Alberta MLA mired in travel scandal ousted from caucus for absenteeism

An Alberta MLA ousted from Premier Jason Kenney's UCP caucus for holiday travelling alleged absenteeism in his constituency says he looks forward to his new freedom as an independent.

Pat Rehn disappointed but looks forward to new political freedom as an independent

Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn, who travelled to Mexico over the holidays, has been removed the UCP caucus, Premier Jason Kenney announced on Thursday morning.  (Facebook)

An Alberta MLA, chastised for travelling to Mexico over the holidays and publicly criticized for alleged absenteeism in his constituency, has been ousted from Premier Jason Kenney's UCP caucus. 

Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn has been removed from caucus and will be barred from running for the UCP ever again, Kenney announced on Facebook Thursday morning.

"I have made the decision to remove Pat Rehn from the UCP caucus, effective immediately," Kenney wrote. "He will not be permitted to run for a future UCP nomination." 

Rehn will now sit as an independent MLA. 

"The most important job of an MLA is to represent his or her constituents," Kenney wrote. "It has become clear that Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn has failed to do so.

"He has made no meaningful effort to work in his constituency, or properly to represent his hard-working constituents.

"I have repeatedly asked Mr. Rehn to be more present in his constituency. He has ignored calls from me, UCP caucus leadership, and his constituents to do so." 

Calls for resignation

There have been widespread calls for Rehn's resignation. 

Rehn was one of six UCP MLAs who travelled outside of Canada over the holidays. As punishment, Kenney had previously stripped him of his legislative committee positions.

The travel scandal, however, released a wave of backlash against the rookie MLA. 

Handmade signs critical of Rehn popped up in High Prairie and Slave Lake.

Earlier this month, Slave Lake town council called for Rehn to resign in a scathing public missive that accused him of missing or arriving ill-prepared for meetings and placing his personal business interests over constituency work. 

High Prairie town council voted unanimously last week to send a letter to Rehn addressing his lack of presence in the region.

Rehn 'relieved', plans to oppose some COVID-19 restrictions

In a Facebook message posted late Thursday, Rehn thanked Kenney and the party for the opportunity to run and "stand up for a free enterprise Alberta."

But he looks forward to the added political freedom of sitting as an independent and said he plans to be more vocal about his concerns with certain COVID-19 health restrictions. 

"I was disappointed, but to be frank, also relieved," Rehn wrote about the decision to remove him. 

"There are some advantages of not being tied to a party, however, I will now be able to express my opposition of some of the lockdown measures, such as closing gyms and businesses," he wrote.

"I believe strongly that measures must be taken to prevent COVID-19 spread, but also recognize the long-lasting effects caused by the lockdown itself." 

Rehn said he still still part of some "large projects in the works" and feels optimistic about the months ahead.

"I am optimistic this region will see great growth as we move forward, put 2020 behind us, and start fresh in 2021." 

'Uphill battle' to win back confidence

Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman said Kenney's decision to remove Rehn from the caucus is a good first step, but he repeated his calls for Rehn to resign his seat and force a byelection. 

"He's lost the support of the people of this region; he's lost the support of the elected leaders in this region and now lost the support of his own party and the government he works with," Warman said. "I don't know what a stronger message you could get as an MLA."

High Prairie council sent a letter to Rehn outlining their concerns with Rehn's performance. Councillors decided not to call for Rehn's resignation since they hadn't raised concerns with him previously and wanted to give him a chance to improve. 

High Prairie Mayor Brian Panasiuk isn't sure how Rehn's removal from caucus will play out but said the town is still counting on him for representation.

However, Rehn's intent to speak out against COVID-19 restrictions seems to miss the mark, Panasiuk told CBC's Edmonton AM on Friday.

"COVID right now in our region is quite high," he said, citing statistics that show Big Lakes County has the third worst infection rate per 100,000 in Alberta.

"I'm not sure if lifting all of that is going to help our particular county." 

He said the MLA has a lot of work to do to earn back confidence. 

"There are some serious concerns out there, and it's going to be a bit of an uphill battle for him," Panasiuk said. "But I think it's possible if he does what he's been paid to do."

In his statement, Kenney said the province is in contact with local government officials in the Slave Lake constituency.

"Alberta government Ministers and I will be meeting with Lesser Slave Lake constituents in the weeks to come to ensure that they have direct access to their government, and to help them address important local issues," Kenney wrote. 

Earlier this week, Rehn's expense claims for the first two quarters of 2020 came to light. The claims suggested he spent very little time in his constituency. 

The MLA claimed per diems for meals purchased in Edmonton for all but two days in May, most of June and every day in July. The legislature sat for five days in April and five days in May due to the pandemic. 

Sittings were more regular in June and July but Rehn even claimed meal per diems on weekends in July. In total, his per diem claims totalled $4,488 for the first two quarters of the 2020-21 fiscal year. Claims for the third quarter, which ended on Dec. 31, will be posted at the end of January.