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HomeBusinessAnalysis: Excluded from FOI law, B.C.’s Legislature was a scandal waiting to happen

Analysis: Excluded from FOI law, B.C.’s Legislature was a scandal waiting to happen

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Bob Mackin

British Columbia’s Legislature is in turmoil after the stunning Nov. 20 suspension of its clerk and sergeant-at-arms related to an unspecified investigation of corruption initiated by Speaker Darryl Plecas.

Career legislative staffer Craig James and ex-Mountie Gary Lenz have not been charged, but they are on indefinite paid leave while the RCMP and two special prosecutors conduct a probe that was secret until this week.

Unlike government ministries and Crown corporations, the Legislature is excluded from the freedom of information law. The people’s house is largely a mystery to the people that own it. For that reason, said Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman, it behaves in an unaccountable way.

Gary Lenz (left), ex-speaker Linda Reid and Craig James (Commonwealth Parliamentary Association)

“The potential for abuse is pretty significant, the potential for wrongdoing is pretty significant,” said Holman, a former B.C. press gallery member. “We have to be careful here, because we do not know exactly what these allegations are.”

The Legislature does report some of its spending in the summertime public accounts disclosure and it is subject to oversight from the all-party Legislative Assembly Management Committee. The Legislature’s governing body is chaired by Plecas, with house leaders from the NDP (Mike Farnworth), BC Liberals (Mary Polak) and Greens (Sonia Furstenau), plus three backbench NDP MLAs (Garry Begg, Jagrup Brar and Janet Routledge), and another BC Liberal (Jackie Tegart). James was the clerk of the committee who was installed as the de facto CEO of the Legislature, without competition, by the BC Liberals in 2011.

In 2012, the committee came under fire in an Auditor General’s report looking at three years of the Legislature’s finances. John Doyle declared the Legislative Assembly mismanaged and LAMC “had little or no involvement in either providing governance over the Legislative Assembly’s financial and operational activities, or in this audit.”

Speaker Darryl Plecas (UFV)

For the year ended March 31, 2018, the Legislature reported $30,372,823 in supplier payments and $20,458,561 in salaries. The institution is expecting to spend a net $75.7 million this year.

The highest-paid suppliers of goods and services were on the technology side: Think Communications for $815,403; Ricoh Canada for $664,166; MYRA Systems Corp. $586,954; and Softchoice Corporation $361,753.

The list of suppliers of $25,000 or more began with 13 British Columbia numbered companies and one Alberta numbered company. There was no indication in the financial report of what they actually provided or whether the contracts were put to tender. The Clerk’s office refused to provide information when theBreaker asked last August.

The list also mentioned “severance settlements” for $540,421. Again, no information about the quantity or recipients of the settlements.

James and Lenz were far and away the highest-paid executives last year at $347,090 and $218,167 respectively. James ($51,349) and Lenz ($23,079) were also the biggest spenders on travel and meals.

The most-recent LAMC meeting was Oct. 30, in which James reported the Legislature was developing a “respectful workplace policy.” He circulated draft minutes of the closed-door finance and audit committee meetings to date.

His deputy, Kate Ryan-Lloyd, made a presentation on business continuity, and the executive financial officer, Hilary Woodward, gave a summary of major capital projects underway: HVAC replacement in the main chamber and committee rooms, front entrance accessibility ramps, earthquake readiness and resilience (including seismic motion detection lights, ambient soil vibration testing and seismic drill testing), two more electric vehicle charging stations in the MLA parking lot, bicycle repair stations, and an upgrade to the major electrical vault.

B.C. Legislature.

LAMC’s previous meeting, on Dec. 13, 2017, heard that spending rose 37.1% on information systems. Woodward said that included the centralization of constituency office expenses, including document workflow software. That three-phase project wrapped-up in April.

“We have, just in general, rising software support costs for information technology,” she said. “We also are proposing to replace our HR payroll system. It’s in excess of 15 years old, highly manual, and we’re looking to make a change there.”

James reported that the Legislature was chronically underspending.

“Year over year we always find ourselves in the position of returning money, operating funds, to the consolidated revenue fund,” he said. “I think last year at this time, we were talking in the region of $25 million or $27 million over five years, and I think we’re on track to return probably about $3 million or more this year to the consolidated revenue fund.”

James said that the inability of LAMC and the finance and audit committee to meet, because of the election and transition, hampered approvals for capital spending. He complained that the condition of the driveway was an ongoing concern. “You talk about it being an embarrassment. I can show you… I won’t reveal the letter, but this is the problem we face from day to day. This is a person who fell and tripped on the driveway — did not sue us — and required some surgery as a result. So the driveway, in our mind, is one huge priority to get fixed as soon as we possibly can.”

The B.C. Bid government procurement database shows little contracting activity since 2015, though the Legislature did award six-figure contracts for workflow and document management software ($262,850, to R.W. Matthews Agencies, dba File IT Solutions); landscaping maintenance services ($236,782, to Da Silva Garden and Landscaping); and janitorial services ($195,526.32, to Alpine Building Maintenance).

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