Elections B.C. approves petition to recall Oak Bay-Gordon Head Liberal MLA Ida Chong

B.C.’s acting chief electoral officer has approved an application for a petition to recall the Oak Bay-Gordon Head Liberal MLA Ida Chong.

“The petition will be issued on Monday, December 6, 2010, and at that time, registered canvassers may begin collecting signatures,” said Craig James in a statement today. “The petition must be returned to this office no later than Friday, February 4, 2011.”

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If the B.C. minister of science and universities is successfully recalled, her seat becomes vacant and a byelection must be called within 90 days. She could run as a candidate in the byelection.

In Oak Bay-Gordon Head, 38,419 voters were registered to vote on May 12, 2009. Registered canvassers will have 60 days to collect 15,368 or more valid signatures on the recall petition in order to have the MLA removed from office.

From that point, Elections B.C. has 42 days from the date the petition is submitted to verify the signatures as eligible.

The financial report and expenses must be reviewed before the chief electoral officer can make a final ruling on the success of the recall petition. The expenses limit for the proponent, Michael Hayes, and the MLA is $35,938.72.

The financial report must be filed with the Chief Electoral Officer within 28 days after the end of the recall petition period.

Now, the focus is likely to shift onto the campaign and away from B.C.’s acting chief electoral officer who has become a focal point for some of the anger around the delayed start to the campaign.

James is being escorted into the legislature, from his office a block away, as a routine security measure put in place after he received threatening emails because he rejected an anti-HST recall application because it was too wordy.

“The acting chief electoral officer [Craig James] did receive some disturbing emails and did contact the authorities,” said Don Main, spokesman for Elections B.C.

When Elections B.C. refers to authorities they mean the Sergeant-At-Arms at the B.C. Legislature. Victoria Police confirmed they have not been contacted and are not involved.

A recall application targeting Chong was submitted Nov. 22. It was rejected in a letter from James on Nov. 24 on the grounds that it exceeded the 200-limit word count when acronyms, such as HST and MLA, and numbers, such as 2010, were spelled out.

In that Nov. 24 letter, James referred to an Elections B.C. word-count policy, explaining: “I am of the opinion ... the inclusion of numerals, acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations” must be spelled out in calculating the total word count.

That prompted Fight HST organizer and former premier Bill Vander Zalm to say James had lost the confidence of the people and that he should resign. The Fight HST camp suggested James, an independent officer appointed by the Liberals, was using the word-count as a delaying tactic to disrupt the recall campaign.

That anger was torqued when Elections B.C. revealed that although a 200-limit word count has always been part of the Recall and Initiative Act, the policy on spelling out abbreviations was drafted after the recall application was reviewed and accepted by Elections B.C. staff. It was posted on Elections B.C. website on Nov. 24.

“The policy on word counts was finalized and went up on our website Wednesday," confirmed Elections BC’s executive program manager Tricia Poilievre. That’s two days after the recall application was received.

NDP leader Carole James said the fiasco demonstrated there was a problem with the way the whole HST matter is being handled. Norman Ruff, political science professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, said the scenario is similar to someone changing the rules midway through Sunday’s Grey Cup game.

As the plot thickened, James, who has “denied” requests to speak to the Times Colonist, sent an open letter to MLAs Monday stating the anti-HST recall application exceeded 200 words even before Elections B.C. created its new word-count policy.

In a letter to MLAs, James said criticisms of the recall process have been “misinformed” and that he created the controversial new word-count policy last week to thwart a possible legal challenge and clarify the Recall and Initiative Act.

“I wanted it to contain at least two provisions: strict adherence to the wording of the [Recall and Initiative Act] and an assurance that the statement could withstand a legal challenge by a proponent, opponent or any other person or group,” James wrote.

Further, “it is worth noting that even without the policy now in place at Elections B.C., the statement word count of the recall application in question still exceeded 200 words.”

That comment caused more rubbernecking Monday.

Hayes said his original application “was very close to 200 words” but not over as far as he knew. He reviewed the paperwork with Elections B.C. staff and although one or two issues were noted and changed, nothing was said about the word count being excessive.

Elections B.C. said it cannot make the original application public until it goes through a process in compliance with the act.

Also unusual stirring up contention was the response of Poilievre. The Elections B.C. spokeswoman said: “The methodology used for word counts had never been an issue in the past because all previous recall applications had come in at well below 200 words.”

However Norman Ruff, political science professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, pointed out that the petition that led to the a recall campaign against Skeena NDP MLA Helmut Giesbrecht in 1997 was 194 words long when MLA was counted as one word.

If the acronyms were spelled out, the total number of words in the recall statement came to, by his count, 201 words, Ruff said.

Elections B.C. new staff suffers from “organizational memory loss to say all [previous recall petition statements] became well below 200 words,” Ruff said. Indeed, a recall petition statement in January 1998 came in over 200 words and was rejected, he said.

Submitting a new application has set back the recall campaign by five days and forced Fight HST organizers to gather new forms and signatures from all of their approximately 150 canvassers.

Rally organizer Colin Nielsen said of about 150 applications from canvassers that needed to be resubmitted, “we’ve replaced them all — plus more.”

And the recall proponent, isn’t complaining. He blames himself for not counting the words in the statement with Elections B.C. staff to confirm it was correct.

Rally organizers say they just want to get on with collecting the necessary signatures in the Oak Bay-Gordon Head riding

On Nov. 25, Hayes submitted a new application with a word count that he calculated at 179. Elections B.C. said it contained 182 words, still below the 200-word limit.

In Monday’s letter, James explained that upon receiving the Chong recall application, he realized Elections B.C. did not have a policy in place regarding the meaning of “word” in the recall legislation.

“Accordingly, I put in place a policy,” James wrote.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

Recall Application excerpt:

Proponent’s opinion of why the recall of the Member is warranted:

I am proposing the recall of Oak Bay-Gordon Head Member of the Legislative Assembly, Ida Chong, because she supported the deceptive introduction of the Harmonized Sales Tax and refuses to represent the clear wishes of her constituents, in the Legislative Assembly.

During the two thousand and nine election, the Premier and Finance Minister stated that the Harmonized Sales Tax was NOT on their agenda, and British Columbia voters re-elected them significantly on that assurance. Only seventy two days later, British Columbia Liberals, with NO public consultation, debate or enabling legislation, implemented this tax through an “Order in Council”. The successful Fight-Harmonized Sales Tax Initiative Petition campaign to repeal the Harmonized Sales Tax was an undeniable message to Ms. Chong, but was without effect.

Ms. Chong supports a costly Harmonized Sales Tax referendum (over thirty million dollars!) more than a year later, creating economic uncertainty, harming businesses and consumers.

Oak Bay-Gordon Head voters deserve honesty and accountability from elected representatives. A successful Recall unequivocally tells this, and future governments, that they must openly and fairly represent those who elected them.

NOTE: Released by Elections B.C. It has not altered the wording of this statement in any way.

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