Canada

Testing the recall law

British Columbia voters attempt to oust a disgraced politician

CHRIS WOOD May 4 1998
Canada

Testing the recall law

British Columbia voters attempt to oust a disgraced politician

CHRIS WOOD May 4 1998

Testing the recall law

British Columbia voters attempt to oust a disgraced politician

CHRIS WOOD

Qualicum Beach is quiet this time of year. The summer tourists, who regularly jam traffic on the winding ribbon of pavement that connects Qualicum Beach to Parksville and other resort and retirement towns along Vancouver Island’s east coast, are still weeks away. A few early visitors stroll along nearly empty sidewalks, soaking in the sun and the golden drifts of daffodils in full bloom.

But among year-round residents, two words bring on an unseasonable frost: Paul Reitsma.

The former mayor of Parksville is now the member of the provincial legislature for Parksville/Qualicum, and has admitted to writing—under false signatures—at least 10 letters criticizing opponents and praising himself. Now, construction contractor Cindy Galloway, like many others in the riding, wants to add her own signature to something: a petition to strip Reitsma of his seat.

“He’s not honest,” she says.

“He doesn’t deserve his job.”

He may not have it much longer. Many constituents, in fact, are dismayed that Reitsma did not resign on his own after admitting to sending the let ters. Many people also wel comed the canvassers who began last week to collect sig natures on the petition to oust the errant MIA But for a few, chagrin is mixed with more than a whiff of campaign fever as well-at the prospect of fi nally chalking up a vindicating

win for British Columbia’s controversial re-

call legislation.

The law has been tried seven times since the NDP government passed it in February, 1994—so far without success. During the most recent attempts, against two NDP MLAs earlier this year, critics complained loudly that the law only allowed disgruntled partisans to refight the last election. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, in a challenge of the recall law now before the B.C. Supreme Court, argued that it violates the Constitution and the charter of

rights. Even Premier Glen Clark voiced concerns that the law—approved in principle by 81 per cent of voters in a 1991 referendum, and widely supported in current polls—was being abused by “individuals trying to use it in a political way that was never intended.” But recall may finally have found its poster boy in Reitsma. ‘This is what recall is all about,” says Mark Robinson, the 23-year-old service station night supervisor whose name appears as the official proponent of

the recall petition. “It’s a method for people to speak out against an MLA who has stepped out of line.”

The last time recall was put to the test, proponents argued that B.C. Education Minister Paul Ramsay and fellow New Democrat Helmut Giesbrecht had betrayed their constituents in Prince George and Skeena by their stands on policy questions. Both attempts failed to attract the minimum number of signatures required: 40 per cent of a riding’s eligible voters as of the last election. This time, the issue seems simpler. As huge

black capital letters on the front of the Parksville Qualicum Beach Morning Sun screamed on April 1: “Reitsma is a liar, and we can prove it.” In case readers doubted the weekly’s sincerity, smaller letters beneath added: “... and this is no April Fool’s joke.” Robinson’s petition is almost as direct, if a bit more restrained. “My MLA,” it states, “has lied numerous times to the public and his constituents regarding a letter he has written. I do not trust him as my MLA.”

As a backbench member of the Liberal opposition in the B.C. legislature until last month—he now sits as an Independent— Reitsma had endured an earlier embarrassment. Within months of his election in 1996, the married 50-year-old former businessman acknowledged misusing his MLA’s pass on B.C. Ferries to demand free food. He described the affair as a misunderstanding, apologized and repaid $234 in charges.

But the Morning Sun had accumulated evidence of far more damaging behavior. On April 1, it published examples of Reitsma’s handwriting side by side with portions of a letter sent to the paper by a “Warren Betanko.” That letter savaged an NDP minister and praised Reitsma as an “excellent MLA.” The newspaper reported that Don Gamble, a former RCMP documents expert, had found common elements in words appearing in both examples of handwriting. They proved, said Gamble, that Paul Reitsma and Warren Betanko—whose address didn’t exist and whose disconnected phone number formerly belonged to a hotel Reitsma had once owned—were one and the same.

“He’s your man,” Gamble told the Morning Sun.

If he won't do the right thing himself, the public have a right to do it'

The MLA initially denied writing letters under another name.

Then he insisted to reporters he had done so only once. But the Liberals expelled him from their caucus within hours of the paper’s report. And over the next several days, evidence emerged of letters that Reitsma had penned under other names dating back more than a decade. In the legislature, a haggard Reitsma apologized. “I am ashamed and humiliated for not telling the truth about the letters,” he said, and declared his intention to regain voters’ confidence. But he did not offer his resignation. Then on April 13,

Reitsma issued a terse communiqué saying he had accepted

medical advice to take a two-week leave, but confirming his intention to retain his seat— “overwhelmed by the encouragement and support shown these last few days.”

That support, if it exists, is not evident on the streets of Reitsma’s riding. Robinson claims to have 300 volunteers willing to canvass for the 17,020 signatures it will take to unseat Reitsma. And many residents say that when the canvassers come, they will sign. “I’ve known Paul as a friend for many years,” observed Gordon Moul, a retired pilot and unsuccessful candidate for the Parksville mayor’s job Reitsma vacated for provincial politics. “But he’s discredited himself as an MLA. The legislation is for exactly what has happened here.”

Among the few exceptions to the chorus of condemnation are Reitsma’s immediate neighbors in an affluent part of Parksville overlooking Georgia Strait. “Paul’s been very kind to me—I can’t comment,” said one. Another, who refused to give his name, noted: “I don’t agree with what he’s done, but I’m not a big enthusiast of recall.” Reitsma himself remained in seclusion: at his grey-green clapboard home on a large waterfront lot, no one was answering the door. At his four-room riding office beneath a Parksville radio station, a harried constituency assistant, Chuck Fenton, refused to answer most questions. But when asked whether a campaign had formed to defend his boss’s seat against recall, Fenton conceded: “Not that I’m aware of.”

While proponents of the recall law have welcomed the Reitsma case, some critics continue to assail the legislation. Avigail Eisenberg, a University of British Columbia political scientist, filed the B.C. Supreme Court challenge with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. She insists the law dangerously erodes several constitutional rights—undoing the voters’ decision, made in the anonymity of the ballot box, with a list of signatures gathered by partisan proponents. “There are none of the procedural guarantees” of an election, Eisenberg objects. She also argues that “recall gives one of the lieutenant-governor’s powers [to dismiss an MLA] to the electorate. That is in violation of the Constitution.”

But to a fellow political scientist, Norman Ruff of the University of Victoria, recall serves a purpose. “In most people’s minds,” Ruff argues, “even people with doubts about

recall, there is a place for it as a judicial function for specified kinds of behaviors.” And, adds Ruff, “Reitsma gives good grounds for keeping at least one form of recall. If he won’t do the right thing himself, the public, acting in a judicial capacity, have a right to do it.” Thomas McArthur, the retired businessman whose Qualicum Beach home is headquarters for the Recall Reitsma campaign, plainly agrees. “I’m a great believer in direct democracy,” says the spry 73-year-old, plotting the campaign on riding maps pinned to the walls of his two-car garage. “Thomas Jefferson is my hero.” The recall campaign, he predicts, “will demonstrate what the people can really do.”

Perhaps. Whether a sufficient number of Reitsma’s constituents will in the end agree to sign a petition saying he should go remains to be seen. Robinson and his associates have until June 15 to return the required signatures to the chief electoral officer, who then has another 42 days to verify them. If the petition is accepted, Reitsma’s seat would immediately become vacant. A byelection must then be called within 90 days. Reitsma, if he wished, could run again—under his own name. □