acclaimed as mayor in October 2015, the town was “plagued by serious administrative issues” including understaffing and a “fractious and sometimes antagonistic relationship” between council, management, and administration.
By September 2016, Mallon, who took over as senior administrator in November 2015, was ready to resign and was considering filing a suit against the town.
Watson said councillors agreed in private meetings to amend Mallon’s contract, increasing her salary and overtime entitlements, and instructed him to sign it. But issues persisted.
In July 2017, following complaints to the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, the NWT government conducted an inspection of Norman Wells. The territory subsequently placed the town under administration, dissolving its council.
After a new mayor and council were elected in the fall of 2018, town officials claimed a forensic audit uncovered misappropriation of funds by Mallon – a claim Mallon denies.
In filing suit against Mallon and Watson, the town requested that the court freeze the duo’s separate assets, expressing concern they could be dissipated to avoid paying the cost of any potential judgements.
While that order was granted, the town agreed to drop the injunction seven months later at a hearing where Supreme Court Justice Karan Shaner harshly criticized the municipality for providing “downright misleading” information.
Shaner said the ruling was a miscarriage of justice that caused financial hardship for Mallon and Watson. The judge ordered the Town of Norman Wells to compensate them for their legal fees.