Legislature to review $800,000 cost of Norn public inquiry
The Northwest Territories’ Legislative Assembly will carry out a “full review” of the public inquiry into Steve Norn’s conduct that ultimately cost a little over $800,000.
Norn, then the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA, was accused by colleagues of violating the NWT’s Covid-19 isolation rules and misleading the public about his actions, contrary to the MLAs’ code of conduct.
Sole adjudicator Ronald Barclay ultimately found Norn had broken that code and recommended his seat be declared vacant. MLAs duly voted unanimously to make that declaration, removing Norn from office.
From start to finish, that process cost the legislature – and consequently the NWT government – $805,000 it had not previously budgeted.
MLAs discussed that sum on Friday as they formally approved the unplanned spend.
“We have to look back on that process and see how we can change it,” said Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson. As chair of the caucus of all 19 MLAs at the time, Johnson filed the complaint against Norn on behalf of caucus that triggered the process.
“When we all see this bill, many of us would not have headed down this road,” he said on Friday.
“The vast majority of this is legal fees, and I don’t believe we should have paid so many lawyers so much for that dispute.”
Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr, who holds responsibility for the legislature’s operations, said the majority of the $805,000 was spent on counsel to sole adjudicator Barclay. Barclay’s counsel, Maurice Laprairie – though not a prosecutor as might be found in a court of law – led questioning on Barclay’s behalf and marshalled much of what became the case against Norn.
Blake also appeared to state that the territorial government actually felt it had kept legal costs down by agreeing that both Barclay’s counsel and Norn’s lawyer, Steven Cooper, could have two extra lawyers at $250 per hour. Doing so “did help bring the cost down,” said Blake, “otherwise it would be a lot of overtime.”
“It’s unfortunate that we got to this point,” he continued. “A lot of things don’t get this far. It goes to the integrity commissioner and it’s usually resolved.”
‘There was no other way’
Johnson suggested the integrity commissioner’s role could be amended so the commissioner leads any future public inquiries rather than handing off to a separate sole adjudicator, as is the present requirement. (In this case, integrity commissioner David Phillip Jones carried out an initial investigation before recommending that the legislature appoint an adjudicator.)
But other MLAs said they found the cost understandable and the process appropriate in the circumstances.
“What I can say is consensus government worked. It was painful, but it worked,” said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly. “It did cost some money but that’s the price of democracy in some ways.
“I agree with a lot of what my colleague [Johnson] said in terms of trying to learn some lessons from what happened. It’s difficult to cap legal costs, particularly around a public inquiry.”
Frieda Martselos, the MLA for Thebacha, said: “I think there was no other way. It was done in a very fair manner and the decision made was the correct one.
“Some of those lawyers are really expensive and when you go to any kind of court process, it’s very costly. That’s the only way you get a proper and fair process for all parties.
“We’re lucky we stuck to $806,000,” she concluded. (The full cost overrun for the speaker’s office, including both the public inquiry and a $1,000 figure connected to the NWT government’s latest collective agreement with the union, was $806,000.)
Blake said a review of the inquiry will take place in the next half a year. That review will include scrutiny of associated policies and return to the legislature’s board of management with recommendations.