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Rob Shaw: Pointed questions about an MLA's expenses unfurl an unexpected answer

BC United questions ran into answers they didn't anticipate
Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert functionally moved to Colwood three years ago, raising questions in the legislature about his travel expenses.

Should MLAs have to live in the ridings they represent? And how much in travel expenses should the public be expected to pay for politicians to do their job?

Those interesting questions played out in a messy fashion in the legislature this week, after the Opposition BC United highlighted the confusing expense accounts of Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert.

It turns out, Chandra Herbert functionally moved from his riding three years ago, relocating 150 kilometres away, across the Strait of Georgia, to a waterfront home in the Greater Victoria suburb of Colwood. Since then, he’s been billing thousands of dollars in flights back to his West End constituency to do his job representing the people there.

“He made a decision several years ago to relocate to a waterfront location in Greater Victoria area, and lives there permanently — and has for years,” said BC United leader Kevin Falcon. “And (he) is flying back and forth on the taxpayer’s dime to go visit his constituency office. I can tell you, most residents in the West End have no idea that he hasn’t lived there for three years.”

The paperwork is all there — annual financial disclosures listing his $860,000 Colwood home as his primary residence, and a stack of float plane and Helijet receipts with trips to and from Vancouver dating back to 2020.

It sounds egregious. But it’s not quite that simple, as BC United found out mere hours after levelling the accusations in the house.

“Yes, I’ve been spending more time here in Victoria this last year and a half,” Chandra Herbert told reporters, while fighting back tears. “Why? I didn’t want to share it. Because my son has been very sick. He got sick here in Victoria. He’s been in and out of Victoria General (hospital). It’s been the worst year and a half of my life. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Chandra Herbert’s son Dev was diagnosed with a rare disorder, and ended up in Victoria General’s emergency room for a week. His parents, including Chandra Herbert’s partner Romi, thought he was going to die.

The couple lucked out when the on-call doctor turned out to be a specialist in their son’s illness. They liked her, so they decided to keep Dev in Victoria for his frequent follow-up visits, rather than return to the West End riding, which is located 15 minutes from BC Children’s Hospital.

“He’s one of 10 kids in B.C. with it,” Chandra Herbert said in a subsequent interview, asking that his child’s exact diagnosis be kept private. “Because he was getting the care he needed, I didn’t want to mess that up for him. That’s kept me on this side of the water more than I would have liked.”

There are no rules on whether MLAs have to live in their ridings. Several currently do not — some by just a few blocks, others in entirely different municipalities in Metro Vancouver.

For example, BC United leader Kevin Falcon lives in North Vancouver but represents Vancouver-Quilchena. He does not, however, bill thousands of dollars to travel there.

Chandra Herbert’s overall travel bill since moving to Colwood is approximately $70,000, which is comparable to other MLAs. Not all of it is for travel to and from Colwood. But there are certainly some odd individual expenses.

In May 2022, he charged the public $790 round trip in flights from Victoria to Vancouver to visit his riding and host a BC NDP “pub social with Spencer” in the West End.

In September 2020, he charged a $520 same-day round trip Helijet trip to his riding, capped by billing the public $18 in personal car mileage each way from his new Colwood home to the legislature and back.

“If he wants to be an MLA for the Colwood area, that’s where he should run,” said Falcon. “But to spend three years pretending he’s still the MLA for Vancouver-West End, and then charging taxpayers $70,000 so he can fly back and forth, I think that would strike most taxpayers as totally unacceptable.”

Chandra Herbert’s constituents remain mostly in the dark about the living arrangements of their MLA. He did not tell them about his house purchase and designating it his primary residence in the months prior to the 2020 provincial election, which was also a year and a half before his son was sick. Nor, since then, has he said much of anything to anyone about the situation.

His son Dev is now enrolled in school in Colwood. Chandra is regularly seen in and around the community on his bike. He has at least once participated in a Colwood city council meeting as a self-identified local taxpayer. Functionally, in all the ways an ordinary person would measure, Chandra Herbert and his family now live in Colwood.

He disagrees. “I live in Vancouver,” he said.

Chandra Herbert argues that he wanted to designate his in-laws’ home in Vancouver as his primary residence, but because he lives there rent-free he’s been unable to do so. He’s since convinced his mother-in-law to charge him rent, and expects next year to amend his financial forms.

Will that cut it for local voters? An MLA who stays with his in-laws part-time in his riding, but for all intents and purposes actually lives in Colwood with his husband, in the home they own, where their child is enrolled in school?

The 15-year-MLA is appealing to his constituents for understanding. He said he’ll end up fully back in Vancouver one day when his son is healthier.

“This work is complicated,” he said. “I’m trying my best to keep a healthy family.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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