Something doesn’t add up at the office of the AG for local government

Vaughn Palmer: Something doesn’t add up at the office of the AG for local government
Two years in and $5.2 million spent, and now rumblings of dissent in the ranks

Vancouver Sun March 9, 2015
VICTORIA — As the legislature convened for the afternoon question period Monday, the New Democrats told reporters they’d got their hands on a leaked document that was calculated to make the government squirm. And so they had.

Opposition leader John Horgan led off by recalling how last week the B.C. Liberals were full of assurances about the auditor general for local government, never mind the office having delivered but one audit in two years of operations. “The minister has had a week to reflect,” said Horgan, directly addressing the Minister for Local Government Coralee Oakes. “Could she advise the house if she is still of the understanding that everything is fine?” A trick question. Horgan and his colleagues were in possession of evidence — a confidential internal report on the work environment in the office of the auditor general for local government — that suggested things were far from fine.

Oakes replied with a list of the works in progress of the auditor general for local government, evidence that the office was shaping up.
Horgan pounced with the news of the day: “Over the course of Jan. 9 to Jan. 30, 2015, a human resource representative maintained a presence in the auditor general for local government office with the primary purpose of ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees.”Maintained a presence? Sounds like a peacekeeping mission. Perhaps it was, judging from the resulting report with its multiple references to morale problems, lack of focus, time wasting and other workplace frustrations.

Note, too, how this was a fresh leak, barely a month old. Somebody wanted this document in the public realm and was in a hurry to get it there.
Horgan: “Perhaps the minister could refer to the document that says there’s chaos and dysfunction at the office and perhaps focus on accountability there, rather than an inventory of things that might happen in the future.” Oakes headed for cover: “For any auditor to be effective it needs to be independent from politicians. Government has no ability to direct the auditor general for local government in reporting and timelines.” But the office is not as independent as other officers of the legislature, like the ombudsman or the main auditor general for the province. Those are appointed by unanimous recommendation of an all-party committee.

Auditor general for local government Basia Ruta was selected by a council that was itself chosen by the Liberals. She was appointed not by a vote of the house, but by cabinet order effective Jan 15, 2013 for five years at $200,000 a year with an annual budget of $2.6 million.
Two years of that term are already gone, $5.2 million spent, and as the New Democrats have underscored, the completed workload to date is well short of the 18 audits a year promised at the outset. Oakes tried another deflection. “I would caution the member opposite in this line of questioning,” she advised Horgan. “The public service agency is the appropriate arm of government that deals with specific human resource issues.”
Not in this case. For as the cover of the report indicated, the author was the director of strategic human resources in Oakes own Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.

Which is not to say that the public service agency doesn’t have an interest as well. The New Democrats further disclosed that the agency is conducting a second review of the office. Does the Opposition have a copy of that one? “Not yet,” said Horgan. Oakes tried another tack: “We identified that we are disappointed with the amount of audits that are being performed.” In fact, last week, she couldn’t bring herself to say anything of the kind. Then Premier Christy Clark said she was “disappointed.” Now the word has entered into the minister’s talking points.

The New Democrats kept pushing the minister through most of question period.
MLA Selina Robinson, after quoting a passage in the report that indicated “it was unclear” which positions in the office required an accounting designation: “Two years and $5.2 million later, and the AGLG still doesn’t know what skill sets or professional qualifications her staff require?” MLA George Heyman rounded on a review of staff attitudes that found “seven of the staff are unsatisfied with the organization and six are unsatisfied with their job.” Punchline: There are only 10 staff in the office including the auditor herself. Oakes reached for another of her by-now well-worn talking points. “The auditor general for local government is functionally an independent office …” More like “disfunctionally,” heckled the New Democrats. “If this wasn’t so tragic, it would actually be comical,” declared MLA Katrine Conroy before zinging the minister with the question of the day: “Does she think the auditor general for local government could pass a value for money audit?” But by then Oakes was trapped inside the message box. “The auditor general for local government topics… are truly beneficial to local governments as they identify ways to deliver effective, efficient and economical services to taxpayers.”
Never mind that the evidence at hand had little to do with any of those qualities.

At another point in the afternoon, Oakes recalled how Horgan and his colleagues were “opposed to the very idea” of this office from the outset.
Yes they were. And nothing to date suggests the New Democrats made a bad call in opposing this particular expenditure of tax dollars.
vpalmer@vancouversun.com