Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, January 27, 2019

Legislative officers milked the public teat

Everyone knows what a “per diem” payment is. Per diem means, simply, “each day.” Corporate bodies -- whether public or private -- use the term to identify the amount that an employee may be repaid for meals, local expenses, and accommodation paid out of pocket.

            Of course, hardly anyone pays for those expenses out of pocket any more. They go directly onto the corporate credit card.

            So, theoretically, there should be little need for per diem payments.

            Unless those employees feel entitled to receive those payments, regardless of what they didn’t actually spend.

            Per diem payments exemplify, to my mind, the underlying issue in the scandal involving two senior officers of the B.C. Legislature, Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

            Speaker Darryl Plecas noted that both claimed full per diem compensation for occasions where meals had been provided by their British hosts.

            And they had also claimed, on their expense accounts, $1000 suits. Jewelry. Luggage. Souvenirs.

            On further investigation, Plecas documented purchase of a $3000 log splitter and a $10,000 trailer, and a possible theft of about $10,000 worth of liquor. To say nothing of $5000 in subscriptions to magazines unrelated to governance.


Graspable aspects of fraud

            Plecas called it “shocking.”

            I agree.

            The wood splitter and trailer grabbed the news headlines, because they are physical objects that we can get our minds around. Payout packages and life insurance policies, by contrast, blur into fiscal never-never-land.

            I focused on the two men’s per diem claims, for the same reason. Because almost everyone has encountered per diem payments.

            Most of us, in my experience, submit only actual costs. And we expect to be congratulated if we kept those costs below the allowable limit.

             So is per diem an allowance, an upper limit for which you may be reimbursed? Or a benefit that you’re entitled to, regardless?


Profound distrust

            I have read all 76 pages of the Speaker Darryl Plecas’s report to the Legislature, with its detailed allegations about the actions of the two senior legislative officers -- and of Clerk Craig James in particular. The single strongest impression I get is of Plecas’s profound distrust of Craig James’s ethics.

            It started with that trip to London. Which included a trip to Scotland -- rationalized as an opportunity to assess the Scottish character -- which included a side trip to the famous St. Andrew’s golf course and its gift shop.

            The two men didn’t skimp on our money. In London, they stayed at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge hotel: $500 a night. With their wives. They flew business class. They hired limousines to get around. In B.C., they bought assured loading tickets on ferries.

            The report portrays James especially as travelling widely -- one paragraph lists junkets to El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, India, Nigeria, Malaysia, South Africa, Malta, Thailand, and Kenya as a consultant to the World Bank while still receiving his B.C. government salary.

            At the time he and Lenz were escorted out of the parliamentary building in Victoria, James’ salary exceeded $300,000 a year.


Culture of entitlement

            But it’s the culture of entitlement that needs criticism, not the specific items. A culture that presumes, first, that I am indispensable to the corporate entity I serve; and second, that therefore I can claim whatever I think I need to keep performing my indispensable duties.

            Such as a log splitter for my personal fireplace.

            Plecas repeatedly used the generalization, “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” At first glance, that may seem like an unsubstantiated exaggeration. I’m inclined to think it may be too low an estimate. I don’t have the financial smarts to calculate the total amounts of life insurance, luxury travel, prepaid retirement packages, and compensation for vacation days not taken. It might well run into the millions.

            To put this crudely, James and Lenz seem to have treated the public purse as an unlimited teat, to be milked for everything they could get.

            Because they felt entitled to it.

            Although nothing has been proven yet, it seems clear to me that Craig James, and to a lesser extent Gary Lenz, consistently abused their privileged positions in the government.

            The matter has been referred to the RCMP for criminal investigation. I don’t expect any criminal charges. I suspect that James made sure he did everything within the rules. He knows the rules; he helped shape them. He knows how to manipulate them. He made sure everything was approved by the appropriate authorities. Which, often, was himself.

            But being legal is not necessarily being right.


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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David Gilchrist lost both his parents in a car crash; he wondered if seat belts – my subject last week -- might have saved their lives.

            David continued, “The most uncomfortable trip I can remember was a bus trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs. Ever try to sleep with a seat belt on? But I am very grateful that it is the law in Australia. Comfort is not the issue -- safety is. We had no incidents on the way there; but we hit at least 3 kangaroos on the night trip back! 

            “I have heard the argument that a seat belt could cause you to drown if you go into a lake; but the fact is that hitting water can pitch you into the windshield and disorient you or knock you out. But with the belt you have a much better chance of gathering your wits, undoing the belt when you are ready, and opening your window to escape. (You are not likely to be able to push the door open against the water pressure.) 

            “AMEN to seat belt in all buses -- especially School Buses.”


Marguerite Irvine recalled working in the Intensive Care Unit of her local trauma centre: “There were horrible accidents nearly every weekend resulting in life-changing injuries.  Like you, I got seatbelts installed in the back seat of the car, so my children were not at risk of being flung from the car. (There were belts in the front seats.) The children didn’t like it but they got used to it.  The Humboldt Broncos bus crash should be lesson enough to make the government change their policy.  Too bad it takes such an event.”


Isabel Gibson wrote, “My usual filter -- to ask ‘who benefits from it being this way?’ -- comes up empty this time. I can't see that anyone benefits.”


Rachel Prichard agreed with her: “It is money, not safety, that prevents legislation for seat belts in school buses. Because children often sit three to a seat, seatbelts would not only involve the cost of installation but also require more buses and more drivers which would cost far too much! As you say -- our children are expendable and not worth the money to keep them safe!”


But Jodi English didn’t like the column at all: “Your article seems full of presumptions and assumptions. Nothing positive and always pointing to negative. Pointing to past tragedies to try justify your point. Blame Transport Canada, so easy. Sad and sensationalistic way to end an article, using a word like expendable.

            “Pointing fingers and using blame is a horrible way to inspire people and society to change. Sounds similar to a president we all know.”

            JT: I think that’s the first time I’ve been accused to acting like Trump…


Lyle Phillips shared his experience: “My first car was a 1951 Meteor that I bought in 1958. The first accessory [I installed] was front seat belts. Never did have rear seat belts. 

            “Looking back now, I wonder what I was thinking. At the time, we (I) never thought about the possible injuries in a collision. I wonder now why parents of children who ride in school buses have not insisted on seat belts for them. In my experience as a retired teacher, parents can have a huge influence on decisions made by school districts.”


Tom Watson similarly recalled days of ignorance: “During the 1960s and early ‘70s Janice and I and our four children vacationed by hauling a travel trailer for thousands of miles. No seat belts. We had no incidents. Lucky, maybe.”


Bob Rollwagen commented, “Airlines do the demo for legal liability reasons, and it is only a lap belt. Are we putting lap belts on buses or ones like those in cars which are the ones that have been tested. 

            “I believe lap and shoulder belts should be installed in every vehicle used for transport of humans. Young children will have to bring their own seat like they do in cars. In all cases the driver should have no responsibility for passengers not using their belts. All new vehicles [should] do this within a year, all old ones install within two. The passenger is responsible for reporting broken belts and the vehicle cannot move until every passenger has a fully functional belt. The ruling Gov’t should pay entirely for this conversion and apply a one-time tax to obtain the revenues until the project is complete. Sounds simple. Too simple.”






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                       Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



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