Braid: Premier Redford runs out of excuses for not revealing severance

New report blows holes in all arguments

 By Don Braid, Calgary Herald October 11, 2013 6:18 AM

The Stephen Carter contract erupted into a major political crisis Thursday, prompting Premier Alison Redford to announce a complete reversal of policy on severance pay.

It was a moment that instantly recalled the premier’s equally abrupt backdowns on issues such as MLA pay and committee perks.

Then, as now, the move was forced by brutal media coverage and an opposition breakaway on extremely thin ice.

On Thursday evening, Redford said a new policy will ensure “the proactive disclosure of salary and severance information for senior government employees.”

The policy would be retroactive to the government’s swearing-in last spring, after Carter left his position as Redford’s chief of staff.

That seems to leave his mysterious severance details where they’ve been for a year — in the dark, guarded by the premier’s office and a mushroom ring of civil servants.

Redford suggested that won’t change because she can’t interfere with contracts governed by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) law.

But then, her office said the new policy could reveal Carter’s severance, because his arrangements weren’t complete until after the election.

The sketchy policy statement leaves many more questions — such as, why not declare the policy today, and roll out Carter’s package right away?

Redford said the job won’t be done until Dec. 31, after her Transparency Minister Don Scott works with the Public Services Commissioner to “strike the right balance between the public’s right to know and the protection of personal privacy in the new public salary disclosure system.”

Redford has always insisted that only the public service can release Carter’s details.

This may be true in law and even in fact (not always the same thing), but hardly a soul believes the premier doesn’t have all power in matters involving her top staff.

Now, people might listen when Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith alleges that Carter’s deal could have hung on how many seats his campaign efforts won for the PCs.

Or the public could believe Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, when he says the severance must have been gargantuan to merit such a deep burial for so long.

The opposition has been on a slow simmer over this for months, just waiting for the legislature to open later in October.

Then the issue exploded Thursday, after the privacy commissioner’s office issued a blistering critique of the government’s reasons for keeping the severance secret.

In a letter sent to Global News, one of many parties to seek the details — including the Herald — investigator Catherine Taylor shredded all the government’s arguments.

She told Global’s Vassy Kapelos, who asked for a review on the file: “In my view, releasing the exact departure date and the severance amount of a very senior non-elected official, who is employed by the head of the Alberta government, serves the interest of accountability and meets the tests for disclosure for the purpose of public scrutiny.”

Taylor also discounted Carter’s argument that disclosure would lead to him being tarnished in the media.

“The Third Party (Carter) himself provided news articles dated some time ago that reflect a blemished opinion … There were other media reports before and after his departure that expressed the same content. These clearly predate a disclosure of the information in this case.”

Despite all this, the government once again appeared to dig in its heels, and Redford repeated her legalistic arguments for staying out of it.

But in the end, she didn’t.

Political danger spawned a policy that now makes continued secrecy even more absurd.

The PCs — and Carter, too — will be a lot better off if they just spill it.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the [email protected]

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