Commentary: The buck stops with the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (September 6, 2019)

by Dermod Travis

 

“It’s your fault.” “No it’s not, it’s yours.” “Stop bickering, why don’t we all just agree to blame it on the Speaker?” “We can’t do that.” “Why not? It makes perfect sense and it gets us all off the hook at the same time.”

Hate to break up the blame game, but no matter how much a few MLAs want to lay it at someone else’s doorstep, the fault belongs entirely to the members of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC).

Interesting dynamics among its members. Two key ones are Sonia Furstenau and Mary Polak.

One could argue that Polak did more to bring about a new government in B.C. than the Speaker, Darry Plecas, ever did when he opted to become Speaker to help keep the legislature working.

Had it not been for Polak’s mishandling of the Cobble Hill Holdings’ quarry at Shawnigan Lake, when she was environment minister, the B.C. Liberal party might still be in power.

One of the individuals squaring off against the ministry back then was Furstenau, now a Green party MLA, and the quarry is often cited as one of the reasons why the Greens opted to support the NDP.

Attacking Plecas, directly – or by proxy through his chief of staff, Alan Mullen – does seem to be the in-thing with a few members of LAMC versus rolling up their sleeves and helping to fix the mess.

A mess that has been ‘the orders of the day’ at the legislature long before May 2013, when Plecas was first elected as an MLA, as most everyone at the legislature knows well.

You come away with an eerie sense of déjà vu reading all the reports and audits. One of the first early warnings came in 2000, nearly two decades ago.

In 2000, B.C.’s then auditor general, George L. Morfitt, in his Financial Administration of Vote 1 report – nothing like a catchy title – recommended that “the LAMC consider changing its procedures so that its decisions can be promptly communicated; and that it provide an annual public report on the reasons for variances between budgeted and actual amounts in Vote 1 expenditures.”

Quick digression. Vote 1?

From Morfitt’s report: “Estimates are divided into separate “votes” for each special office or major part of a ministry’s operations. They are referred to as votes because each is debated and voted on in the Legislative Assembly…The votes are numbered, and the first one, Vote 1, is the amount provided for the operation of the Legislative Assembly.

Vote 1 expenses include: amounts paid to MLAs as salaries and allowances, caucus support services, the Office of the Speaker, the Clerk of the House, the Sergeant-at-Arms, Hansard, the Legislative Library and maintenance of the legislative buildings.

In his 2007 Special Audit Report to the Speaker: The Financial Framework Supporting the Legislative Assembly, the then-interim auditor general, Arn Van Iersel, “identified a number of areas for improvement such as general accounting, internal controls, data management, and public reporting.”

Van Iersel recommended: “financial reporting requirements to the LAMC be established and include regular reporting and discussions of actual to budget spending, as well as publicly available audited annual financial statements.”

He also recommended that business continuity and disaster recovery plans need to be completed and tested. Still a few kinks in that area.

By 2012, an exasperated auditor general John Doyle, informed LAMC that “he (had) anticipated that the Legislative Assembly would meet the basic financial management practices and accounting standards requirements established for the rest of government. However, the Legislative Assembly is clearly falling well short of these basic expectations.”

Doyle noted that he had not “been provided the opportunity to discuss any aspect of this audit with LAMC, as is typical practice, especially given the pervasive and significant nature of the issues identified.”

Yet again, the office of the auditor general noted: “the Legislative Assembly does not produce financial statements (despite being recommended to do so in the 2007 report).”

A year later the report on those infamous retirement top ups and more on that dastardly paperwork thing.

The draft of that update was likely in the hands of the then-Speaker Bill Barisoff weeks before its release, as is standard practice. It’s an important yard stick to judge the actions of individuals.

Remember that South African ‘safari’ former speaker Linda Reid and her husband took in 2013, while attending the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, and the resulting knock it off that echoed across B.C.?

Here’s how the Times Colonist put it in an editorial in March 2014: “Stop believing you are somehow entitled to live better than those who pay your salaries. Stop talking about transparency and accountability, and walk the talk. Do it now, not at some fuzzy future date following a series of namby-pamby committee meetings and policy-planning sessions.”

Short-lived lesson.

The two frequent flyers at the legislature held their spending to a combined $34,572 in the following fiscal year, before the pair’s tab jumped to $99,685 the next.

The issues were raised again in 2016, as a result of a brown envelope one day in my mailbox.

Global B.C. and 24 Hours were two of the media outlets that covered the subsequent story. Have to wonder, though, who may also have received that or a similar leak and what they did with it?

The brown envelope backs up the Speaker on all the points he raised that were also part of the leaked documents, three years before he raised them.

Slice it any way you want, but at the end of the day their record speaks for itself, LAMC failed to step up and it’s exactly where the buck stops today.

No one is coming out of this one without a few bruises and nicks. Want to speed things along? Get over your petty intra and inter-party spats and get on with it.

 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca

 

August 22, 2019