February 6, 2019 12:09 am

B.C. government promises to make changes around accountability at legislature

WATCH: Three B.C. watchdogs have released a blueprint for making government more open and accountable to taxpayers after a spending scandal sparked the suspension of two top officials at the Victoria legislature. Richard Zussman reports.

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The B.C. government is vowing to put in place recommendations made by the province’s top watchdogs.

B.C.’s Information and privacy commissioner, ombudsperson, and merit commissioner are calling on accountability changes that would allow the public to see how the clerk and sergeant-at-arms of the legislature are spending money.

The first change would be to make all expenses searchable under the province’s freedom of information laws.

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“Now is obviously an opportune time given things are in the public spotlight as they are,” privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy said. “Our view is there is no reason that freedom of information laws ought not to apply to officers of the legislature.”

The province may go a step further and make the expenses publicly available without a freedom of information request. Currently, MLA expenses are posted online without a request from a journalist or the public.

“These are not the only changes that are going to take place,” Government House Leader Mike Farnworth said. “These recommendations are very helpful in creating transparency and openness.”

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The watchdogs are also calling for the government to put forward whistle-blower legislation that would protect workers who come forward with allegations of wrongdoing in the workplace. The Plecas Report alleges that 16 legislative employees were terminated for raising concerns about alleged wrongdoing.

“The Public Interest Disclosure Act gives staff and former staff of institutions covered by the act the opportunity to disclose wrongdoing,” ombudsperson Jay Chalke said. “In doing so that person is protected from any reprisal in doing so.”

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Clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz are currently on administrative leave and have denied all wrongdoing. The pair are set to provide their defence to the allegations in the Plecas Report to the Legislative Assembly Management Committee by Thursday.

The watchdogs are also calling on revisions to the Public Service Act to provide the Merit Commissioner the mandate to conduct an independent audit of staffing appointments to and within the administration of the legislative assembly. The letter also calls for the ability of the Merit Commissioner to conduct reviews of processes leading to any just-cause dismissals of administration staff.

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“By a simple amendment to the public service act that mandate could be extended to staff in the legislative assembly,” Merit Commissioner Fiona Spencer said.

The B.C. Auditor General has also been tasked with doing a forensic audit looking into the office of the clerk, the sergeant-at-arms and the Speaker. It is still not known how far back the audit will look.

The B.C. Liberals have also suggested 20 changes that can be made to increase accountability. The changes include posting all expenses online, creating a comprehensive expense approval system, and banning international trips unless approved by the legislative management committee.

“They need to happen as quickly as possible. Some of it won’t. Some of the changes will require the work the Auditor General is doing,” Liberal House Leader Mary Polak said.

“One of the reasons we put out our 20-point plan is that where we can move quickly, I think we should.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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