The head of a government-watchdog group says he's "flabbergasted" that the NDP hasn't called for the resignation of Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm.
Dermod Travis, executive director of Integrity B.C., told the Georgia Straight by phone it's a "no-brainer" that Pimm should step down after intervening in a file before the Agricultural Land Commission.
"You don't tug on Superman's cape and if you're a minister, you don't lean on a quasi-judicial tribunal," Travis said. "It's an obvious that when a minister does that, they submit their resignation."
As a B.C. Liberal MLA-elect, Pimm wrote a letter to the commission on behalf of a constituent three days after the May provincial election.
On June 6, Pimm's constituency assistant followed up with another letter to the commission expressing Pimm's opinion that land in the Fort St. John area should be removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve.
On June 7, Premier Christy Clark announced that Pimm was the new minister of agriculture.
Pimm's letter involved Terry McLeod's request to the ALC to reconsider its refusal to allow a rodeo ground and campsite on a 70.66-hectare property in the Peace River Regional District.
The land was owned by Yvonne Wiles, but McLeod took it over last year through a numbered company.
According to the ALC's decision rejecting McLeod's request, the property is primarily Class 2 land in the Agricultural Land Reserve, which means it has "high agricultural value".
"No evidence was presented in the application to suggest that this property is the only available site for the proposed development," the commission ruled. "No evidence was presented in the application to suggest that the proposed development cannot be accommodated on land the Commission has approved for non-farm development under the Fort St. John and Area Comprehensive Development Plan or the North Peace Fringe Official Community Plan."
Pimm and Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman wrote to the commission asking for the decision to be reconsidered.
Pimm's letter, dated May 17, declared his "formal support of the application for development and operation of a rodeo grounds and supportive facilities".
"As MLA elect and long time resident of Fort St. John I can advise you that our region has a history rich in ranching and agricultural culture," Pimm wrote. "Ranching and agriculture continue to be a vital industry in our region today. It is crucial that we all support the agricultural lifestyle including activities related to this community such as the rodeo circuit."
The subsequent letter from his constituency assistant stated: "MLA Pimm has asked that I contact you on behalf of and in support of Terry McLeod and his application for Non-Farm use of land in the ALR."
The commission took Pimm and the mayor to task for their letters.
"In our respectful view, those representations were not appropriate," the commission stated in its ruling. "They could create the impression for both the Commission and the public that these officials were attempting to politically influence the Commission. Where, as here, those officials began their representations before the Commission had even received a reconsideration application and involved unannounced personal attendance at a Commission site visit, and when those representations made no reference to the requirements of the legislation, the perception is even more concerning."
The commission added that it is "precisely for this reason" that it has issued a policy statement regarding the role of elected officials regarding applications.
The commission's policy statement mentions that it's inappropriate for a cabinet minister, "even with the most honourable motives, to attempt to influence a court or administrative tribunal". That's because this can undermine the confidence of the public and the parties involved in the administration of justice.
"The concern about improper influence is not limited to Cabinet Ministers," the commission's policy states. "Whenever an elected person with political power—whether that person is a Cabinet Minister, an MLA, a Mayor or Councillor—attempts to influence the outcome of a court or tribunal decision, there is a reasonable perception (both for the public and the adjudicator) that the elected person has been brought in from the outside precisely to use their power to influence the outcome of a dispute that is supposed to be decided on the evidence and the judgment of the decision-maker. This creates a potential ethical difficulty for the elected person and a serious legal difficulty for the parties and the tribunal on the basis that the attempted influence has in fact or perception tainted the fairness and impartiality of the decision-making process."
On November 7, the Globe and Mail reported that Pimm was preparing to ask cabinet to ask that the Agricultural Land Commission be "effectively dismantled" and its authority transferred to the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.
That prompted a call from the B.C. NDP for the B.C. Liberals to "halt plans to scrap the Agricultural Land Commission".
“What we are witnessing again is how the Liberals say one thing before the election and do the opposite after votes are cast," NDP Leader Adrian Dix said in a November 7 party news release. "The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), founded by New Democrats, has been supported by governments of all stripes for 40 years because it has done a good job."
Meanwhile, Integrity B.C. has created an online petition calling on the premier to keep her hands off the Agricultural Land Commission.
Pimm has also come under fire for his views on climate change.
In response to a question from the NDP about whether he agrees that climate change is caused by human beings, Pimm said in the legislature: "I think there are many varying opinions on climate change, and we all have our opinions. I'm sure you have your opinion, I might have my opinion, and I think we should leave it at that."
B.C. NDP agriculture critic Nicholas Simons then responded: "Let the record show that there seems to be some hesitation on the part of the minister of agriculture in British Columbia as to an element of the causes of climate change. I asked if human causes could be part of the reasons for climate change, and the minister didn't answer."
This exchange prompted the Olive Ridley blog, which is written by an environmental scientist, to declare: "Climate change will have many impacts on agriculture in BC and worldwide and a minister who thinks climate change is a matter of opinion doesn't belong in positions of power regardless of portfolio."