Former B.C. Liberal MLA Darryl Plecas is escorted from the legislative chamber by Clerk of the House Craig James (left) after his surprise election as speaker, Sept. 8, 2017. James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were suddenly suspended from their duties last week. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press/Pool)

Advocate hopes B.C. legislature scandal leads to more transparency

‘Depressing’ that it takes a scandal to inspire freedom of information reform, says Sara Neuert

B.C. Speaker Darryl Plecas’ report this week, accusing the legislature’s two highest-ranking officers of hundreds of thousands of dollars of spending abuses, has been making some people ‘sick’. But a transparency advocate is hoping the sick bags have a silver lining.

As the investigation into overspending by suspended clerk and sergeant-at-arms Craig James and Gary Lenz continues, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Sara Neuert said her non-profit hopes the scandal will lead to serious change.

“We are looking forward to this opening the door for the government to really take it seriously that there needs to be legislative change and broader transparency, because the public is becoming more aware and [is] going to continue to ask more questions,” said Neuert in an interview Wednesday with Black Press Media.

One such change would be to include the Legislative Assembly in the list of public bodies to which the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act applies, Neuert said.

This would provide members of the public with the statutory right to access information from the assembly, such as the expense claims of its clerk and sergeant-at-arms, subject to certain exceptions.

Currently, the FIPPA list of public bodies includes provincial government ministries, provincial agencies, boards, commissions, Crown corporations, and local public bodies. However, the assembly itself is not considered a public body under FIPPA.

MLAs are not included in the list of public bodies either, but have been posting receipts that justify their spending online for several years.

In 2014, an all-party committee of MLAs unanimously approved then-finance minister Mike de Jong’s proposal to publish receipts from politicians’ travel and other expenses. The proposal came after several high-profile spending scandals, including the $5,500 that then-speaker Linda Reid billed taxpayers for her husband’s business-class flights.

READ MORE: B.C. MLAs work on financial disclosure

READ MORE: EDITORIAL: B.C. government shows signs of conforming to public concern

“There were a couple of scandals about MLAs’ travel expenses, so that created change for our political parties,” said Neuert, adding it was a policy change, not a legislative change. “What didn’t change is our legislative structure, the staff and that.”

For years, the association has been trying to get the same FIPPA rules applied to the Legislative Assembly as a whole, but that hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s easier for a government to put that on the back-burner and hit the hot topics that the public is hearing about and thinking about and seeing,” she said. “But then when something like this happens and it puts transparency into question, then we start to look at it. It takes something to give it that push and open that door.”

READ MORE: Canada slips to 55th place in global freedom-of-information law rankings

In 2016, a special all-party committee reviewed FIPPA and produced a report with 11 major recommendations and 28 other recommendations on the duty to document, proactive disclosure, extending the application of FIPPA and more.

“Their recommendations just got tabled. We haven’t seen anything come out of that,” said Neuert. “The new government has come in, they’ve been in power for almost two years now, and we haven’t seen any substantial changes to the legislation.”

Neuert credited the BC Ministry of Citizens’ Services with doing a public consultation on freedom of information and privacy rights last spring, but said the process also seems to have stalled on the path to legislative change.

“We’ve been waiting for a report on that consultation and we’ve seen nothing. We’ve put in requests and we’ve gotten nothing back,” she said. “I’m not quite sure why.”

Neuert said the last legislative changes to FIPPA occurred in 2005. She said the “minor” changes weren’t even close to the kind of reforms they were hoping for.

“Now we’ve got another issue around transparency,” Neuert said. “We think this is an opportunity for the government to take action and actually review what needs to be done about the legislation to ensure the public has transparency.”

A request for comment to the Ministry of Citizens’ Services has not yet been returned.



karissa.gall@blackpress.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

“It’s something you’re called to do”: Cullen reflects on time as MP

For Nathan Cullen, it’s not goodbye, it’s farewell.

Local artist Sesyaz Saunders’ art on display at YVR

Saunders worked with renowned artist Robert Davidson on a large panel

Mother dog, 9 puppies dumped in sealed box at Puntzi Lake landfill: SPCA

Puppies will be available for adoption at seven weeks old

B.C. government provides $100,000 to CCCTA for emergency preparedness

The marketing organizations will use this funding to create a common set of communications tools

10 facts about Father’s Day

Did you know that the special day for dads was first celebrated in 1910?

B.C. VIEWS: When farmland protection doesn’t protect farmers

Secondary residences aren’t mansions, families tell Lana Popham

Bombers down B.C. Lions 33-23 in season opener

Former Lion Andrew Harris leads Winnipeg with 148 rushing yards

Northern B.C. family remembers murdered Indigenous woman with memorial walk

Still no closure for Ramona Wilson’s family 25 years later

B.C. university to offer mentorship program for former youth in care

Students using the provincial tuition waiver program will soon be able to form a community at KPU

Cyclists competing in one of the toughest bike races on the planet pass through Fernie

Divide riders looking strong as they finish first leg of 4160 km race

You might not know these B.C. records are public

Hired a lawyer to file a civil claim? Those are published online

B.C. bus driver loses case to get job back after texting while driving full bus

An arbitator ruled that Tim Wesman’s phone usage was a “a reckless disregard for public safety”

B.C. Interior First Nation family ‘heartbroken’ over loss of young mom

RCMP have released no new information since the June 8, 2019 homicide

Most Read