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Fired B.C. watchdog to challenge dismissal

B.C.'s former auditor-general for local government, fired after the province said she blocked an investigation into her productivity, will seek a judicial review.

Coralee Oakes, Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, said on Monday that Basia Ruta had obstructed a review of the agency, creating "an intolerable situation for both the staff in the office and for the progress of the performance audits."

In addition, "we have identified the fact that there was an intolerable work environment," Ms. Oakes told reporters in Victoria.

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Ms. Ruta said she did not block the review but rather opposed an unlawful investigation, proposing two alternatives that were never acted on.

Premier Christy Clark announced the creation of the office in November, 2012, saying audits of municipal spending would help British Columbians get "the best value for their money." Ms. Ruta began work in January, 2013, and produced just three audits since, at a cost of more than $5-million. Two of those audits were released last week.

Ms. Ruta, who received a salary of $200,000, was fired with cause and will not receive severance, Ms. Oakes said. The auditor had worked just more than two years of what was supposed to be a five-year term.

A report from the province's human resources department that was produced in January and leaked earlier this month, found that the 10-person staff in Surrey struggled to figure out the office's priorities and how to meet timelines.

Ms. Ruta has acknowledged that there was room for improvement in the area of reporting, writing in her office's 2013-14 annual report, "We were unable to meet the targets we set for issuing reports during 2013/14. To address this, we have set out a plan to improve the accuracy of our future announcements of estimated report release dates."

When the audit council that oversees the auditor-general of local government appointed former deputy finance minister Chris Trumpy to review her performance, Ms. Ruta called it "unlawful" and said it undermined the independence of her office.

"Any review of the AGLG must be done by a qualified and truly independent person," read a news release her office issued last Thursday. "It appears that the Audit Council has picked a person from a firm that has strong ties to the provincial government and that impairs his perceived impartiality."

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Ms. Ruta could not be reached for an interview on Monday, but said in a statement issued through her lawyer that the Audit Council has no power to appoint a third-party to conduct a review. She said her removal from office did not adhere to "basic principles of procedural fairness."

"I proposed two alternatives to allow a review of the office to take place, including calling upon the Auditor-General for British Columbia," Ms. Ruta said. "Neither the minister nor the Audit Council chose to work collaboratively in a manner that preserved the independence of the office or in a manner that complied with the [Auditor-General for Local Government] Act."

B.C. NDP critic Selina Robinson said in Victoria on Monday that while the auditor clearly had performance challenges, the government cannot expect to wash away problems by firing her.

"The Premier's pet project is an absolute failure to this point, and I think they need to rethink the whole thing," Ms. Robinson said. "I don't know how you save face after wasting $5.2-million in taxpayers' money."

During the B.C. Legislature's Question Period, Ms. Robinson charged that Ms. Oakes had no intention of telling the public about the problems with the auditor-general for local government until she had to.

Ms. Robinson and other NDP MLAs, including Leonard Krog, Shane Simpson and David Eby, noted the NDP had long called for the responsibilities of the Auditor-General for Local Government to be rolled into the Auditor-General's office, and asked if that would finally happen.

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Ms. Oakes defended the office by saying it was "a grassroots movement of stakeholders from across the province," but conceded that "in this time of transition, we will be looking at options to ensure that the AGLG is the best structure to meet the mandate."

Ms. Ruta is a chartered accountant with extensive experience working in the federal Auditor-General's office and Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. From 2006 to 2012, she was chief financial officer and assistant deputy minister at Environment Canada.

The Audit Council will recommend a new person to be appointed as acting auditor-general for local government.

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