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Army of executives march out of public sector weeks before liquor services sale

A liquor store adjacent to the Waldorf Hotel seen here in East Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, October 27, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Just two weeks before bidding closes on the B.C. government's sale of its liquor-distribution services, the chief of the provincial Liquor Distribution Branch is leaving.

Jay Chambers's exit will not throw a wrench into the government's privatization plans, the minister responsible for the liquor agency said Thursday. "The [request for proposals] will continue as normal," Rich Coleman told reporters.

The provincial government has experienced a high turnover of executive-level appointees in recent months, a trend Mr. Coleman blamed on recruitment from the private sector.

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"We find these days in government … the private sector is coming in and offering a lot more money for people who are really good."

But Shane Simpson, the NDP caucus chair, said the exodus reflects the chaos in the B.C. public sector as the B.C. Liberal government, battered in the polls, drives a series of changes to rebuild public support.

"It has a lot to do with the fact that the government isn't very stable right now," Mr. Simpson said in an interview. "They are making every decision based on short-term, political calculations, making it increasingly difficult for these senior managers to accomplish their work."

Earlier this week the president of PavCo, Warren Buckley, announced he is leaving. The Crown corporation was embroiled in controversy in March, when cabinet ministers Pat Bell and Kevin Falcon stepped in and killed a $40-million deal to sell the naming rights to B.C. Place.

Since last fall, David Hahn quit as CEO of BC Ferries, Dave Cobb left as head of BC Hydro after just 17 months at his post, and Nancy McKinstry resigned as chair of ICBC after less than two years on the job. In each case, the departures followed high-profile policy intervention by the B.C. Liberal government – over consumer rates, executive compensation, or both.

Mr. Coleman said Mr. Chambers, the long-serving head of the branch, has been "very supportive" of the privatization initiative, although he was not in charge of executing the plan. Mr. Chambers simply got a better offer from another agency, he said.

"Jay got a really good offer, I would have taken it if I was him," Mr. Coleman said.

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Mr. Chambers will head up the Motor Vehicle Sales Authority of B.C. "It was a brilliant offer with long-term stability for him."

The warehouses and distribution system – not the government liquor stores – were put up on the auction block as part of the government's $700-million asset sale announced in the provincial budget last February.

Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, said Mr. Chambers's sudden departure, after 15 years in the civil service, may help open a window on the government's privatization plans.

Mr. Chambers will be replaced by the agency's chief financial officer, Roger Bissoondatt. "Perhaps he can give us the business plan for the sale of the distribution piece, what it means to the system, what it will mean in loss of revenues," Mr. Walker said. The government has promised the 600 workers who currently work in the distribution and warehouse services will have job protection, but Mr. Walker said the reason for the sell-off is still unclear.

The bidding closes June 30 and the government expects to narrow down the eight current proponents within a couple of weeks. A final decision isn't expected until March, 2013.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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