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MLA calls for ombudsman

Elizabeth McMillan
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 12, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - An independent office or appeals tribunal is needed to deal with people who feel the territorial government has made a bad decision, according to Wendy Bisaro, MLA for Frame Lake.

"We need an office where somebody can go and say, look, I think I've been wronged," she said.

"There's no point in going to the body, because they're the ones who did the investigation."

Many other jurisdictions, including federal government departments, several provinces and the Yukon, have established ombudsman offices that review administrative decisions made by government departments, agencies, commissions and boards. People go to an ombudsman when they have a complaint about government services.

Bisaro said she routinely gets complaints from constituents who are unhappy with a decision made by some branch of the government.

"They don't have anywhere to go," she said.

Bisaro said there are appeal boards for specific agencies, like Income Security or Student Financial Services, but she said the issue comes up when someone is unhappy with the decision the appeal board has made.

"There really isn't an avenue of appeal for residents unless they go to court," she said.

It is unrealistic to expect people to go through the court process, especially when it could be costly and intimidating, said Bisaro.

This isn't the first time the issue has come up.

Last year Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins called for the same thing. At the time, Premier Floyd Roland said if the MLAs supported the idea, he'd consider it as part of the next business plan process.

When Bisaro asked what the status of the ombudsman's office was in the legislative assembly on Feb. 4, Justice Minister Jackson Lafferty said cabinet looked into the idea and found "there are already a variety of means where constituencies can have their concerns or issues addressed through various venues."

Calling court proceedings a last resort, Lafferty said people can appeal to their MLAs.

"We try to rectify the problems or challenges that are before us. Sometimes it does take time to deal with those matters because of the documentation that's required," he said. But Bisaro disagrees.

"It's too biased and too subjective," she said.

Bisaro said appealing to an MLA is ineffective because the complaint, after the MLA approaches the appropriate cabinet minister, goes back to the department that made the decision in the first place. She said getting a cabinet minister to review the decision-making process can take a long time, and yield no results.

"The effectiveness depends on the minister and the people in their office," she said. "Some ministers are better than others."

Lafferty said establishing an ombudsman's office would go beyond the Department of Justice, and involve work by the executive. He said the major issue would be the cost.

"It's nothing new, but it's something that isn't high on the priority list because it is expensive," said Bisaro. "But it comes to the ethical and moral question of how important it is for our residents to feel they are treated fairly."

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