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Ombudsman moves to government job

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ONE of the provincial government's chief watchdogs is switching sides.

Manitoba ombudsman Irene Hamilton is leaving the post she's held for seven years to take a senior job in Manitoba Justice.

Hamilton, a lawyer, will be the director of justice innovation, a new position at the head of a new branch designed to "streamline processes within the justice system," according to a news release.

In an interview, Justice Minister Andrew Swan said Hamilton's job will be to make the court and corrections systems run better, which could include finding ways to speed cases through the courts and using technology to make the justice system more efficient and user-friendly.

The Conservative Opposition raised questions about the propriety of an independent government watchdog getting a senior government job.

Tory justice critic Kelvin Goertzen said there ought to be a mandatory cooling-off period for any arms-length officer of the legislature to ensure ongoing investigations aren't tainted by a bid to work for government.

But Swan said Hamilton is well-qualified for the job and has not shied away from being pointedly critical of the NDP government.

Last week, Hamilton rebuked Water Stewardship for failing to respond properly to an access-to-information request about Lake St. Martin flooding.

"The integrity of Irene Hamilton is not in question," Swan said.

Under Hamilton's tenure, the ombudsman's office took on larger, more systemic investigations into areas such as unfairness in Manitoba's complex welfare program, the gaps in and underfunding of the province's troubled child-welfare system and deficiencies in Water Stewardship's drainage licensing and enforcement.

Hamilton said the next ombudsman -- who will be hired by an all-party committee of the legislature -- may need to push the government harder on proactive disclosure. That's the buzzword for releasing documents and data before anyone files an access-to-information request, which is costly and time-consuming for government.

"I would like to see more proactive disclosure," Hamilton said. "At the end of the day, it serves everyone's purposes so much better."

The next ombudsman may also be the first to test the province's year-old access and privacy adjudicator, who can order governments to release documents if a non-binding recommendation from the ombudsman doesn't do the trick.

Only the ombudsman can refer cases to the adjudicator. But it's rare for a government to ignore the ombudsman's recommendations, so it could be years before the adjudicator gets his first case.

Until a new ombudsman is hired, Mel Holley, the office's investigations manager, will be the acting ombudsman.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2012 A4

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