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Union of B.C. Municipalities issues verdict on local government auditor general

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Photo: BC Gov Photos/flickr

After more than three years of existence, chronic controversy and underperformance from British Columbia's Auditor General for Local Government (AGLG), the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) has issued its own verdict on the office.

The office of the AGLG was created in 2012 following up on a promise by Christy Clark to the business community when she was running for leader of the Liberal Party. The office was created as a watchdog on local governments but without meaningful input from local governments.

The first AGLG, Basia Ruta, was appointed in November 2012 and in 2013 she promised 18 reviews, six each on three topics, would be released the next year. One was released in 2014 and to date only four of the original 18 reports have come out.

Ruta was sacked in March 2015 after resisting a review of her office which she felt would undermine the independence demanded both by her legislation and her professional responsibilities as an accountant. She had actually sought an opinion on this from the Attorney General's office, which, according to media reports, agreed with her.

The then Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development assigned former public servant Chris Trumpy to review the AGLG's office. His report came out in June.

However, in April the Union of B.C. Municipalities decided to conduct its own review on the work of the Office having, once again, been left out of the people consulted by Trumpy's review. As the UBCM points out in its report:

The Terms of Reference for the independent review did not require the reviewer to interview local governments that had been audited by the AGLG, and the subsequent report was delivered to the Audit Council in April 2015 without local government input. In order to address this gap, the Union of B.C. Municipalities surveyed local governments that have participated in AGLG audit processes and prepared the report that you are now reading.

So, after three years of being ignored, local governments, through the UBCM, decided to report on their own experiences with the AGLG's office. The 18 municipalities originally targeted for review were asked to participate and 17 of them obliged.

While they acknowledged that the AGLG teams had been respectful they found:

In particular, the responses highlight how the lack of knowledge by AGLG staff and contractors with regard to local government operations coupled with frequent turnover in the staffing of audit teams contributed to the inefficiency of the AGLG office.

And:

The experience of local governments with AGLG operations affects how they view the outputs of the office. If the office is uninformed with regard to local government operations, fails to meet deadlines, appears to be disorganized and mishandles information, the integrity of the office is diminished and its credibility is undermined.

Only one of the 17 governments surveyed thought that the AGLG's office had an adequate knowledge of local governments. Respondents to the UBCM's survey complained contractors working for the AGLG had "a serious lack of understanding of local governments and of regional districts in particular." Local governments spent hours trying to educate the AGLG team and repeatedly answering the same questions.

More than half of respondents reported they had been required to answer questions beyond the scope of the audit. And, "A narrow majority of those surveyed were of the opinion that the AGLG and staff did not understand the audit topic."

Responding to one AGLG study on asset management one local government reported:

As it relates to the asset management component, their lack of expertise was so blatantly inexistent they could not even define the scope. They were asking anything and everything.

Perhaps the most frustrating area was the AGLG's review of policing, a subject over which local governments have virtually no control. With RCMP policing, local governments work with a provincially negotiated contract. For local governments with their own police force, the Provincial Government appoints a majority of people to police boards. In the words of the UBCM report:

Several communities were audited for their performance in managing policing services despite the fact that they are subject to the Municipal Police Unit Agreement (MPUA). The terms of the MPUA mirror the Provincial Policy Services Agreement, which is negotiated between the Federal and Provincial governments. One community with RCMP policing services commented that since they had very little discretion over the terms of their policing contract, "the AGLG is not quite sure how to assess our situation." Another stated that the "auditors appeared to have very little background information regarding MPUAs.

Not surprisingly, the first recommendation from the UBCM is that people working for the AGLG get better training on how local governments work.

The most important recommendations, however, deal with a more collaborative approach to the province's plans for the AGLG. The report recommends the provincial government consider the findings of the UBCM report before making administrative or legislative changes to the AGLG. This seems unlikely considering that in April the UBCM asked Minister Coralee Oakes to consult them before changes were announced arising from Trumpy's report.

But in June, responding to the Trumpy report and before talking to local governments, the Minister said:

many of the recommendations [from the Trumpy report] will be incorporated through the legislative amendments, improved reporting or better articulated responsibilities. The remainder will be implemented through changes to office procedures and structure already underway. Consultations with key stakeholders will occur but as the amendments are administrative in nature, they are anticipated to be limited.

All of this is happening in the run up to the Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention in a couple of months. Former Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell, a former Vancouver Mayor, showed a respect for local governments, particularly with the passage of the Community Charter which promised municipalities autonomy in their own sphere of influence.

That respect seems to be disappearing fast as demonstrated not only by AGLG issues but also by the province's controversial attack last year on wages in local governments just before the 2014 UBCM convention. And once again, local governments had not been consulted on the report on municipal compensation.

Replacing Coralee Oakes as communities Minister with Peter Fassbender raises other questions. Few saw Oakes as a strong Minister so the question now is whether local governments will get the same treatment from Peter Fassbender he gave teachers when he was Minister of Education, and just what the agenda will be.

Photo: BC Gov Photos/flickr

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