The controversy swirling around Derek Fildebrandt has finally prompted the United Conservative Party MLA for Brooks-Strathmore to step down from the party caucus.
Fildebrandt issued a statement Aug. 15 announcing his departure from caucus and noting “This young party cannot afford to be distracted from the formative period that it is in right now as we come together as conservatives.”
Earlier in the month, Fildebrandt found himself in the centre of a media storm when it was revealed he had been sub-letting his Edmonton apartment when he wasn’t using it. It struck a nerve with those who questioned him making money from the arrangement while at the same time receiving a taxpayer-funded housing allowance.
Fildebrandt insisted he had made sure his action was compliant with the rules and pointed out that “Letting out an unused residence is reasonable and a part of the modern sharing economy.”
Soon afterward, however, he apologized and took a leave from his role as the party’s finance critic. He also said he had repaid the amount he had earned during the eight months, $2,555.
Then a new stain on his image appeared when he was accused of double dipping with respect to his staff’s meal expense claims. This led to another apology and an acknowledgment that there were “some administrative errors” involving up to $192.60 over two years.
The amounts in question certainly aren’t large and it’s quite possible they were the result of mistakes or, in the case of the sub-letting, an honest assumption that there was nothing wrong with what he was doing.
But in politics, it always boils down to appearances, or the “optics” — that is, the perception that is created by a situation or a message.
In Fildebrandt’s case, the “optics” suggested another instance of a politician improperly using taxpayer money. And few things irk taxpayers more than seeing money in the public purse abused by public servants.
It shouldn’t be hard to understand why that is. After all, the vast majority of taxpayers work hard for their money and many of them are just trying to scrape by financially. They don’t enjoy the perks that politicians and people in the higher levels of public service enjoy, and it’s a poke in the eye when taxpayer funds aren’t treated with proper respect.
Politicians need to keep this in mind in regard to all of their actions that involve the use of public money or taxpayer-funded services or things. Anything that gives the appearance of a lack of respect for hard-earned taxpayer money is going to rub citizens the wrong way.
Fildebrandt has learned a harsh lesson, but it’s a lesson that other politicians would do well to remember.