Alberta taxpayers on hook for new office of former UCP-turned-independent MLA

Taxpayers are on the hook for the cost of constructing a new office for former United Conservative Party MLA Derek Fildebrandt, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Space for Derek Fildebrandt after his decision to leave UCP could cost tens of thousands of dollars

With 11 floors of office space in the newly renovated Federal Building, the search is on to find a place to build a new private office for Independent MLA, Derek Fildebrandt . (CBC)

Alberta taxpayers will likely have to pay as much as $50,000 in office renovations so former United Conservative Party MLA Derek Fildebrandt, plagued by recent expense scandals, can sit as an independent MLA.

Fildebrandt's decision last week to leave the UCP caucus means a new office may have to be retrofitted in the provincially owned Edmonton Federal Building.

Independent MLAs can't share an "open-concept" space with other party members, said Alex McCuaig, Legislative Assembly Office chief of staff. 

"They discuss caucus matters, and they require space to have those conversations without other caucus members being able to listen in," McCuaig said.

McCuaig said a final budget hasn't been set for the office, but an Alberta contractor told CBC News retrofitting an old building could cost up to $50,000.

Resigned from UCP amid scandals

Fildebrandt resigned from the UCP caucus Aug. 15 following loud public outcry in response to a series of highly publicized political scandals.

The former fiscal watchdog rented his taxpayer-subsidized Edmonton condo through Airbnb, earning a reported $2,555 over a two-year period.

He also double-dipped on meal expenses, according to records released by Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark. Fildebrandt said the $192.60 in extra meal expenses were due to "administrative errors." He said he would repay the Airbnb money and the extra meal expenses to the Alberta government.

Fildebrandt also faces a hit-and-run charge from 2016 after Edmonton police conducted an investigation into an incident in June of that year. Fildebrandt has since hired a lawyer who said his client denies the allegation that he was involved in the accident.

Fildebrandt is on vacation and was unavailable for comment. 

Could cost as much as $50K

Costs for creating a new office in an old building can quickly add up, according to veteran general contractor Curtis Farvolden with Morinville-based Odin Renovations Inc.

"Depending on the materials and what you're looking at, the cost could run anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000," Farvolden said.

Farvolden said additional costs could include reframing of walls, moving sprinkler systems, getting a city permit and moving plumbing. 

Fildebrandt's office will be in the provincially-owned Federal Building on the legislature grounds. (CBC )

The work, he said, would involve using "all the trades." This includes electricians, which according to the latest collective agreement between the Electrical Contractors Association of Alberta and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, would run $100 an hour for a journeyman electrician.

Edmonton's Federal Building underwent a major makeover. Now, the Legislative Assembly Office is looking for room to build Derek Fildebrandt an office. (CBC)

The 59-year-old Federal Building underwent a $400-million renovation from 2010 to 2014, which was dogged by cost overruns and controversy.

At one point, extravagant plans were in place to turn the top floor of the art-deco-style building into a private penthouse for former Premier Alison Redford.

The thick irony is that he could be costing tens upon tens of thousands of dollars to the Alberta taxpayer.- David Khan, Alberta Liberal Party

Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan said as an MLA Fildebrandt is entitled to an office. 

But it was his own choice to leave the UCP caucus, creating the need for a new office and an additional cost to taxpayers.

"Now these are multiples of the amount of money he originally cost Alberta taxpayers with respect to his unethical lapses in judgment," Khan said.

Liberal Leader David Khan says independent MLA Derek Fildebrandt is entitled to an office, but the bills are adding up for taxpayers. (CBC)

"The thick irony is that he could be costing tens upon tens of thousands of dollars to the Alberta taxpayer," added Khan, something he said Fildebrandt would have likely been critical of just months ago.

McCuaig says the departure and existence of so many independent MLAs "wasn't anticipated" when the redo of the Federal Building was completed in 2014.

"I don't think anyone anticipated there would be four [MLAs sitting as single members]," McCuaig said.

Fildebrandt joins Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann, Progressive Conservative MLA Richard Starke, who didn't want to join the new UCP, and Alberta Party MLA Greg Clark as single-member MLAs.

Starke is now housed in the office once used by Calgary-Bow NDP MLA Deborah Drever. Drever was barred from joining the NDP caucus after the 2015 election for a series of social media blunders she committed before the campaign. She sat as an independent before joining the caucus in 2016.

McCuaig said the alternative to having ready space for independent MLAs is to have an empty office — which he said isn't necessarily the best use of space either.

Before the Federal Building was renovated, most MLAs had offices in the Annex. Independent MLAs were sometimes put in the old 'smoking room.' (CBC)

But the space issue for independent MLAs shouldn't have come as a big surprise.

Before MLAs had offices in the Federal Building, most were housed in the old Legislature Annex, built in the 1950s, just northeast of the legislature.

Leaving caucus to sit as an independent MLA became more frequent near the end of the PC dynasty, said Jonathan Huckabay, chief of staff for the Alberta Liberals.

Huckabay spent years working as a staff member for the PC caucus before moving to the Liberals with former PC MLA Raj Sherman, who crossed to the Liberals to become leader for a time.

Huckabay said before the Federal Building, independent MLAs were put into whatever space was available. Even, he said, the old "smoking room."


Kim Trynacity is an award-winning journalist and CBC Alberta's provincial affairs reporter. You can reach Kim by email at kim.trynacity@cbc.ca or on Twitter @ledgewatcher