BONNYVILLE - Gene Sobolewski has confirmed “the rumour is true” that he will not be seeking a third term as Bonnyville’s mayor in the upcoming municipal election.
First elected in 2004 to Bonnyville Town Council, Sobolewski served three consecutive terms as a councillor before going on to win the mayor’s chair in 2013 and again in 2017. While he told LakelandTODAY.ca it has been “a fantastic run,” he is out of the race.
“It’s been a part of my lifeblood for so many years now but there is a time when you need to be able to sit back and say it is time to take on new challenges and allow other visionaries and other people to take the reins and move forward and I’m at that stage in my life.”
Seventeen years as a municipal politician has offered up many memories and so as he winds down on his political career, Sobolewski said the highlights are easy to identify with two of the biggest occurring during this last term.
Tapping into a Cold Lake water supply easily takes a top spot for the mayor. It was something he campaigned on in 2004 when first elected to council, promising to work towards getting the Town’s water supply on solid footing after years of concern around both the source and quality. With the final work completed this year, Sobolewski said this has been a tremendous accomplishment for the municipality and bodes well for the future.
Getting a share of the ID 349 linear tax to the tune of $6.8 million was also huge for Bonnyville and will go a long way to shoring up the municipality’s finances and made sure the community was not left out in the cold, he said, adding last fall’s announcement on that front was a significant win for the town.
“We were originally excluded from the funding formula and having to deal with successive governments, but bringing that to fruition was a high point.”
Other highlights he is proud to be a part of involve reinvesting in the community in terms of reconstruction and maintenance of the Town’s infrastructure, above and below ground, and also continuing to work and lobby for services for residents.
"You can see some of the fruits of our labour with the reconstruction projects that are going on. We’ve done a lot of maintenance work in terms of paving projects. We have the accomplishment of the senior’s lodge – the amazing phases that have been completed there. We have our doctor recruitment committee that made some incredible headway and was very instrumental in raising awareness in Alberta to the plights of the doctors and some of the issues arising from some of the decisions made at EMS. We’ve got the Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority – when we took on the role of 911 back in 2005 and then we’ve got the ambulance service under one umbrella now, so we’ve got a model that’s looked upon as the model to copy in Alberta.”
He admits this last term on council has not been an easy one and there were times when council was not working as a cohesive unit.
“At times we worked well together but I think at other times, depending on the issue that arose, I think we were very divided. If I were to rank the council terms, I would definitely rank this one as one of the most difficult because there were a number of divisive issues that tend to arose. We had to work through them but this one was a bit of a difficult term.”
Sobolewski believes Bonnyville is well-positioned for the future, despite the economic hardship brought on by the slump in the oil industry, but cautions against taking the ID 349 funding for granted, saying it is essential the town continue to build partnerships and identify new revenue sources.
“The town of Bonnyville and the region itself, we need to actively look at diversification to the point of where can we find new money and bringing new money into the area and what does that look like,” he said. “It may require some partnering not only with other municipalities but also with some First Nations and the Métis to collectively, as a region, develop visions for sustainability and go after opportunities as they arrive.”
He said the new council needs to be very aware of looming issues around provincial funding.
“The Province of Alberta is continuing to decimate local budgets – all of your funding is incredibly compromised by the provincial government. Every time they announce a cut in provincial funding to municipalities it is always a hit. Remember we are a creature of statue to the provincial government – we are basically arm's length. So, if they starve a municipality or services can’t be accomplished it does end up on their doorstep regardless to how the arguments go.”
Sobolewski is particularly concerned about what he describes as the provincial government offloading services onto municipalities, particularly policing and mental health supports, and the increasing numbers of groups looking to municipalities to pick up the funding slack.
“A lot of groups are coming to municipalities and requesting funding in order to stay sustainable as a service to your community. Meanwhile, the province of Alberta is shedding that and then standing at the podium and bragging about how well they are doing with the cutting of funds.”
The raising of the Treaty 6 flag in Bonnyville brought with it long overdue recognition of the Indigenous community and the significance of their history on the land of which the municipality is now a steward, he said. He now looks forward to the raising of the Métis flag this coming month in the community.
For those looking to throw their hat into the ring for the mayor’s chair, Sobolewski does not hold back on offering up some sage advice.
“Never accept the role with an agenda. You are not singularly going to fix anything, you are not going to repair anything, you are not going to remove employees you don’t like, and you are not going to reduce taxes magically without a significant impact to services. But instead take the role on as wanting to better your community,” he said.
“It’s going to be a challenge, don’t hold any illusions that this is going to be a part-time gig or that you will put in a minimal amount of hours. As the mayor you are going to be looked upon as the leader, as the mayor you are going to be looked upon as the key decision-maker and as the mayor, most importantly, whenever anything is going wrong you are the one who is going to be targeted and sought out to deal with issues and correct these issues not matter where they appear on the scale of things.”
More than anything else, Sobolewski reminds would-be mayoral candidates that they need a clear vision of where they see the community in the next five to ten years and, most importantly, that they recognize they are but one voice at the council table.
“You always, always, always have to remember that as mayor, the chief elected official, has absolutely no authority to unilaterally make decisions. As the chief elected officer, by the virtue of the (Municipal Government) Act, you are a part of a group and the group is called council and they are the only ones who can unilaterally make a decision. All you are as the chief elected official is you are the chair and you are the one that the people look upon as the first call.”
Sobolewski expressed his thanks to the "citizens and ratepayers of Bonnyville for having the confidence in me not only in electing me as a councillor but more importantly the confidence to have me sit in the mayor’s chair. It was an absolute privilege. When I was first elected, I was humbled. When I took the chair of mayor, I was humbled even further. I took the role and the privilege of the title very seriously and at all times in any decisions I always put the citizens and the ratepayers of the Town of Bonnvyille first and foremost before other personal agenda items.”