Blaine Higgs's first few months as Progressive Conservative leader have seen a key party volunteer resign to protest the handling of a review of last October's trouble-plagued convention and leadership race.
Saint John lawyer Nick Ouellette, a former ministerial assistant to Higgs, quit as chair of the PC party's leadership election organizing committee last November over the selection of Jennifer Leduc to oversee the review.
She's the spouse of former MP Mike Allen, who threw his support to Higgs on the third ballot of last fall's leadership vote, helping Higgs win the day.
Ouellette wrote in an email to the PC provincial council that he had planned to stay with the organizing committee to review flaws in the leadership race and vote, but he felt Leduc couldn't be neutral.
That left him with "a moral and ethical obligation to withdraw from the process," he said in the email obtained by CBC News. He called the Leduc-led review "fundamentally flawed."
Ex-president also objected
Former party president Jason Stephen, who resigned from that position last November, also objected to the selection of Leduc, according to party emails and documents.
In a Nov. 15 email, Ouellette said Higgs "determined, without consultation with the [committee], that the post-leadership convention review will be administered by the spouse of a leadership contestant who was extensively involved in that contestant's campaign."
"I have always firmly believed that the person who administers the review process must be independent and objective," Ouellette said.
Leduc could not achieve "the perception of independence and objectivity required," Ouellette said. "Even if there is no actual bias, there is a reasonable apprehension of bias."
The provincial council, made up of the party executive, riding association presidents, regional vice-presidents and other party officials, approved Leduc's selection Nov. 26.
Higgs responded to Ouellette's concerns with a two-page memo saying he had told Ouellette and Stephen that he wasn't interested in a "head-hunting exercise" but in improving the party's performance.
Ouellette wouldn't discuss his email Wednesday.
The PC convention last October, which Higgs won on the third ballot, was plagued with logistical problems, including a lack of pencils to mark ballots at one satellite voting station.
Voting and vote counting were delayed by several hours, and hundreds of party members went home early without voting on the second and third ballots.
During the race, several candidates also complained about some of the registration rules and fees.
Higgs said in an interview that he proposed Leduc because of her skills as an organizer and felt she could be neutral.
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"I felt it would be equally or more unbiased than having the actual committee that put the program together do the self-analysis."
New party president Don Moore said it's difficult in New Brunswick to find someone completely independent.
"Let's not kid ourselves," he said. "This is a small province. We all know each other. We're all part of the same family. Are we ever going to get that 100 per cent true independence? Maybe, maybe not. There's always going be a connection of somebody to something."
Leduc says she's been neutral
Leduc said she has been neutral in consulting party members about what could have been done better.
"Anyone could have done the same review regardless of which team they would have come from," she said.
Leduc said one reason Higgs chose her was because he was "looking for ways to bring people together" from the different leadership campaigns.
She said supporters of former leadership candidates Monica Barley and Brian Macdonald are helping her with the review, she said.
She said she hadn't been paid for the work and that her expenses came out of her own pocket, though Moore said he thought she'd been paid for expenses and "a very small stipend."
A party document obtained by CBC News estimated the cost of the review at about $9,500.
Moore said Leduc's review had a 60 per cent response rate from leadership delegates, "which we consider very high."
Higgs disappointed by departures
Higgs said he was disappointed Ouellette and Stephen haven't stayed with the committee to work with Leduc.
He said Ouellette resigned before they could discuss if further and pointed out Ouellette and Stephen didn't attend the Nov. 26 meeting where Leduc was chosen.
"Both individuals expressed to me their concerns with regard to Jennifer, however, I told them I was not interested in a head-hunting exercise, but only a process that was worth doing," Higgs wrote.
"I have never been afraid to ask the tough questions or to put the right people in the right position to get real answers. My goal is to improve our performance in all aspects of what our party does and to build competency to ensure success."
Higgs said the review will go beyond last year's race to look at how the party can keep members engaged all the time.
"I wanted a much broader scope," he said.
Leduc said the committee's work should be finished in June.