Legislature officers’ pay hikes spark questions

In the wake of the spending scandal that’s rocked B.C.’s legislature, questions are being asked about why the clerk of the house’s salary ballooned year after year with little oversight.

In 2018, clerk Craig James, the top manager at the legislature, was paid a salary of $347,090. That’s about $104,000 more than the clerk of the House of Commons, and about $141,000 more than the salary set for B.C.’s premier.

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The clerk’s base salary has historically been pegged to that of the chief judge of the B.C. provincial court, but that’s not the case for James, whose salary has been higher. The provincial court chief judge was paid $293,440 for the year ending March 2018. That pay rate is based on a percentage of salaries for Supreme Court of Canada justices, which is established by an independent judicial compensation committee.

There appears to be scant public documents providing rationale for James’s pay raises, which in many cases were approved by the B.C. legislature Speaker of the time without the scrutiny of the all-party committee that oversees the legislature’s finances.

Liberal MLA Bill Barisoff was the Speaker from 2005 until his retirement in 2013, at which point Liberal MLA Linda Reid took over the role until 2017.

James’s salary in the fiscal year ending in March 2005 was $110,349 as clerk of committees.

He was appointed clerk of the house, the top clerk rank, in mid-2011. In 2012-2013, his first full fiscal year as clerk, he was paid $257,988. In 2017-2018, he was paid $347,090.

Sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz, responsible for security, jumped from $158,120 in 2016-2017 to $218,167 in 2017-2018.

In Speaker Darryl Plecas’s report on legislature expenses, released Jan. 21, James and Lenz are accused of receiving additional payments in the tens of thousands of dollars in lieu of vacation pay.

“It speaks squarely to the fact that there was no accountability at the B.C. legislature despite everyone protesting the opposite,” said Dermod Travis of Integrity B.C.

“There’s a long and convoluted history of how the clerk and the sergeant-at-arms got to their current levels of pay,” said B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson, who on Thursday released a 20-point ethics plan on restoring transparency to the B.C. legislature.

The plan calls for the clerk’s salary to be set at the level of a provincial court judge and for the sergeant-at-arms to receive two-thirds of that salary.

“Even the process for setting their compensation is very unclear, and we’re saying it’s time to break open the doors on this and make it transparent so that everyone knows how much taxpayer money is going into the pockets of senior officials and why it’s set at that level,” he said.

Wilkinson dodged questions about whether the responsibility lies with former Liberal Speakers who approved the raises.

“I’m not aware of the history with the previous Speakers,” Wilkinson said.

However, Premier John Horgan has laid the blame squarely on the Liberals for unilaterally appointing James to the clerk’s position in 2012, ignoring calls from the Opposition NDP for the clerk to be selected by an all-party committee.

Most of James’s pay raises were approved by Barisoff and Reid, said Janet Routledge, NDP MLA for Burnaby North, who sits on the legislative assembly management committee.

“My understanding is that pay raises were signed off by Speakers, they don’t come to [the legislative assembly management committee],” Routledge said.

“It’s significant that previous Liberal speakers signed off on these pay raises and it was an Independent Speaker who raised the alarm about it.”

Plecas, Independent MLA for Abbotsford South, said he became concerned about overspending shortly after he became Speaker in 2017. He and his special adviser, Alan Mullen, collected evidence which has since been passed on to the RCMP.

His 76-page report outlines questionable travel expenses, retirement bonuses and cash payments in lieu of vacation pay. The report also alleges that several legislative staffers were fired for raising concerns about expenses.

In 2013, then-auditor general John Doyle raised concerns about the Speaker’s “level of autonomy in determining the terms of any compensation program” for senior legislature officers.

Doyle also pointed to questionable benefits, which allowed James to take home a $257,988 “retirement benefit” in 2012, approved by Barisoff. Plecas alleged James tried to again negotiate a $300,000 retirement payout in 2018.

Routledge said the lack of transparency around salaries and expenses underscores the need for more oversight of senior legislature officers.

Kris Sims, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said an audit of the legislative assembly must look at whether the salaries are fair and how they got to the level they did without any oversight.

“If the clerk of the provincial legislature of B.C. makes around the same amount as the prime minister of Canada, that’s highly questionable,” Sims said.

Travis said the B.C. clerk’s salary should be determined based on an analysis of pay for clerks in other provinces.

The legislative assembly management committee has promised to commission an independent forensic audit of the offices of the legislative assembly as well as a workplace management review to look into reports of staff mistreatment.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

A history of higher salaries

Craig James was hired to work at the B.C. legislature in 1987 at an annual salary of $46,500. He was clerk assistant and clerk of committees. His recent annual salaries, according to legislature documents, for fiscal years ending March 31:

2005 — $110,349

2006 — $127,481

2007 — $171,587

2008 — $161,333

2009 — $181,095

2010 — $186,080

2011 — $213,151 (acting chief electoral officer)

2012 — $148,493 (acting chief electoral officer)

2012 — $145,863 (clerk of the house)

2013 — $257,988

2014 — $289,984

2015 — $293,731

2016 — $331,825

2017 — $307,892

2018 — $347,090

James billed taxpayers $615,240 in expenses between 2005 and 2018.

Gary Lenz, a former Sidney/North Saanich RCMP staff sergeant, was hired as sergeant-at-arms in December 2008. His annual salaries:

2009 — $87,001

2010 — $95,915

2011 — $98,973

2012 — $102,780

2013 — $98,973

2014 — $175,474

2015 — $150,193

2016 — $185,781

2017 — $158,120

2018 — $218,167

Lenz billed taxpayers $156,931 in expenses between 2009 and 2018.

James’s salary hikes as clerk of committees

B.C. legislature clerk Craig James secured himself significant pay raises when he was clerk of committees, according to Speaker Darryl Plecas’s report. The salary for subordinates to the clerk were generally set at a percentage of the clerk’s salary.

In 2003, then-clerk George MacMinn approved James for a salary hike, to 64 per cent of the clerk’s yearly pay, up from 57 per cent, bringing James to a salary of $109,857. In 2005, MacMinn increased the percentage to 70 per cent of the clerk’s pay, giving James annual pay of $121,296.

Plecas wrote in his report that no rationale was given for these pay increases.

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