VICTORIA – March has been a good month for the B.C. NDP, and it’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that.
Opposition critics fired a shot amidships at the B.C. Liberal government when they began questioning the lack of progress by the new Auditor General for Local Government.
This experimental vessel was launched in Premier Christy Clark’s leadership campaign, and two years after it set sail, it is listing, taking on water and in danger of sinking.
The original idea was to expand the B.C. Auditor General’s office so it could check the financial performance of local governments too. Business groups were concerned about municipal taxes going up too quickly, with staff growing even as the province grappled with a hiring freeze.
Mayors and councillors began to talk of mutiny over that plan, protesting that their budgets are already required to balance and are subject to annual audits.
But this will be “performance auditing,” Clark insisted, not just making sure the figures add up. It will determine the public is receiving “value for money” on projects like arenas and services like police, by comparing different communities’ results. A new AGLG office opened in Surrey.
The “value for money” promise is on the rocks. The government appointed a quasi-independent board (hello, BC Ferries and TransLink) that hired chartered accountant Basia Ruta, a veteran of the federal Auditor General office who had also served as chief financial officer at Environment Canada and had done local government audits in private practice.
NDP local government critic Selina Robinson started asking why this office has spent $5.2 million and produced only one audit out of a promised 18. Community Minister Coralee Oakes, a former Quesnel councillor in her first cabinet post, allowed that there had been some rough water but there is smooth sailing ahead.
Then came a big leak, in the form of a “work environment review” of the good ship AGLG that was given to the NDP by a seasick crew member.
It described chaos below decks, with “shifting priorities and unclear direction,” as well as “wasted time and work” and “inefficient use of consultant and staff resources.”
Worse, the review noted a human resources monitor had been stationed at the office for most of January to maintain a “respectful workplace for all employees.”
“A peacekeeper,” as NDP leader John Horgan described the grim scene. “This is like we’re in Cyprus.”
Then it was confirmed that when the AGLG board tried to conduct a performance review, Ruta’s response was to hire a lawyer. Ruta seems to be decisive when protecting her job, if not when hiring, running the office or meeting her own work targets.
Whatever goodwill had been restored with local governments over this experiment is likely gone. Municipal staffers have been dealing with new auditor demands as their councils grind away at their own budgets, and now they see signs that what they have contributed may well have been swept overboard.
Oakes remains on deck, eyes fixed on the horizon. An audit of capital procurement in Rossland is finally scheduled to be done by the end of March, she said. Similar reports on Delta and Sechelt are due in April. The latest revision of that schedule is underway, no doubt in another series of long, acrimonious meetings.
Clark addressed the situation in her last question period before the legislature’s spring break this week. She didn’t have a lot to say about the AGLG’s voyage of the damned, mostly familiar rhetoric about “lower taxes, less red tape” and so on.
Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.