Alberta’s sunshine list to disclose high-level public-sector salaries

Alberta Premier Alison Redford is pictured in Toronto on November 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

In a climate where the term "government transparency" seems to be an oxymoron, people are entitled to be cynical about so-called "sunshine lists" that disclose salaries and benefits of higher-paid civil servants.

Alberta this week joined British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia in setting up a public service compensation disclosure policy. It will cover not just pay and benefits but also severance packages after a controversy over payouts for departing members of Pemier Alison Redford's staff.

The Calgary Herald reported more than $2.1 million in severance had been paid to senior staffers in the premier's office over a three-year period. The government fought attempts to obtain information about former chief of staff Stephen Carter's package but he confirmed he received $130,000 after leaving his job in 2012, the Herald said.

"Building off our creation of Canada’s most transparent expense disclosure policy, this compensation disclosure is another significant step in support of Premier Redford’s commitment to responsible change and demonstrates our accountability to Alberta taxpayers," Don Scott, the Progressive Conservative government's associate ministry of accountability, transparency and transformation, said in a news release.

(Hey, don't roll your eyes over the guy's handle. They're serious!)

"We continue to take concrete steps to proactively and routinely disclose information that is of public interest.”

[ Related: Conservative MP’s private members bill could lead to a federal sunshine list ]

The list, which will appear online by the end of January, covers basic salaries, cash and non-cash benefits and severance for about 3,400 top-earners. It doesn't specifically mention bonuses but given the controversy over Ontario's sunshine list, it would be surprising if they're not covered under cash benefits.

The policy will cover anyone working for an Alberta government department, agency, board or commission, as well as staff in ministerial offices.

The current threshold for disclosure is a base salary of $100,000 a year, which will be adjusted annually based on the Consumer Price Index. The plan calls for twice-yearly updates "generated directly from government systems to demonstrate integrity and authenticity of disclosed information."

Service Alberta Minister Doug Griffiths, who will be responsible for the list, told the Calgary Sun the list has a dual benefit.

“Disclosure just makes sure we keep both sides of the coin exposed,” he said.

“We’re able to attract great people but we’re also able to make sure we control the salaries in a way that’s appropriate for meeting our fiscal responsibilities to taxpayers.”

The normally skeptical Canadian Taxpayers' Federation fell over itself praising the Alberta policy, calling it the "gold standard" for the rest of Canada.

"The guidelines presented today are a big win for taxpayers and the Alberta supporters of the CTF," Alberta director Derek Fildebrandt, who was even quoted in the government's announcement, said in a news release. "This is just what the CTF was hoping for.”

Sunshine lists give citizens a little window on the cost of government at the upper levels.

Ontario's most recent list, released in March, shows more than 88,400 people earned more than $100,000, up 11 per cent from last year and 38 per cent since 2009, CBC News reported.

Tom Mitchell, president of financially troubled Ontario Power Generation, was the highest paid public employee, pulling down $1.7 million. Another public utility executive, Hydro One CEO Laura Formosa made $1.04 million.

[ Related: Ex-ORNGE boss’s $9.3M compensation raises questions about validity of ‘sunshine list’ ]

The B.C. sunshine list also grew this year, though at a slower pace than previous years, the Vancouver Sun reported last March. More than 19,000 earned above $100,000, a 7.7 per cent increase from the previous year. That compares with 20 per cent jumps in each of the previous two years.

Unlike some other provinces, Alberta's policy will require disclosure of all salaries, benefits, bonuses, pension payments and severance amounts, the federation noted. It will also include a copy of the employee’s contract, where available.

The new Alberta list will not cover municipalities, which the B.C. and Ontario lists do. It's the one shortcoming the taxpayers' federation pointed to in its otherwise positive review.

Ontario's public sector salary disclosure policy, launched in 1996, has come under fire after news reports revealed Dr. Chris Mazza, the fired head of Ontario's ORNGE air-ambulance service, pulled down a million dollars in 2007 while the sunshine list stated he earned only about $298,000. The Toronto Star reported Mazza set up a series of companies and diverted his and other executives' salaries to them to shield them from public disclosure.

Last year, the Toronto Sun reported the Ontario government also changed the definition of "salary" to include things like per diems and retainers paid to appointees, ensuring that highly paid part-time public servants appeared on the list.

[ Related: Conservative MP’s private members bill could lead to a federal sunshine list ]

The taxpayers' federal director, Gregory Thomas, said he hopes Ottawa will take a cue from Alberta.

Alberta Conservative MP Brent Rathgerber had a private members bill before the Commons for a sunshine list covering the federal public services and the CBC. The threshold would be much higher than the provincial lists – $188,000. The information would be available via access-to-information legislation.

Thomas said the federation passed a watered-down version of Rathgerber's bill "only to have a group of federal Conservative MPs gut that bill in committee."

“Hopefully there’s a few Conservative MPs trying to figure out how to right their past wrongs and follow Alberta’s leadership on this issue," he said.