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HomeMiscellanyExclusive: NDP government in no rush to add scandal-plagued Legislature to B.C.’s FOI law

Exclusive: NDP government in no rush to add scandal-plagued Legislature to B.C.’s FOI law

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Bob Mackin

The NDP government will not expand British Columbia’s freedom of information law to cover the Legislature this spring, theBreaker.news has learned. 

In the wake of reports by Speaker Darryl Plecas on waste and corruption in the offices of the clerk and sergeant-at-arms, the province’s information and privacy watchdog urged the government to add the Legislative Assembly to the list of 2,900 government offices subject to the transparency law.

Mike Farnworth announcing the suspension of the B.C. Legislature clerk and sergeant-at-arms on Nov. 20, 2018 (Hansard TV).

NDP house leader Mike Farnworth said Feb. 5 that he accepted the recommendation from Commissioner Michael McEvoy and vowed it would happen. Just a week later, the NDP’s throne speech for the first session of 2019 climaxed with a section titled “Trust in Our Public Institutions” that stated the government “values transparency and takes very seriously its responsibility to maintain the integrity of our public institutions.”

“Your government will work with this Assembly to implement reforms that restore trust in this core institution, so that our democracy is stronger going forward,” read the speech. 

On April 9, Farnworth told theBreaker.news that he did not know when the bill would be tabled, but it would definitely not be during the spring session, which is scheduled to end May 30.

“Just from a practical sense, the fall would be the earliest you could do it,” Farnworth said.

“First off, you have to write it. We have a whole legislative calendar, you don’t just say we made a decision to do something and then it gets done,” Farnworth said. “There’s a whole range of things that have to be done, in terms of legislation has to go to the legislative review committee, it has to be drafted by legislative counsel along with all the other legislation. So most legislation that’s being done this spring has, in fact, last fall or last spring, been approved and gets worked on during that time.”

Speaker Darryl Plecas arrives on Throne Speech Day Feb. 12, 2019 (BC Gov)

McEvoy preceded the open letter, which was co-authored by the merit commissioner and ombudsperson, by telling theBreaker.news that there is no good reason why the law should not cover the Legislature, its staff, offices and members.

On April 9, McEvoy said that he takes Farnworth at his word that drafting proper language to reform the Legislative Assembly may take until the fall sitting, because it is not as simple as adding the Legislature to the list of public bodies in the Act. “In my view an amendment to FIPPA will be required to ensure accountability of the Assembly,” McEvoy said.

“When the government reopens the legislation, however, they must also make other badly needed amendments. The most significant changes were unanimously recommended by an all-party committee of the Legislature three years ago. They include mandatory breach notification, an offence provision for wrongly accessing someone’s personal information, and making sure subsidiary corporations set up by public bodies are covered by access to information legislation. 

“The present administration now has the opportunity to make government more transparent and accountable. My office and the public expect they will embrace that opportunity.”   

A poll released Jan. 28 by Research Co found 70% of respondents agree that amending the FOI law to include the Legislature is a leading remedy to the waste and corruption that Plecas exposed. Only 12% of respondents disagreed.

Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were immediately suspended Nov. 20 and the RCMP announced it was investigating undisclosed allegations about them. Two special prosecutors were appointed to oversee the RCMP’s work. 

James and Lenz say they are innocent and have demanded their reinstatement. In early March, the Legislative Assembly Management Committee retained retired Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin to review James and Lenz’s conduct. She is scheduled to report back to LAMC by May 3. The all-party committee will use her report to determine whether James and Lenz should remain on paid leave or be fired. 

The Legislature publishes quarterly statements and receipts about MLA spending, but the four top officers, including the clerk and sergeant-at-arms, only publish total dollar amounts they spend, without any hint of where they traveled or what they bought. 

The Legislature’s annual financial report shows payments to suppliers $25,000 and up and payments to staff $75,000 and up. The public has no legal right to seek correspondence and contracts, like it does from government ministries, agencies and Crown corporations.

The Legislative Assembly Management Committee met in late afternoon on April 9.  The all-party committee heard that the Legislative Assembly spent $73.2 million on operations through Dec. 31, 2018 — $4.2 million less than projected. Auditor General Carol Bellringer told the committee that her audit is in the early stages. She said the Legislature’s accounting system is slow and “not the most contemporary model.” She also pointed out that there are a lot of purchasing cards in circulation. “A red flag, if you will,” Bellringer said.

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