Conrad on board to clean things up
A damning report by the Auditor General of Nova Scotia has called into question many problems with the spending habits of Members of the Legislative Assembly in Nova Scotia.
The report originally came to light on Feb. 4, citing MLA’s who had made questionable or excessive purchases in their time in office
The names of MLA’s named in the report were not released to the public right away. The Auditor General felt is was more important to fix the problem with the system rather than focus on who was at fault. However under public pressure, by the end of last week, all MLA’s expenses were released.
Many MLA’s did not have any questionable expenses, like Queens MLA Vicki Conrad, but those that did painted a very bad picture of how expense account spending is regulated.
The report’s timeline goes from July of 2006 until June 2009.
Conrad says it’s an embarrassment for all MLA’s, and shows the system needs to be overhauled. “We knew that coming into government. Some of the rules and regulations were already being tightened up before the Auditor General’s report came out,” she says.
Conrad’s full amount spent from July 2006 to June 2009 was $17,956.81.
Compared to other MLA’s in the province, Conrad’s expenses were quite frugal. All items purchased were for her office in Liverpool and she says she tried to purchase as many second hand items as possible, like a table with six chairs bought at a surplus store for $228. Conrad also supported local businesses as well. “I tried to be conscious of where I bought things, buying local as much as I could”
One of the bigger items bought for her office was two wooden signs, at a total of $1710. Those were purchased around the same time the downtown retailers were heavily debating historical wooden vs. modern plastic signs. Conrad says she wanted to fit in with the heritage look, which seemed to be the direction the town was heading.
Over the three years, Conrad bought four computers for her office. One was part of a severance package for her constituency assistant, in lieu of a monetary severance. Conrad says she checked with the caucus and speaker’s office before offering the computer.
She also bought a Kodak digital camera for $171, which is used by the office to take pictures at events Conrad attends
Other MLA’s, both current and former, were not so frugal.
Over a three-year period former Progressive Conservative MLA and cabinet minister Len Goucher filed expense claims for five digital cameras, 11 computers, 12 printers and four video recorders. He even expensed an Xbox 360 Dance Dance Revolution Universe game.
After taxes, Goucher’s overall spending over three years, was $43,982.27.
Now former MLA for Yarmouth Richard Hurlburt resigned after it was made public he had bought an $8,000 generator, a $2,500 TV and the expenses to install it. Early last week Hurlburt announced he would resign as MLA.
While the attention has been very negative for all MLA’s, Conrad says there is a positive side to the report being released. “I think we’re all learning we have to be conscious of where were spending, think carefully about what might be excessive, and the most important thing to get the rules and regulations tightened up.”
Conrad says now that the expenses are out in the open, they need to move forward on fixing the problems.
After the election in June 2009, Conrad was appointed to the Internal Economy Board (IEB). The board’s goal is to look at spending and bring in rules for the MLA’s to follow. Part of the Auditor’s General report stated the rules were not clear and very open to interpretation. The board’s goal is to fix these issues. “We need to move forward aggressively on becoming more accountable to voters,” says Conrad, adding they need to gain back the trust of Nova Scotian’s. “We have a lot of work to do”
Some things the IEB has done is cancel the $45,000 severance for MLA’s when they were defeated, resigned, or opted not to run in another election, chopped $200,000 from MLA’s expenses, eliminated the technology fund and effective from Oct. 2009 all furniture bought for offices would become public property.
MLA’s are now required to deduct their own meals from any expense claim they submit on a day they qualify for a per diem as well. “Because of the scandalous situation that came out of this report, it unfortunately overtook the things that had already been done,” says Conrad.
The board will soon be replaced with modern legislation management commission, which will be based on best practices, with focus on accountability and transparency. The board’s mandate will also be publicly debated, and set clear limits on what can be expensed and why. The proposed commission will standardize the system of procurement, leasing and staffing. The meetings of the commission will also be public.
Conrad says Premier Darrell Dexter is working with all three caucuses to get commission in place, and the plan is to have it ready by spring session.