FOI, whistleblower protection should apply to legislature staff, watchdogs say

The B.C. legislature will soon be subject to freedom of information scrutiny, the NDP house leader said Tuesday in response to a letter from three watchdogs recommending urgent reforms to increase transparency in the wake of a spending scandal.

NDP house leader Mike Farnworth said the government supports the recommendation that the administrative functions of the legislative assembly be open to freedom-of-information requests, one of three recommendations in a joint letter from B.C.’s ombudsperson, information commissioner and merit commissioner.

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The letter was addressed to Speaker Darryl Plecas and the Legislative Assembly Management Committee.

“I think they’re very positive recommendations,” Farnworth said in an interview Tuesday.

“I think they’re very helpful and it’s our intention to implement the recommendations.”

Currently, the public cannot file a freedom of information request to the offices of the Speaker, the clerk of the legislative assembly or the sergeant-at-arms. Freedom of information requests are routinely fulfilled by other public institutions.

On Jan. 21, the Speaker released a report alleging “flagrant overspending” of taxpayers’ money by two senior legislative officers.

Clerk of the house Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz have been suspended with pay since Nov. 20.

Their actions are being investigated by police.

In a conference call Tuesday, information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy, ombudsperson Jay Chalke and merit commissioner Fiona Spencer said they can offer decades of expertise on how to implement their proposed reforms.

McEvoy said he and his predecessors have been calling for the legislative assembly to be covered by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act “for the better part of two decades.” Before Farnworth’s public comments, McEvoy said he’s encouraged that Premier John Horgan has already expressed support for such a measure.

Just as MLAs are required to publicly report expenses with receipts, McEvoy said it’s reasonable to expect the same of the legislative assembly’s administrative functions. “For example travel expenses, those kind of things that the public would expect should be subject to light and transparency,” he said.

The act can extend to the legislative assembly in a way that ensures MLAS’ constituency work and caucus work is not affected, McEvoy said.

The independent oversight officers also want to see whistleblower protection legislation, set to come into force this year, apply to the legislative assembly.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act, passed in May, ensures that staff and former staff of government ministries and nine independent offices of the legislature will be legally protected if they disclose wrongdoing, trumping any non-disclosure agreements they might have signed.

Plecas’s report alleges that several legislature staff members were fired for raising concerns about questionable expenses.

A third recommendation by Spencer, Chalke and McEvoy is that legislative assembly staff be appointed on merit and dismissed only in accordance with fair dismissal practices.

Currently, public-service appointments fall under the Public Service Act, which requires appointments be based on merit and be subject to review by the merit commissioner. But that does not apply to the legislative assembly.

Horgan has been critical of James’s appointment as clerk in 2011, which he said was done arbitrarily by the then-B.C. Liberal government. Horgan said James leapfrogged over two people more qualified for the position.

“I think these three changes will send a very strong signal, a very strong message that these are important changes that will definitely contribute to openness and transparency in the legislature,” Farnworth said. The government will work with the three independent offices to implement the changes, he said.

Liberal house leader Mary Polak is supportive of subjecting the legislative assembly to freedom-of-information legislation, but would also like to see more proactive disclosure of certain information, such as expenses.

“That’s exactly what happens now with MLA receipts and expenses,” Polak said. “The application of FOI legislation is good, but I think we can go further.”

B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver said it seems premature for Farnworth to commit to the reforms prior to the conclusion of the police investigation, which Plecas’s chief of staff Alan Mullen has said includes allegations above and beyond what’s outlined in the Speaker’s report.

“I think, [Farnworth] clearly has not taken the time to reflect upon [the recommendations] and frankly it would behoove him to be a little less rushed on this,” Weaver said.

“It’s a little bit odd to start accepting interim recommendations prior to everything being reported because we don’t know whether or not we’re going to need a full-scale public inquiry.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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