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Vacant provincial watchdog jobs ripped

Critics say long delays threaten to undermine crucial positions

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Carol Bellringer recently retired as auditor general. Having an interim staffer serve a long time may make the auditor general's office appear toothless.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Carol Bellringer recently retired as auditor general. Having an interim staffer serve a long time may make the auditor general's office appear toothless. Photo Store

A legislative committee has finally initiated the hiring process for a new provincial ombudsman -- more than two years after Irene Hamilton left the post to take a job with the Justice Department.

And it also advertised last month for a new auditor general -- nearly a year after Carol Bellringer gave notice she would retire effective March 31 of this year.

The foot-dragging has opened MLAs to criticism that they are undermining these key watchdog positions.

The jobs of the ombudsman, auditor general, children's advocate and chief electoral officer are independent of government, reporting directly to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. In Manitoba, the appointment of the heads of these organizations has traditionally been done on a consensus basis by a bipartisan committee of the legislature.

Mel Holley, formerly manager of investigations with the ombudsman's office, has been acting ombudsman since Hamilton's departure. Norm Ricard, Bellringer's deputy, is now the acting auditor general.

Political scientist Paul Thomas said it's unfair to keep individuals who may wish to apply for such positions in an acting role for too long.

Last summer, the legislative affairs committee named Shipra Verma as chief electoral officer more than three years after the retirement of her predecessor, Richard Balasko. Verma, Balasko's deputy, had been doing the job on an acting basis since April 2010, even overseeing the October 2011 general election.

The chief electoral officer ensures Manitoba elections are conducted fairly and political parties play by the rules.

Allowing someone to languish in an acting watchdog role when they may have ambitions to assume the top job can taint their reputation, Thomas said, because there's the perception that they may pull their punches.

"It will not stiffen your backbone to be sitting around waiting to get confirmed on a permanent basis," he added.

Meanwhile, Children's Advocate Darlene MacDonald's three-year term comes to an end on April 11.

She has yet to be told by the legislative affairs committee of the Manitoba legislature whether it intends to give her a second term, even though the two main political parties apparently support her.

Government house leader Andrew Swan, a member of the committee, said the group will meet next week to deal with children's advocate position.

Both the ombudsman and auditor general positions were advertised last month, he said. Closing date for applications for both jobs was March 18.

The committee has struck an expert panel to help evaluate the applicants. It's expected to report back to a subcommittee of the legislative affairs committee by April 30, Swan said.

"Hopefully after that time, we'll be in a position to proceed with the hiring (for both positions)," he said.

Asked why it has taken MLAs so long to proceed, Swan said the committee wanted to ensure it was doing things properly. "We just wanted to make sure that we do it right and it took a little time just to agree on who would be on the expert panel," he said.

However, Conservative house leader Kelvin Goertzen said the government has been distracted by the heat it's taken over the PST hike and internal matters such as the events leading up to Christine Melnick's expulsion from the NDP caucus.

"I've spoken to the government on a number of occasions about moving the process along on both the auditor and the ombudsman and couldn't get a response," Goertzen said. "I don't think it was a priority for them when they had other issues going on within their own party and caucus."

He said government MLAs could have initiated the hiring process for a new ombudsman and auditor last year, but insisted on completing the hiring of a new chief electoral officer first.

As for the children's advocate position, Goertzen said he informed the government last November his party was in favour of renewing MacDonald's contract for another three years.

"There's no reason why that should have taken another three or four months for them to call that committee for a reappointment," he said. "We have indicated our support for the reappointment. I understand from them that they were not opposed to the reappointment."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2014 B4

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