Craig James is acting as British Columbia's chief electoral officer while a legislative committee seeks a replacement for Harry Neufeld, whose term in the position ended in June.
But this week staff at the independent, non-partisan body learned that James had made a major change to their organization. A "restructuring" has pushed out the second in command, deputy chief electoral officer Linda Johnson.
"I was told the acting chief electoral officer is reorganizing Elections B.C. and my position as deputy chief electoral officer was eliminated," said Johnson, reached at home Thursday morning. She had been with Elections B.C. for 28 years, the last 19 of them as deputy CEO.
Elections B.C. oversees provincial elections and referenda in the province, and in August, Elections B.C. certified the success of the petition to repeal the harmonized sales tax.
The position is defined in the Elections Act and has all the same powers and authority as the CEO, with the exception of making regulations, said Johnson.
The acting CEO, Craig James, is away at a conference and will be unavailable until Sept. 20, said Elections B.C. spokesperson Don Main. Main said the conference has to do with James' volunteer work.
Ruled against Hansen
In her work for Elections B.C., Johnson was focussed on policy, legislation, compliance, enforcement and education.
In April, for example, when Elections B.C. ruled that the provincial government could not send out a budget mailer with extensive information touting the new harmonized sales tax, it was Johnson's signature on the letter.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen at the time called the ruling "surprising and disappointing" and suggested the non-partisan agency might be treating the Liberal government unfairly. "We will fully expect Elections B.C. to apply the law equally to everyone involved in the HST debate, including the NDP and Bill Vander Zalm and his canvassers," he said.
Johnson declined to speculate on why she's out of a job or second guess James' decision, though she acknowledged losing its two most senior officials in three months is significant for Elections B.C. "It's bound to change things in the organization," she said.
The organization is strong enough to withstand the change, however, she said. "It's a place I was really proud to work for."
Normally the chief electoral officer is appointed by an all-party committee that "is responsible for making a unanimous recommendation to the Legislative Assembly on who should be appointed to this important position," according to the Elections B.C. website.
Neufeld's term ended June 5, but the committee which was formed on May 6 had not yet found a replacement. In the meantime the Liberal government appointed James, who was the legislature's clerk of committees.
The Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer questioned the appointment in a June 4 column: "Here was the government, unilaterally appointing a new temporary head of the office, without even the courtesy of consulting the opposition in advance."
He wondered whether the government was putting James in an "awkward position."
A spokesperson said government house leader and attorney general Mike de Jong would be unavailable to comment. "The AG's not going to comment on an internal staffing matter. It would be inappropriate."
The NDP decided not to comment until more could be learned about the reorganization.
James' received heavy criticism in August when he initially declined to forward the successful petition to repeal the HST to the select standing committee on legislative initiatives until a court challenge by business groups could be heard.