When the public expects an apology, will an explanation do?

British Columbia has seen a bunch of spending scandals in the past few months. A number of politicians and non-profit executives are giving their colleagues a bad reputation after being caught spending public funds on personal or frivolous stuff. The public is angry, and sometimes, only an apology will do.

When the public expects and apology from Linda Reid Take the example of Linda Reid. The Richmond, BC Member of the Legislative Assembly and the Speaker of the Legislature, was outed by the Vancouver Sun in March for spending tens of thousands of government dollars on what seems like unnecessary stuff (especially in these days of spending cuts and austerity and refusal to give teachers a pay raise). She spent more than $13,000 to create an MLA-only TV lounge (with a muffin rack costing more than $700), another $14,000 for new drapes in the legislature’s dining room, and more than $48,000 (!) for a custom touch-screen computer terminal in front of her seat in the legislature.

It seems Reid also hired her election campaign manager as her executive assistant, but since this woman lives on the mainland and the job is on Vancouver Island, Reid was billing the legislature for her hotel, travel and meals. Even her own government didn’t defend her on that.

Naturally this story led to heaps of media coverage, with critics having a field day picking her apart. It took Reid a few days to respond, but finally did. Her answer?

“As Speaker, I take full responsibility for these expenditures, The legislative assembly is the people’s building, it should be open and transparent and the public must have absolute confidence that we are managing the taxpayers money appropriately.”

That $48,000 computer monitor?

Reid said the new equipment allows the Speaker to know when MLAs wish to address the house.

So a hand held up wouldn’t work, huh? Teachers, can you justify this now for your classrooms? And about those drapes:

Reid called the expense “routine maintenance,” which permits repairs every 18 to 20 years.

So no apology, just an explanation. She later did apologize to fellow MLAs, saying:

“I certainly apologize, and I recognize the concerns which have been raised have detracted from our work to make the assembly’s financial management more accountable and transparent.” 

So, not really sorry I abused or even appeared to abuse public funds, but sorry I got caught and that’s distracting from our work. She did add that her executive assistant will now work out of her constituency office and not fly back and forth on the public dime.  

And did that silence her critics? No, but it did get her a reputation.

Media-cornered, (Reid’s) response will live in B.C. history: “Accountability speaks to me, transparency speaks to me, accessibility speaks to me.” She should have stuck the public for a hearing aid.

But people forget figures. They never forget a symbolic item that Dick and Jane can relate to: Reid spent $733 for a muffin rack. She’ll take a pasting for that forever.

linda reid's husband the public expects and apology from Linda Reid

And her attitude pasted a target on her back too, because she was also outed that same month for flying her husband to South Africa, spending about $5,500 of public money, to have him by her side while she attended a conference. She even tweeted a photo of how much fun he was having. At least this time Reid offered some humility, and repayment.

“If this caused anyone any consternation, I sincerely apologize.”

But then went on to explain again.

“It’s a practice. What this place has always done, they tell me, is if you can get the flight for less than a business class flight, if you can get two of those, you can do that. And that’s frankly been done for 15 or 20 years, if not longer.”

Even her own government thought that wasn’t good enough. The Finance Minister Mike de Jong said:

“Politicians have to ask themselves whether or not the money, the public dollars that they are spending, are being spent in a defensible manner.”

So our lesson here is pretty clear. Don’t abuse public funds, but if caught, it’s not defensible to tell the public that you were allowed to do it. Even if you were, you’ve been caught, everyone, including your peers, is telling you it’s wrong, so apologize. A heartfelt apology will help win back goodwill, but offering only an explanation will only increase ill will.

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