Energy Minister Craig Leonard is moving some of his staff into vacant offices inside of NB Power, making him the first cabinet minister to have a presence inside the Crown corporation in almost two decades.
Four years after the former Liberal government moved the Department of Energy to Saint John, the lack of a full-time office in Fredericton has finally caused the department to find a permanent home in the capital.
Leonard has been utilizing an office in the Office of Human Resources, which is located in the Centennial Building — the main office complex for the provincial bureaucracy — since October.
While the energy minister, his deputy minister and some staff will be riding the elevators with NB Power employees, Leonard said he wants it to be clear that he isn't taking up the office space to exert influence over the Crown corporation.
"We're making it clear to employees there is nothing meant behind it other than there is open space inside the NB Power building," he said.
Office space is being set aside for the energy department's staff on the fourth floor of NB Power, five floors below the executive suite.
Leonard said he isn't sure on the exact office configuration yet. But he said it would likely be enough room for six staff and a meeting area.
The province's energy minister used to sit as a chairman of NB Power's board of directors, a policy that was changed by the Frank McKenna government.
Since that time, energy ministers have always kept separate offices from NB Power.
When Shawn Graham's government was elected in 2006, the Liberals moved the department to Saint John, a symbol of the city's status as the province's energy hub.
The Liberals appointed Jack Keir, a Saint John-area MLA, as the energy minister, so there was never an issue with the minister being unable to visit the new office.
However, Leonard holds a Fredericton riding and was unable to spend a lot of time inside the Saint John office.
The energy minister said his decision to open a permanent office inside of NB Power does not mute the enthusiasm for the energy hub.
"The idea behind the energy hub was to determine Saint John as that central location. The energy hub is still a viable concept in New Brunswick," Leonard said.
"It certainly is the hub of New Brunswick, but at the same time, government is a provincial matter. We understand the concept of having the energy department in Saint John but the fact is the minister of energy still has to be in Fredericton most days of the week."
When the legislature was not in session, Leonard attempted to travel to Saint John once or twice a week.
During the months that the legislature was sitting, the energy minister held video-conference sessions with his Saint John staff.
"It is limited the amount of time I can get to Saint John so as a result it made sense to have some type of presence in Fredericton," Leonard said.
"So we can bring people in and not be strolling around the Centennial Building looking for open rooms."
No conflict created: Leonard
The energy minister said he doesn't believe his office inside NB Power will create a conflict of interest.
Leonard also said the province's energy community is relatively small, so he doesn't believe companies will have a problem holding meetings with the energy minister and staff inside NB Power.
"I understand there would be a concern about that, I understand there is something to be said about the appearance, but I'm confident that people will see through the actions, there is nothing to be concerned about," he said.
Liberal MLA Donald Arseneault said the decision to move the energy minister back inside NB Power's headquarters is much like NB Power's hiring of a consulting company with ties to former Progressive Conservative premier Bernard Lord.
"They never needed an outside consultant before and now that Leonard has set up shop there at NB Power headquarters, they hire one with big Lord presence. Either another political patronage appointment or the continuation of what they started in 2003," Arseneault said.