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VIHA wrong to use secrecy in job award, minister says

Feb 02 2012

The Vancouver Island Health Authority was wrong when it used provincial government secrecy as a reason to award a $161,800 contract without competition, Health Minister Mike de Jong said Wednesday.

Under the circumstances — in which VIHA interviewed one other person before handing a non-advertised communications contract to Stewart Muir, husband of Premier Christy Clark's then-deputy minister Athana Mentzelopoulos — provincial government confidentiality does not exist as a reason to avoid the competitive process, the minister said.

"I'm unaware of any circumstances that would have justified a variation from the Fair Business [Practice] Policy and

open-procurement practices that are intended to be followed," de Jong said.

VIHA's own policy says contracts worth more than $75,000 must be open to the public.

If they are not made open to the public, a statement called a Notice of Intent must be posted on the provincial goverment's B.C. Bid website, to give people 10 days to complain or contest the private deal.

VIHA spokeswoman Suzanne Germain confirmed that neither was done when the contract was awarded on Nov. 8.

VIHA wanted to exempt itself from the competitive process to fill the position of "vice-president of communications" vacated by Neil Sweeney.

Sweeney had been on a one-year leave of absence from VIHA since March 2010, to work for the provincial government.

By late summer, it became apparent that his leave would be extended, possibly to prepare for an anticipated fall election.

A "waiver of competitive process" document to explain why the contract would be awarded to Muir, dated Nov. 1 and signed by chief executive officer Howard Waldner, reads: "Neil's secondment is well known locally, therefore suggestion in the public of his continued work with the government (which would result from a competitive process) may breach

government confidentiality."

The government does not agree, de Jong said.

Clark, de Jong and Sweeney say they had no involvement in who was given the contract or the way VIHA filled the job.

"No, it was pretty clear that I was gone and I understand there were a number of people who applied," Sweeney said. "I haven't been part of any kind of document production in VIHA since I left."

B.C.'s Opposition leader wants an independent investigation of the hiring.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix said it is inconceivable that the premier's office did not know that the husband of one of Clark's top advisers was awarded a contract that was not advertised.

Dix said no one, including VIHA's chief executive officer and board chairman, was properly looking out for taxpayer interests.

"The premier's office is trying to say the premier's office isn't involved, the president's office says the president's office isn't involved, and the board is trying to defend them both," Dix said. "There's a public interest here and it really wasn't served."

On Nov. 22, when the Times Colonist published details of the hiring, VIHA rescinded Muir's job.

At that time, VIHA's CEO and board chairman reiterated their explanations that they bypassed a competitive process because of an urgent need to fill the job — which had been vacant for eight months.

Those statements appear to have been contradicted in documents obtained by the Times Colonist through Freedom of Information and published last week.

The documents state that "government confidentiality" was the reason VIHA sought an exemption from its own hiring policy, and make no mention of "urgency."

On Monday, board chairman Don Hubbard, who was at the second of Muir's two interviews, said Sandra Bjola, VIHA corporate director in contract management, drafted the waiver.

"It looks like this thing was rushed because I looked at it and I can't make heads or tails of it, really," Hubbard said.

"I had no involvement. The first time I saw the document is [Monday]."

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

rfshaw@timescolonist.com

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