Editorial: Scandal shines light on house’s management

An investigation by the Speaker of the B.C. legislature has resulted in the assembly’s two most senior staff members being placed on paid leave. A good deal of attention has focused on the manner in which the clerk of the assembly, Craig James, and the sergeant-at-arms, Gary Lenz, were treated.

Although no charges have been laid, and neither man has been arrested, they were frog-marched out of the building through a gauntlet of TV cameras. That kind of deliberate shaming in such circumstances is almost unprecedented.

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The police have been called in, and two special prosecutors have been appointed, but regardless of what they find, the reputations of James and Lenz have been irreparably damaged.

However, there is a different angle to consider. Is it possible that too much was being asked of James and his staff? Were they being asked to manage in an environment where the rules of procedure were unclear?

There is a form of precedent here. In 2013, four members of the Canadian Senate were accused of filing false expense accounts. All four protested their innocence, as James and Lenz have done, and some repaid their alleged over-billing. One of them, Mike Duffy, was charged by the RCMP with 31 offences.

However, the allegations against him were dismissed in court. Among the reasons given was that the Senate rules he supposedly broke couldn’t be enforced, since no one knew what they meant.

The problem is that parliaments on the British model have traditionally considered themselves independent of the administrative side of government. They write their own rules, and hold themselves solely responsible for enforcing them.

And that can lead to trouble. In 2012, B.C.’s auditor general published a scathing report on financial management practices at the legislature. He listed “numerous and pervasive deficiencies” and called for reforms.

Changes have been made, and the assembly has received clean audits in recent years. Nevertheless, questions remain about the extent to which members of the legislature take seriously their management responsibilities.

We saw a dramatic example of that this week. B.C. Liberal members of the house who had voted to suspend James and Lenz recanted and said they lacked sufficient information to support their decision.

But then why the rush to judgment? This looks suspiciously like amateur night.

The reality is that although the legislature plays a central role in the work of governing, it has a relatively small budget and a limited staff. Unavoidably, this imposes limitations on the extent to which the assembly’s affairs can be managed within generally accepted principles.

We can’t expect the legislature to relinquish the management of its political activities. However, it might be feasible to merge the purely administrative aspects of running the assembly with one of the larger ministries, which has a full range of support services.

James is one of the most respected legislature clerks in the country. We do not know what allegations have been made against him, or if they will stand up. For now, the presumption of innocence is our guide.

But if the clerk and his staff are spread too thin, that’s unfair to everyone involved.

We don’t require any more seat-of-the-pants management by the Speaker.

What’s needed is an infusion of resources that can come from only one of two sources. Either the Finance Ministry grants additional funding — unlikely at best. Or some form of linkage with a larger ministry is needed to provide administrative backup.

As it stands, the B.C. legislature has made a laughingstock of itself across the country.

The fall sitting ended this week. When the house meets again in February, this mess had better be cleaned up.

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