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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Move British Columbia's legislative library to a new building

The pending (temporary) closure of the BC legislative library has created quite a furor in the local media lately here is the quick missive I fired off to the local paper which was published today in the Times-Colonist:

Instead of simply saying no to the proposed closure of the legislative library, I think there is an opportunity here for us to have an eyesore removed from near our cherished legislature.

I am speaking about the hideously ugly "temporary" buildings erected behind the legislature in the 1950s.

The clear win/win is to tear down these 50-year-old temporary tin and clapboard structures and build a new office building that would house a larger and more publicly accessible legislative library while at the same time allow for the required expansion of office space for the politicians and their staff within the legislature.

Michael Geoghegan
Victoria, BC

Thursday, April 05, 2007

MLAs deserve a significant pay raise

Dear Commissioners:

The purpose of this submission is to argue that there should be a significant increase in the salary and pension benefits currently provided to BC MLAs and moreover the salary and benefits should be assigned to corresponding management level pay grids as is currently the case with civil servants and political staff.

In preparing this presentation I was frustrated by the fact that there is no listing on either the BC government or legislative website of the current salaries, benefits and expense allowances for MLAs. Whatever you recommend with respect to MLA pay rates and pensions, I urge you to also recommend that all details of their compensation and benefits be made available on the Legislative website.

From September of 1989 until July of 1996 I worked at the BC Legislature. For most of that time I served as the Ministerial Assistant to Minister Bill Barlee. Unlike MLAs, my salary was not subject to some arbitrary and acrimonious political process but was instead tied to management level pay. At that time it was ML4 so as the pay grid shifted so too did my salary. The pension I received was the standard one for government employees.

It was during this time that I served as a Ministerial Assistant MLA salaries were initially reduced and then frozen and the so called “gold plated” pension plan was repealed - although of course not retroactively. MLA salaries were modestly increased following the adoption of the 1997 Citizen's Panel Report on MLA Compensation.

Now once again we are into yet another review process. However all of the secrecy and acrimony over MLA salaries could be eliminated if salaries were based on the existing management level (ML) pay grid. So for example an MLA could be assigned an ML 6 pay level, cabinet ministers could be assigned ML 11 and the Premier ML 12. The Speaker could also be assigned ML 11 and the Deputy Speaker 80% of ML 11. The beauty of assigning salaries based on the pre-existing ML system is that once these assignments have been made salaries will automatically increase over time as they do for the rest of the civil service including political staffers.

Presently compensation arrangements for all MLAs are handled by the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC). This committee does its work in camera and Hansard does not record it. Since 1997 the LAMC has had the legislative authority to set salaries for: the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker, the Deputy Chair, Committee of the Whole, the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Government Whip, the Deputy Government Whip, the Opposition House Leader, the Official Opposition Whip, the Government Caucus Chair, the Official Opposition Caucus Chair, and the Chair of Select Standing or Special Committees as well as the corresponding position for any other recognized party in the legislature.

The base pay for MLAs is currently at $76,000, which is only about half of what an MP in Ottawa makes. In fact a backbench MP in Ottawa receives a higher wage than does a cabinet minister here in British Columbia.

Some may argue that $76,000 is significantly higher than what an average British Columbian makes. Well we don’t need average British Columbians seeking office in this province we need the brightest and the best. If you keep political salaries too low you tend to attract two kinds of people. The first are the idle rich, people who made their money the old fashioned way – they inherited it from mommy and daddy – and are now looking to make a name for themselves. The other person is one where being an MLA is the best paying job they are ever going to have in their lives.

I can recall one former MLA who well being a nice enough person had worked as a dishwasher at a hotel. Being an MLA, even with the wage freeze that was on at the time, certainly proved to be the best paying job this individual had ever had.

Low salaries and great responsibility is also a recipe for corruption. If MLAs are well paid and have generous pension plans most will find it easy to resist the siren call of under the table money or post-election pasta consulting contracts.

The other thing we must keep in mind is that unlike most government employees, MLAs do not work Monday to Friday nine to five. They have the work they do at the legislature and the work they do at their constituency. Other than perhaps a week with the family over Christmas or a couple of weeks in the summer they often work seven days a week.

They must also maintain two households, one here in Victoria and another in their constituency. Cabinet Ministers like deputy ministers, have great responsibility. In my view they should be paid a similar wage rate. MLAs also collectively have great responsibility and are asked to exercise themselves in a manner that is beyond reproach.

We certainly expect MLAs to hold themselves up to a far higher standard of decorum than we would ask of ourselves or anyone else. The slightest misstep and they can find themselves demoted or ridiculed in the media and their reputations ruined.

MLAs take a lot of abuse and so too do their families. In fact it is because of the manner in which politics and politicians have become so denigrated that many upon leaving office find it difficult to return to work. There are a lucky few, usually Premiers or Finance Ministers of pro-business governments, who may go on to lucrative careers but they tend to be the exception. Worse still the longer a person stays an elected official the more difficult it is for them to make the transition back to making a living as a private citizen.

It is for this reason that I think MLA Pension Plans and severance packages should be generous. For example I think that if MLAs are defeated (as opposed to simply retiring from politics by not running again) they should receive one months severance for every full year they served as an MLA up to a maximum of two years salary.

I also believe that the pension plan should be based on a scale where if you have served for twenty years as an MLA you receive 100% of your MLA pay as a pension. Thus if you had served only ten years you would only receive 50% of your pay, three years 15% etc.

But the fundamental recommendation I would make is to peg MLA salaries to an ML wage level. Additional responsibilities such as being appointed to cabinet would boost you up to a higher ML level.

Finally I would also recommend that MLAs salaries need to be immediately increased to around the $100,000 per year mark. BC cabinet ministers should also make more than backbench MPs in Ottawa and cabinet ministers should also make a wage that is comparable to the Deputy Ministers that report to them.

Sincerely,



Michael Geoghegan

Monday, April 02, 2007

Time to rein in the horsemen

Quis Custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will police the police? That question was first posed by Plato almost 24 centuries ago in the Republic which was his work on government and morality. It is still a question we still do not have an effective answer to two and half millenia later.

Here in Canada the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, an institution which goes back 133 years, is once again being tarnished by scandal and misconduct. The last time the Mounties were in this much trouble, back in the 1970s after a bizarre series of barn burnings and illegal break ins, they had their spy license revoked and a new agency CSIS was created.

The allegations of a major scandal involving RCMP pension funds are indicative of a police force that is poorly led, unaccountable and increasingly out of control. If he is to save the RCMP from itself, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day faces a monumental task in trying to rein in its horsemen.

It is not just the public, but members of the force itself who are losing confidence in the RCMP. Recent weeks have seen senior Mounties breaking down and crying when testifying before the federal public accounts committee about the untrustworthiness of the RCMP’s leadership. Retired RCMP sergeant Ron Lewis told the commons committee that in looking into pension-fund irregularities he was "met with inaction, delays, roadblocks, obstruction and lies.” Lewis also alleged that the person who orchestrated the cover-up was none other than former RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli.

That allegation remains to be proven in a court of law. However what is already known is that under Zaccardelli, the RCMP acted atrociously in the Maher Arar case. Justice Dennis O'Connor concluded that the RCMP mislabeled Arar as an Islamic extremist with terrorist ties and that this led to his deportation from the United States to a Syrian prison cell, where he was tortured. Zaccardelli resigned in early December amidst concerns about his conflicting testimony to a parliamentary committee reviewing the Arar affair.

It is not just in Ottawa but here in BC the RCMP has been increasingly mired in scandal. In January of 2006 former Mountie Gary Stevens resigned from the Kitimat detachment after being charged with sexually assaulting two teenage girls while off duty. He is currently serving an 18-month prison sentence.

That same month former RCMP Constable Nancy Sulz won a $950,000 lawsuit for long-term harassment she was subjected to by her former detachment commander while stationed in Merritt.

Over in Houston many residents are still seething over the fact Crown Prosecutors refused to lay criminal charges regarding the shooting death of 22-year-old Ian Bush by a rookie RCMP constable. Bush had been arrested over a minor incident involving an opened beer can at the local hockey rink.

In October of 2006 a case against a Prince George RCMP officer accused of having sex with underage prostitutes was thrown out by an internal disciplinary tribunal — comprised of three RCMP officers from out of province — because the force failed to bring allegations against the constable in a timely fashion. Constable Justin Harris was one of nine officers in Prince George named in investigative reports alleging links to underage prostitutes.

In testimony before the tribunal, Constable Harris was accused of hitting a teenaged prostitute when she refused to perform oral sex on him because he didn't want to wear a condom. Another teenaged prostitute told an investigating officer Harris was “drunk and aggressive” on the two occasions she had sex with him.

Again in October of 2006 the B.C. Supreme Court was told that RCMP investigators intercepted and taped a cell phone conversation between Premier Gordon Campbell and his then-minister of finance, Gary Collins, during an investigation that included an unprecedented police raid on the British Columbia Legislature in December of 2003.

As a follow up to this matter, in February 2007, a wide-ranging application for disclosure was filed by defence lawyers which alleges that the RCMP were not forthright with a second judge when requesting permission to wiretap government phones and they also failed to tell the second judge that their application to get warrants to wiretap government phones had been denied twice by a previous judge.

In March of 2007 the witness protection program and the case of Agent E8060, a paid RCMP informant was brought to light. The informant, Richard Young, an unemployed man from Victoria was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the RCMP for what turned out to be fabricated information. British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Dean Wilson called Young’s evidence a “cruel charade”. Despite the exposure of his lies, Mr. Young was placed in the federal witness protection program and, under his new identity; he was convicted of killing someone.
But because it is a criminal offence under the Witness Protection Program Act to disclose anything about Mr. Young's new identity or whom he killed even the victim's family cannot be told the truth.

The House of Commons is now looking at amending the Witness Protection Program, but what is really needed is a top to bottom house cleaning of the RCMP. There clearly also needs to be the establishment of an independent agency that is completely separate from the RCMP and responsible for investigating any and all allegations of incompetence, misconduct, and/or criminal wrong doing involving the RCMP. It is only by having such an independent agency that some modicum of confidence can be restored in the RCMP.

Mr. Day you have your work cut out for you.

Mike Geoghegan is a government relations consultant based in Victoria BC. He can be reached via his website at www.mgcltd.ca