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

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Urgent changes are needed to increase transparency in the legislative assembly in order to protect taxpayers' dollars and restore public confidence in the wake of a spending scandal exposed by the House Speaker, according to three independent B.C. watchdogs.

In a joint letter from B.C.'s Ombudsperson, Information Commissioner and Merit Commissioner, the all-party committee that oversees the legislature's finances is urged to enact reforms to bring the legislative assembly under the scope of freedom of information laws, a change supported by Premier John Horgan. Currently, the public cannot file a Freedom of Information request to obtain information from the legislative assembly, something that is routine for other public institutions.

On Jan. 21, Speaker Darryl Plecas released a bombshell 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 pending a criminal investigation. James and Lenz are accused of spending large on luxury trips overseas, taking cash payments in lieu of vacation and benefiting from large retirement payouts.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy, Ombudsperson Jay Chalke and Merit Commissioner Fiona Spencer also want to see whistleblower protection legislation, set to come into force later 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 may have signed.

Plecas's report alleges that several legislative staff were fired for raising concerns about questionable expenses.

The 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, any public-service appointments fall under the Public Service Act, which ensures that 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.

Following the retirement of longtime clerk George MacMinn in 2011, the B.C. Liberal government under then-premier Christy Clark installed James as clerk without the endorsement of all MLAs. The position is a lifetime appointment to ensure the clerk is free from political influence.

Auditor General Carol Bellringer has initiated a deep audit of the legislative assembly but the three independent officers insist that these longer-term changes will ensure accountability and restore public trust.

"The legislative assembly is in many respects a public institution like any other. It employs people, owns property and provides services. It spends taxpayer dollars in doing so. When it discharges these functions there is no policy reason to exempt it from accountability and transparency rules that apply to other public institutions," the letter says.

Spencer, Chalke and McEvoy plan to hold a joint press conference this morning.

For the original story, click here.

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