Jun 29, 2015

Legislative changes likely to reduce further the independence of the Auditor General for Local Government


Earlier this month British Columbians saw one more chapter unfold in the ongoing saga of the Auditor General for Local Government.  The provincial government released the report on the AGLG’s office by a former Deputy Minister Chris Trumpy.

Trumpy and his report had been the source of earlier controversy which cost the first AGLG, Basia Ruta, her job.

The creation of the AGLG’s office was originally promised by Christy Clark when she was running for the leadership of the Liberal Party, a job that carried with it the title of Premier. Business organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business had lobbied for the creation of the office.

The office ran into problems meeting the deadlines it had set for itself releasing only one report in the first two years.

The AGLG reports to an Audit Council appointed by the Liberal government and this Council wanted a report done on the functioning of the office.  The new AGLG, however, was concerned that the intervention by the Council would undermine her independence, which was promised by her legislation.  She actually sought an opinion on this from the Attorney General’s office, which, according to media reports, agreed with her.  The Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, however, did not agree with Ruta.  The Minister sacked Ruta in March 2015 and appointed Chris Trumpy giving him three weeks to write the controversial report.  The report is dated April 2015 but was released by the Ministry on June 5th.

This report, and the creation of the office itself, have raised questions.  First is just how much product should an office like this be expected to produce?  Second, and arguably more important, what degree of independence should an auditor have who is appointed to review the working of local governments?  Finally, Trumpy’s report raises questions as to just who is getting input into questions around the office of the AGLG.

The terms of reference for his report are included in the document and it says Trumpy will interview members of the Audit Council and staff of the AGLG,  However it continues,

If Mr. Trumpy considers it necessary, interviews may also be conducted with contractors and/or with representatives of local government being audited.

Trumpy’s letter transmitting the report to the Audit Council states he interviewed “AGLG staff, Audit Council members, the Council Secretariat, contractors, and others with knowledge of the Office and performance auditing.”  Those most directly interested in the results of the study, local governments, appear to have once again been left out of the process as they have been from the beginning.  The contractors who ate up a third of the AGLGs budget, however, were included.  Just who is in the group described as “others with knowledge of the Office and performance auditing,” is not identified.

BC’s Auditor General who audits the work of the province has a great deal of independence.  She was appointed with the unanimous consent of the legislature which means she has support from the government and the opposition.  She also reports to the Legislature, not the government which frees her from political influence.

However, as we saw with Ruta’s firing, the AGLG serves at the whim of a provincial Minister.  She reports to an audit council appointed by the government with no input from either the provincial opposition in the legislature or from the local governments the AGLG is hired to audit.

Trumpy’s report speaks to the question of independence acknowledging that the legislation creating the office “made clear the office was to be independent of both the provincial and municipal governments even though it is funded through a voted appropriation.”  Trumpy finds that when the office of the AGLG was created,

Time was not spent establishing how the responsibilities and accountabilities set out in the Act would work in Practice.

He also finds,

The AGLG does not report to the Legislative Assembly. The Act requires that the AGLG seek input from the Council on reports of the AGLG before they are finalized but is vague with respect to monitoring performance.  This needs to be strengthened but balanced against the independent role of the AGLG to determine audit topics and undertake its work.

Thus even Trumpy finds that poor crafting of the original legislation left the independence of the office ambiguous leaving the AGLG to defend it.  I suspect this point may come up in Basia Ruta’s lawsuit against her dismissal.

In any event, legislation promised with the release of Trumpy’s report suggests the new Auditor General for Local Government will have their wings clipped when it comes to their independence.  Trumpy states in his report that the AGLG is already subject to the Public Service Act. However, in the press release accompanying Trumpy’s report Coralee Oakes, Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development declares the AGLG Act will be amended to include the appointment of the AGLG under the Public Service Act.

It appears the provincial government was not happy with an auditor General for Local Government who was independent in her work.  Local governments may well have cause to worry about changes that make the AGLG even more of a creature of the provincial government and less of an independent observer.  After all, unlike the province’s own Auditor General, if the Minister doesn’t agree with what the AGLG is doing, the AGLG can always be fired.  It is something anyone applying for the job might want to consider.

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