I expect (Plecas) is right about the public reaction. But the combination of no guidelines, much leeway, and the Speaker himself going along with some of the spending, poses a challenge in employment law in the matter of firing.
VICTORIA — Along with much well-placed indignation, Speaker Darryl Plecas mustered some effective sarcasm in his second report on the suspended senior officers at the legislature.
For instance, his send-up of an August 2017 business junket between B.C. and Washington state, led by clerk of the legislature Craig James along with sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz.
The James version dressed up part of the trip as a fact-finding tour on earthquake and tsunami preparedness, despite including a whale-watching trip in Victoria and attendance at a Seattle Mariners baseball game.
“Mr. James writes, ‘we were offered tickets to a baseball game,’” as Plecas put it in one of his more droll passages.
“That is only true to the extent that all members of the public are technically ‘offered’ tickets to events in exchange for full payment.”
B.C. paid for 13 tickets to the Major League Baseball game at a cost of more than $1,000.
Nothing funny about it from a taxpayer point of view, as Plecas himself acknowledged: “If this weren’t so serious, it would be the stuff of comedy.”
But it does raise the question of how the legislature should proceed in light of the two Plecas reports with their evidence of a sense of entitlement gone wild.
James and Lenz have denied any wrongdoing, nor have they been charged, never mind convicted.
Still, the clerk and sergeant-at-arms were appointed by the legislature, they were suspended with full pay by the legislature, and they could be fired by the legislature.
All it would take is for government house leader Mike Farnworth to table a motion to that effect. With leave, it could be voted on immediately and the deed would be done.
But there would also be consequences, legal, financial and otherwise.
The positions of clerk and sergeant-at-arms both come with considerable leeway and few guidelines.
The legislature, 25 years ago, deliberately exempted the senior officers from oversight by LAMC, the legislative assembly management committee. The committee, urged six years ago to add those positions to its purview, neglected to do so.
All of which sets up a problem that Plecas himself alluded to in the later passages of his second report.
“The most charitable interpretation of all of this is that Mr. James and Mr. Lenz really did, and do, consider that all these activities — the innumerable business continuity meetings and trips; the myriad of purchases; the electronics; the benefits and bonuses, and so on — were all proper and necessary business expenses,” he wrote.
He was quick to add: “I disagree, and I expect the vast majority of ordinary British Columbians do, too.”
I expect he’s right about the public reaction.
But the combination of no guidelines, much leeway, and the Speaker himself going along with some of the spending, poses a challenge in employment law in the matter of firing.
Wisely, LAMC has put on retainer Marcia McNeil, a Victoria-based expert in employment law. Readers may recall her as the author of a devastating post-mortem on the health firings, the workplace debacle that played out over several years in the B.C. Liberal government.
I gather her advice to proceed cautiously contributed to the carefully phrased motion passed by LAMC at the end of a more than 2½-hour and mostly-in-camera meeting Thursday.
The motion from NDP house leader Mike Farnworth called on the committee to first prepare “a list of specific areas of concern” arising from the two reports from the Speaker as well as the written responses and legal submission from the two senior officers.
Once the list of concerns is complete, Farnworth and House leaders Mary Polak of the Liberals and Sonia Furstenau of the Greens are to “develop and recommend an independent review process conducted by an eminent jurist.”
The jurist, probably a retired judge of the Supreme Court, would be asked “to determine if the clerk or sergeant-at-arms has engaged in misconduct in the course of carrying out their duties.”
The findings would be submitted “for consideration and adoption by the legislative assembly.”
Plecas left not much doubt that if it were up to him, they would already be fired.
Near the end of his report, he wrote that if James and Lenz really do think that what they did was proper and necessary, “I believe it shows a lack of judgment, and a repeated pattern of decision-making that is utterly unacceptable in senior executives of a public institution.”
But Plecas is not in charge of the matter anymore, as the Farnworth motion made explicit: “The Speaker voluntarily stated that he shall recuse himself from any development or oversight of the independent review process.”
In a followup media conference, Farnworth, speaking for all three leaders, made a point of emphasizing the recusal, strongly suggesting it was the end of Plecas’s involvement in the affair.
But that didn’t stop the Speaker’s right-hand-man, chief of staff Alan Mullen, from calling a news conference Friday to predict that the eminent jurist thing should be wrapped up in 10 days or so and meanwhile more expose reports were in the works.
“British Columbians are screaming loud and clear, ‘Please don’t stop, please keep going,’” said Mullen. “And oh my goodness are we going to keep going? Well that’s a big yes.”
Just when the three house leaders thought they’d finally got a lid on things.
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