Alberta overhauls auto dealer watchdog

Alberta is overhauling its vehicle industry regulator in an effort to better protect car buyers from unscrupulous auto dealers.

Industry-heavy AMVIC board to get more public representation

Alberta is overhauling its vehicle industry regulator in an effort to better protect car buyers from unscrupulous auto dealers.

"We want to make (AMVIC) better, stronger and that’s where we’re headed,"  said John Bachinski, the council's executive director since 2012.

"I’m here for the long run and to make some serious changes."

The board of the Alberta Motor Vehicle Industry Council  (AMVIC) will expand from 12 to 13 members, with seven from industry and six from the public.

Currently, 10 out of 11 sitting board members have ties to the auto industry. One of the two seats reserved for the public has sat vacant for months.

"Whenever you have a greater number of public appointees whose job it is to advocate for everyday Albertans, that’s a good thing," said Manmeet Bhullar, minister for Service Alberta.

The overhaul of the board of directors follows the firing in April of several senior managers, including its two top complaints investigators.

The Alberta government created AMVIC in 1999 as an arms-length agency to licence businesses and salespeople and gave it the responsibility of investigating consumer complaints and enforcing the Fair Trading Act.

The current board voted unanimously this week to make the changes.

AMVIC weak, 'colluding' with industry, critic says 

George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association, says AMVIC has done a poor job of protecting consumers.

He accuses it of colluding with industry by allowing dishonest or illegal practices to continue, in particular dealers who add expensive options to sales contracts and represent them as mandatory charges.

In March, 2013, CBC's Go Public spoke to several car and truck buyers who say they were told they had to pay for things they didn’t want.

The extras included anti-theft programs whose benefits have not been proved and nitrogen gas for tires.

They told Go Public their dealers said the extras were already installed and couldn’t be removed.

Darren Bezanson , of Grande Prairie, Alta, paid more than $1,200 for extras  he didn’t want.

"110 percent they’re being dishonest," he said at the time. "How else can you explain it?" His son paid the same dealer $503 for a tire recycling fee that has no legal basis.

After complaining to the dealer the Bezansons were able to get their money back.

Go Public exposed "Administration", "DOC", and "Registration" fees of up to $399 that some Alberta dealers routinely add after agreeing on a final price, and which Iny says are simply profit-padding.

Go Public also found examples of people being charged a $100 air conditioner excise tax in addition to the retail price.

The tax is collected by the federal government when a vehicle is imported into Canada and is included in the sticker price.

Charging the retail customer for the tax separately raises the possibility the tax has been collected twice, but submitted to government only once, a serious offence.

The only fee that must be added to the sales price is GST.

Changes to regulator 'profound'

The changes appear to have won over one of AMVIC’s biggest critics.  

"These changes are profound," Iny said. "It shows … that several people must be very seriously interested in seeing some improvement.

"This is very good news for consumers."

However, Iny cautions simply increasing public representation is no guarantee the AMVIC board will be a stronger voice for Alberta consumers.

He says it will be challenging to find members of the public who know how the industry works.

Iny says it’s also crucial the seven industry representatives are "forward-thinking" and independent, "not hand-picked weasels for a dealer group."

Bhullar’s office is interviewing candidates for the six public representatives on AMVIC board.

The new board will meet for the first time in September.