Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Another bizarre and alarming twist in the auditor general scandal

The Times Colonist has a damaging story and column on the decision not to reappoint John Doyle as auditor general.
Rob Shaw and Les Leyne reveal that Liberal MLA Eric Foster, the chairman of the committee that turfed Doyle, was cited for spending and conflict concerns in an auditor general’s report in October - “the only MLA singled out.”
The devastating audit identified widespread sloppy management practices of MLA expenses and $63 million in legislature spending.
And it cited the case of $78,000 paid to the landlord for renovations at Foster’s constituency office in 2009.
Doyle raised several issues. First, there was a possible conflict of interest, he found. The rented office was in a building owned by the family of Foster’s constituency assistant. The renovations benefited the family.
Foster took that concern to conflict commissioner Paul Fraser, who cleared him.
The October audit also found the bill for renovations was “"paid without an appropriate level of review for reasonableness and without adequate supporting documentation." 
Foster's staff provided only a spreadsheet showing $67,000 in work, without invoices, details or evidence quotes were obtained for the work to get the best price.
The payment also violated policy on renovations in rented offices, which are to be covered only if specified in the lease. The auditor was told Speaker Bill Barisoff ordered the payment to be made.
It seems clear Foster should have quit the committee, given the possible perception that he had an axe to grind with Doyle. 
This is where things get bizarre. Foster says he never knew the spending was questioned in the audit. So serious concerns are raised, and no one in government or legislature even bothered to ask him about them. He didn't think the auditor's concern about conflict was significant enough to justify stepping aside
A remarkably sloppy way to treat the public’s money, and handle an important appointment.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The land where fireworks are king

I’ve lived in places where they set off fireworks to celebrate different cultural events, but Hondurans are the most enthusiastic.
Fireworks here feature in the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. They start early. We were listening to the whistles and bangs - some quite resounding - by mid-December. The really big explosions are at Christmas and New Year’s. 
I grew up in Ontario, and fireworks were pretty much a one-night thing, on Victoria Day. In Quebec, fireworks were a St. Jean Baptiste Day tradition, although more subdued. (Or maybe just more subdued for anglophones.)
When we moved to Victoria, things got stranger. Fireworks were part of Halloween. Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox suggested that since British Columbians already had excited children in masks running around dark streets, and fireworks, they might as well legalize drunk driving for the night and go for the danger trifecta. 
The late Jack (the Wonder Dog, not the columnist) hated Halloween firecrackers, hiding as best he could. But it was usually brief - one night, with occasional bursts before or after.
In Honduras, fireworks are a year-round affair. There is a birthday tradition of blasting the lucky celebrant awake at 5 a.m. with fireworks and music. The road between La Entrada and Santa Rosa de Copan has a collection of firework stands, all identical, selling products made in small factories in nearby towns. (Though the stands increase in the run up to Christmas. I counted 28 on one side of the highway.)
There is a certain danger in all this. In October, a fireworks factory blew up killing the owner, injuring five workers and damaging nearby houses. Tegucigalpa, the capital, has tried to ban fireworks because of the number of kids showing up in emergency wards with burns and missing fingers.
In a country with an average 21 murders a day, firework enforcement might seem less urgent. But policing priorities are always hard to understand. In December, La Prensa reported police had swept in on eight stores selling knock-off Pepe jeans and seized their stock. Protecting the value of a global billion-dollar brand took priority, apparently, over protecting people riding the buses.
Of course we bought fireworks, from the back of a truck parked outside Bodega Gloria and from a neighbour who had set up a table in front of his house. We’ve had youngsters - grandboys,with family - visiting from Canada for a while, and cheap, potentially dangerous firecrackers, Roman candles and mariposas and little balls you throw down to the ground to produce a satisfying bang all seemed attractive.
We set a few off in Copan Ruinas to celebrate surviving the end of the world. 
Though, actually, we had a great end of the world. The ruins were open for the night, with a couple of spotlights and rows of Tiki torches. There were few people, and it was magical to wander among 1,600-year-old stone structures and sculptures under the stars, as glow bugs flashed in the grass. We climbed the stones on the side of the ball court, and went into a small room with an arched roof, and with a tiny light saw dozens of bats roosting in the stepped ceiling. We sat on the pyramids and watched the sky, and walked home very happy.
We set off a couple of fireworks on Utila for New Year’s Eve, blasting Roman Candles into the palms.
And a few more for Zachary’s 13th birthday on the beach in Tela, although the fireworks were a little battered by then, having travelled by bus and ferry in a crowded backpack. The Roman candle fizzled. But the mariposas - butterflies - were impressive. It’s a small firecracker, with little wings, and instead of going bang it takes off like a rocket, if you’re lucky. It dives into the ground if you aren’t.
We’re back in Copan now. Happy New Year. I hope you had fireworks.