13 February 2008

Andy, Danny, the PUB and polls

Andy Wells won't be staying on as mayor of St. John's when he takes on a new job as chairman and chief executive officer of the public utilities board after all.

Premier Danny Williams said so today in a news release.

This is no small development.  Williams and Wells had arranged for Andy to keep both jobs.  The reasons are unclear but Wells himself raised the issue of his own outstanding legal bills from failed defamation lawsuits.  They had a set of media lines they stuck to, relentlessly, starting with the idea that there was only one tiny potential of conflict of interest.

The Premier repeats them again in the release:

I stand by my belief that the mayor is quite capable of doing both the job as mayor and running the PUB. We have reconfirmed repeatedly that no conflict of interest exists, with the exception of land expropriation where we have already stated Mayor Wells would excuse himself.

Of course, there are numerous conflicts of interest and other policy problems with the Premier's original plan.  That's been pointed out by everyone from Ron Smith to CBC to your humble e-scribbler. Despite the claims to the contrary the Premier's news release is an admission the original plan he had was fatally flawed.

Williams and Wells likely figured they could tough out any public criticism.  They might well have been able to do so were it not for two things.

First of all, they clearly misjudged the willingness of people to voice their clear, reasoned opposition to the appointment scheme based not on personalities but on the facts of the matter. it simply didn't matter who was being appointed to hold two jobs:  the whole idea was flawed.

Second of all, they clearly came up against the looming Corporate Research Associates polling period.  The Wells story had legs and it was simply too risky for the pair to risk the government's high polling numbers on an avoidable controversy. 

It wouldn't be surprising to find that the Premier's Office had some private polling commissioned in the last week or so that helped convince them of the political danger of persisting in an untenable position.  It's not like that hasn't happened before. Remember the flag flap and the premier's insistence "those flags" would stay down until the federal government relented?  It's no accident the flags suddenly sprang to the top of flag staffs at government buildings across the province once the Premier had in hand the results of a public opinion poll.

This "issue", as the premier calls it without defining it, may not be dead, though. 

Andy Wells attitudes about the environment, specifically his rejection of human involvement in global warming, may well make it interesting when the PUB is asked to review capital works programs aimed at dealing with environmental impacts related to global warming.

That, of course, may well call into question the Premier's insistence that Wells is the best qualified person for the PUB job. He's undoubtedly got a strong record in public service.  But that alone is not sufficient for anyone to take on a job heading a quasi-judicial regulatory agency.

That question could have been easily put to rest, however, had the public service competition originally started for this job been completed.  Apparently, it stopped for some reason. Not only has the Public Service Commission been vague in responding to inquires on the matter, but also, at no point has the Premier trotted out that piece of evidence in support of his claims about Wells' qualifications.

The Premier's office may think the Wells "issue" has gone away with this news release.

Likely it won't.

There are other aspects to the issue than have been explored to date.

Polling period and public opinion polls may influence the government's actions.  The rest of us aren't so constrained.