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City of Vaughan officials hit with $25.5M lawsuit for cancelling Caribbean festival

Vaughan Ward 4 Coun. Sandra Yeung-Racco allegedly pushed for the Caribbean festival to be shut down, according to the lawsuit.

A company that staged a Caribbean cultural festival in Vaughan in 2018 has sued the city for $25.5 million after officials shut the event down two days early, citing noise complaints.

Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, Ward 4 Coun. Sandra Yeung-Racco and two bylaw officers are also named in the lawsuit, which alleges an abuse of power after the permit issued to the festival was suddenly revoked. 

The three-day event, put on by Summer of Sound Festivals Inc.(SOS), lasted just a day before being shut down by the city over the August long weekend last year.


In its statement of claim, SOS says it suffered financial loss and damage to its reputation due to the cancellation, and is asking the courts to impose "ongoing, mandatory cultural competence and anti-racism training for all city of Vaughan employees, servants, agents and representatives."

"There is a rule of law that everybody must adhere to, irrespective of whether you're a citizen or you're an elected official," said lawyer Leslyn A. Lewis, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of SOS.

"You cannot use your power to detrimentally affect citizens."

The allegations in the lawsuit have not been tested in court.

City emails obtained by the plaintiffs through a freedom of information request show Yeung-Racco urged city staff to shut down the cultural festival, in part "to ensure that this DOES NOT happen tonight or ever!!!"  

According to the lawsuit, Yeung-Racco had received three noise complaints from constituents in the Dufferin Street and Rutherford Road area.

The festival was held about seven kilometres away at a complex on Keele Street near Highway 407.


Bylaw official suspected noise wasn't from SOS event

There were two other festivals happening in the area on the same night, according to the statement of claim.

The emails reveal a City of Vaughan bylaw officer raised doubts the noise Yeung-Racco was concerned about actually came from the Caribbean festival.

"I suspect that's not from the event, that's from the laugh party that happened apparently in the north end of Ward 3," wrote Gus Michaels, Vaughan's director of bylaw and compliance, licensing and permit services, in an email to fellow city staff.

Yeung-Racco did not respond to questions from CBC News. 

"As this matter is before the courts, we cannot comment further," City of Vaughan spokesperson Antolino Carmela told CBC News in an email.

Carmela pointed to the city's statement issued on Aug. 9, 2018, several days after the city revoked the permit it had issued for the Caribbean festival.

The "applicants did not comply with the terms of the permit," according to the statement. 

SOS event over capacity, too loud, city says

The city claimed the first night of the festival was over capacity, went longer than the 2:00 a.m. cut off and was too loud. The city also said it received 80 noise complaints. 

But Lewis says festival organizers did nothing wrong.

"Our client had a sound engineer on site so the decibels were constantly monitored, and it's something they took very seriously because they realized their permit hinged on this," she told CBC News.

The statement of claim alleges a city bylaw officer arrived at the festival on the first night just after midnight, and asked if it was still in progress because he couldn't hear much noise. 

The claim also says the officer didn't measure sound levels, despite the city's later assertions that the concert sound exceeded the allowable 55 decibels late at night, and that a York Regional police officer on duty at the Caribbean festival noted no problems with the event.

Less than two hours before the start of the second night of the festival, SOS was notified by text messages that its permit was revoked.

The internal emails suggest city staff had concerns about shutting it down on short notice, but did so anyway.

"Physically closing down an event with thousands of people is not safe for attendees or even possible. And the police are not prepared to engage in that level of physical confrontation, nor can my officers," Michaels wrote to a fellow staff member.

Almost 30 different acts had been hired to perform at the festival.

About 8,000 people paid $35 to $95 to attend the final two days.

The spectators left the site without incident and SOS later refunded their money. 

'Egregious misuse' of power

Lewis says the city made no effort to contact organizers to remedy any perceived issues.

"It was shut down largely because ratepayers in the city of Vaughan made a complaint to a particular councillor, and our theory is that this particular councillor felt compelled to do something about it because these individuals vote for her," she told CBC News.

"Sandra [Yeung-Racco] engaged in an overt and conscious effort to block the commercial interests of the plaintiffs by pressuring bylaw staff/officers and other council members to cancel the plaintiffs' Carnival events and also ensure there were no means of reinstatement," the lawsuit claims. 

It was "an egregious misuse of her power," the document alleges.

It also claims the mayor failed to intervene in the situation.

The defendants have yet to file statements of defence.

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