Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Auditor general fears delays in filling jobs leaves offices at risk

Bellringer says it's not fair to acting heads, either

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Manitoba's auditor general says the failure to promptly replace the chief electoral officer and the provincial ombudsman potentially weakens two important offices and is unfair to those filling the jobs in an acting capacity.

Carol Bellringer said Tuesday she is also worried she has put her own office "at risk" by announcing her resignation earlier this month, given the lengthy delays in replacing vacancies at the top of key watchdog institutions.

It's been more than three years since the province's chief electoral officer, Richard Balasko, retired and nearly 17 months since ombudsman Irene Hamilton left her post to take a senior job in the provincial civil service. Neither has been replaced, and in the case of the ombudsman's position, a search for a replacement has yet to begin.

Deputy chief electoral officer Shipra Verma has filled in on an acting basis since Balasko's departure.

Mel Holley has filled in for Hamilton.

Bellringer said she deliberately gave nearly a year's notice to the legislative assembly she would be leaving on March 31, 2014, because of her concern about delays in filling such positions.

While there are capable people in her office who can step in on an acting basis, she said, it would be awkward for anyone to be placed in that position for long -- especially if they hoped to be named to the position permanently.

"It's unacceptable at all levels, in my view, for any of the independent offices to be in any way weakened," Bellringer said in an interview.

"If you're acting and you want the job it puts you in a very awkward position."

Paul Thomas, a retired University of Manitoba political scientist, agreed it's best not to allow the heads of watchdog groups to languish in an acting role for too long.

"It puts pressure on them to be compliant with the wishes of the (political) parties and doesn't give them the courage to call things the way they see them and apply the law in an even-handed and strict way," he said.

The offices of chief electoral officer (Elections Manitoba), ombudsman and auditor general are independent of government, reporting to the legislative assembly.

The chief electoral officer ensures Manitoba elections are conducted fairly and scrutinizes the financial returns of political parties. The provincial ombudsman has the authority to investigate complaints about municipal and provincial bodies, including boards, agencies, Crown corporations and provincial government departments. The auditor general's office audits the province's books and undertakes numerous investigations to ensure government departments and agencies are complying with their mandates.

In Manitoba, the appointment of the heads of these independent bodies has traditionally been done on a consensus basis by a bipartisan committee of the legislature.

But the process got bogged down with Balasko's retirement as chief electoral officer in March 2010. The Opposition Conservatives, angry at how Elections Manitoba handled an NDP election-expenses scheme dating back to 1999 (but which did not come to light until 2009), initially held up the appointment of a successor.

The NDP claimed the services of union members who worked on several candidates' campaigns as a reimbursable expense rather than non-reimbursable donations-in-kind, triggering a $76,000 taxpayer payment to which the party was not entitled.

Elections Manitoba forced the NDP to repay the $76,000, but never pursued charges under election finance laws.

The chief electoral officer's position was advertised and interviews were carried out before the 2011 election. But with the 2011 general election looming, the NDP and Tories decided not to disrupt Elections Manitoba while it conducted the vote. However, now with the election long over, the bipartisan legislative affairs committee still has not got around to appointing a chief electoral officer.

NDP House Leader Jennifer Howard said Tuesday the government side wants to make the Elections Manitoba appointment before moving to fill other independent office vacancies. She expressed confidence the post could soon be filled.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2013 A7

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