Since losing a defamation suit to the tune of $15,000 in damages that the city will cover, Councillor Terry Whitehead has endured a rather public drubbing by citizens and the media.
Hamilton taxpayers are understandably upset that they're on the hook because the city's legal department decided the defamatory email was sent in good faith while fulfilling his duties as councillor, even though the judge in the case explicitly rejected that notion.
Whitehead has said he'll have a fundraiser to try and return the money, an idea that's been panned. I think it's a safe bet that most Hamiltonians would prefer he just pay back the money, but so far he doesn't seem inclined to do so.
It's important to note that a $15,000 hit to the family finances is nothing to sneeze at, and Whitehead does have a family - a wife and four kids, according to his website. I'm married too, and if there's one thing I know about Whitehead's situation right now, it's that he's not the only person making a decision about the $15,000: any decision is going to involve his wife and maybe other family members, too.
At the same time, if I were in Whitehead's situation I think I'd feel an ethical imperative to make the situation right. So between simply paying back the $15,000 out of his own personal finances and holding a fundraiser where other people pay it for him, what are his options?
Pay Back Part Of It Now
Immediately paying back some non-trivial portion of the sum - either half or one-third - would go a long way to repairing his image. Announcing that he's going to pay $5,000 of it out of his own finances, and that he'd look at other options for helping repay more of it, would show that he's sharing some of the pain and that he's serious about making things right.
It wouldn't be nearly as big of a bite out of the family finances as the whole shebang, so it's an easier sell on that side of things too.
Pay It Back Over Time
Councillors make decent salaries. Whitehead could divert some small percentage of each paycheque to repaying all or part of the $15,000. That said, $15,000 is quite a bit of cash: it might take a while.
Match The Fundraiser's Funds
I find it hard to believe that a fundraiser to pay back the $15,000 would be all that well-attended. I suppose anything's possible, but I'll only donate money to fund legal bills if I believe the person is unjustly charged or convicted. Even Whitehead's most ardent supporters may find the prospect of a fundraiser to cover his legal penalty a less-than-inspiring reason to open up their wallets.
On the other hand, if Whitehead committed to matching whatever the fundraiser raised, dollar for dollar, the goal of the fundraiser would only have to be half as high, and the fact he'd be enduring a little pain would likely increase the likelihood of actually receiving donations. And he'd end up looking pretty good by the end of it.
There's Always Options
My point is that there are always creative ways to help satisfy an ethical obligation. If Whitehead wants to satisfy that obligation, he's got lots of options. I hope he pursues one of them.
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