11/27/2012 05:22 EST | Updated 01/27/2013 05:12 EST

Opponents Say Alberta Speaker Gene Zwozdesky's Ruling On Election Boss Brain Fjeldheim Critical To Public Trust

EDMONTON - Alberta opposition politicians say an upcoming ruling by Speaker Gene Zwozdesky will set the tone on who runs the province's elections — the people or the governing Progressive Conservative party.

Zwozdesky was expected to rule later this week on a motion by NDP critic Rachel Notley to sanction Chief Electoral Officer Brian Fjeldheim for giving to the PC's his recommendations on how to change election laws while denying the release of those same recommendations to the opposition.

Notley said a ruling for Fjeldheim will erase even the pretence of a line separating the PC party and independent legislature officials.

"If (Zwozdesky) gives his blessing for that, then quite frankly we're in a situation where officers of the legislature are almost indistinguishable from senior bureaucrats," Notley told reporters Tuesday. "That would be a serious problem for the whole credibility of the assembly."

The Fjeldheim recommendations now form the spine of the Election Accountability Amendment Act.

Introduced last week, the act promises controversial changes to how elections are financed and reported to the public.

Notley, along with the opposition Wildrose and Liberals, are criticizing Fjeldheim's behaviour, given he is an independent officer of the legislature and therefore reports to an all-party committee, not the government.

Notley argues Fjeldheim broke his mandate of impartiality earlier this fall when he denied the recommendations to committee members, despite repeated requests and instead delivered them to Justice Minister Jonathan Denis and David Xiao.

Xiao, a backbench Tory, chairs the all-party Legislative Offices Committee, but said he made an honest mistake by failing to pass the recommendations on to Notley and to others. Fjeldheim said he would have passed the report on to the committee once he realized members didn't have it, but wasn't sure of the procedure.

Denis then used the recommendations to draft and table the new elections law. Opponents say as a result they have not had time to make reasoned amendments or suggestions to law, compromising their ability to represent constituents.

On Monday, Notley asked Zwozdesky for a ruling, saying Fjeldheim had stepped way over the line.

Denis and Government House Leader Dave Hancock disagreed.

Hancock told the house that Fjeldheim must report nuts-and-bolts election issues to the legislature through the all-party committee.

But Hancock said the government party also needs to rely on, and has a right to ask for, Fjeldheim's advice on drafting legislation.

Denis echoed those remarks, suggesting that Fjeldheim must wear two hats — as the elections referee but also as an elections adviser.

In the case of the recommendations, said Denis, he was an adviser.

"This was not a formal report to the assembly," Denis told Zwozdesky.

"There's no obligation on the part of the chief electoral officer to provide that."

Hancock, however, admitted it's a bit of a gray zone.

"Going forward it would be useful to clarify," said Hancock.

Hancock said that on a couple of occasions the rules have been cloudy on how to craft legislation involving an independent officer of the legislature while also making sure that officer's independence was not compromised.

"We may wish to follow that up and set up a process to be followed, but in fact there is not one now," said Hancock.

Opposition critics say compounding the problem is their belief that Fjeldheim is already in the back pocket of the government.

They point to the fact that Fjeldheim has investigated and issued fines in dozens of cases for election campaign finance violations but has refused to make the names public or to hand any of his cases over to Denis's Justice Department for formal prosecution under the Election Act.

They note Fjeldheim's predecessor, Lorne Gibson, forwarded 19 cases to then justice minister and now Premier Alison Redford from 2008-09. However, the government failed to pursue any of those cases and in early 2009 Gibson was ousted by the Tory majority on the all-party committee, paving the way for Fjeldheim.

Both Denis and Hancock say the opposition parties are not shut out on the new election law and are free to introduce amendments.

The law will give Fjeldheim the power to publicly name names and give details on election campaign violations. The government says he has that power now, but Fjeldheim has a different interpretation of the existing rules.

It will also allow Fjeldheim to retroactively report on funding violators going back three years.

There are stiffer fines for violations — up to $10,000 — along with expanded and more frequent release of information on donors.

The bill keeps the provision that allows individuals, corporations, and unions to each donate up to $30,000 to a party. Opposition parties say union and corporate donations should be banned altogether.

Denis said changes to who can contribute and how much weren't considered because they weren't recommended by Fjeldheim.

Fjeldheim was sharply criticized by opposition members at the committee meeting last Friday, but emerged to tell reporters he considers himself impartial and has always treated political parties of all stripes in the same, even-handed way.