Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Dobell conflict issue could hurt Liberals

The Liberals' problem in dealing with the great Ken Dobell controversy is that their explanations just won't strike most people as reasonable.
Dobell has been one of Premier Gordon Campbell's closest associates since the mid-80s, when he was the Vancouver city manager and Campbell was mayor.
Dobell was hired to do the same job, on a bigger scale, when the Liberals were elected in 2001. As deputy minister to the premier, Dobell ran the show for Campbell. He was one of the two key architects of the first term.
When Dobell stepped down in 2005, things got complicated. And sloppy. Campbell wanted to continue to rely on Dobell for advice. So the premier's office signed a contract that would see the government pay Dobell $250 an hour to a maximum of $230,000 a year. He was available for general advice or to work on special projects. Over the past two years he's chaired the Vancouver convention centre project - that hasn't worked out so well - and represented the province on the Olympic organizing committee. Campbell tapped him to work on the softwood lumber dispute, coastal forest problems, the Gateway transportation project, conflicts with teachers and as a lobbyist to push B.C.'s interests in Ottawa.
He even kept an office in he government's Vancouver headquarters.
No worries there, beyond the usual concerns when a manager is so dependent on one consultant.
But Dobell, in retirement, was still available for other work.
And the City of Vancouver thought he was just the man to take on a couple of projects. Vancouver hired him as a consultant to develop an affordable housing strategy and set up a "cultural precinct." The work included lobbying the provincial government.
Both projects were entirely dependent on getting big money from the province. And who better to do that than Dobell.
And who better to lobby Campbell than someone whose opinion he already valued so highly that the premier is paying $250 an hour for his advice.
I can't imagine how the government didn't see this as a problem. One meeting, Dobell is offering his guidance to the premier on some of the most important issues facing the province.
And then an hour later, Dobell is sitting in the same chair in the bright Vancouver premier's office, lobbying for a multi-million-dollar contribution to Vancouver's plan for an arts district.
Perhaps Campbell and Dobell could keep the roles straight.
But if you were a representative from another community trying to get money for a cultural precinct, would you think the playing field was level? Would you have the same chance to talk to the premier about the issue?
It's hard to know how much interest there would have been in the conflict issue alone.
But the whole affair took a new turn this week.
The NDP has established that while Dobell started work as a lobbyist for Vancouver in April 2006, he didn't sign up with the province's lobbyist registry until November. The act requires registration within 10 days.
The government has asked Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis to investigate. But the NDP looked at the act and concluded that there was a problem. Charges have to be filed within six months of the alleged offence. The deadline is this week.
The New Democrats said that if prosecutors won't lay charges, MLA Maurine Karagianis will. The deadline is Thursday.
It's a problem for the Liberals, one they could have easily avoided by being alert to the appearance of a conflict. Now they're looking defensive on an issue that plays into peoples' fears about how government works.
And at a bad time. While this is unfolding, the trial of former Liberal aides Dave Basi and Bobby Virk is hearing allegations of political dirty tricks by the Liberals, including paying a heckler $100 to disrupt an aquaculture protest in Victoria.
The Dobell issue isn't likely to go away.
Footnote: Dobell raised the risk of a perceived conflict of interest last fall in a letter to the Vancouver city manager and his replacement as Campbell's deputy minister, while rejecting the idea of an actual conflict. He had already discussed the issue with both managers, but he also wanted to agree in writing that he had raised the conflict issue and they had said it was not a problem.


Anonymous said...

The MLA from Esquimalt raised the stakes a bit when she offeed two days for some movement on the Dobbell case, if not she will sewr papers on his apparent "I forgot" to show himself ans a lobbyist. Could get interesting. MY God the guy has fingers in many pies .

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