LAC LA BICHE - The continuing waves of the COVID pandemic are creating more waves of frustration for municipal councils who say the provincial government is downloading unwanted responsibilities onto municipal residents.
Those frustrations peaked in the first of two special council meetings held over the last week. That meeting, held last Friday, Sept. 17, saw members of the Lac La Biche County council agree with a comment that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is a "coward" for not handling new preventative measures from a provincial standpoint.
During last Friday's special council meeting, councillors were tasked with choosing between three options based on the province's latest COVID-19 restriction measures. Council could: implement a Restrictive Exemption Plan (REP) at municipal recreation facilities that would remove all occupancy restrictions, but reduce access to only those who have vaccination proof; or they could choose to sidestep the REP and continue with existing restrictive measures on occupancy, adult programming and social distancing in the facilities; or go with a final option of closing the centres down until the latest Alberta Public Health State of Emergency is over.
After an hour-long debate, council chose not to go with the REP and decided to maintain the restrictive measures at the Bold Center and Portage Pool, restricting adult programming and adult team sports along with several other provisions for all residents. It was a decision municipal councillors have spent the last week saying should have been handled by the province.
"I think the download is appalling. Right before a municipal election, Jason Kenney takes the coward's move out and puts it onto the municipalities and businesses to make the decision," said Coun. Lorin Tkachuk, one of two current councillors whose ward includes downtown Lac La Biche businesses.
Tkachuk said the whole issue of the restrictions has caused rifts in communities and families. Asking the municipality to wade into that fight was a blunder on the province's part, he said.
"I think it's absolute crap," he said bluntly during the public meeting.
Others on council agreed, some even saying Tkachuk's words were exactly what they were planning to say.
"Now my notes are useless," said councillor George L'Heureux, pulling a page of notes out of his council binder, and saying Tkachuk said what he was thinking. "This is appalling. This download is really disturbing for me."
"Me too. There goes half of my scribbling," said councillor Jason Stedman, who admitted he personally preferred the option with the REP in place as it was a way to get out of the rolling waves of the pandemic and the restrictions. "I don't know how many businesses and residents who can do it a fourth time."
The frustrations have lead Lac La Biche County councillors to create a resolution they want to see acted on by the provincial associations that represents Alberta's municipalities. Days later, at another special meeting this past Wednesday, September 22, council voted unanimously to have the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association and the Agricultural Service Board tell the provincial government that future decisions on restrictions should not be downloaded to municipalities.
The wording of the resolution maintained the strong frustrations of Friday's "cowardice" conversation... at first.
After a few minutes of discussion about how strong they wanted it to be, council opted to soften the message — slightly — by replacing the word "demand" with "advocate" in the opening line: Be it resolved that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta contact the Premier and the minister of health of the Government of Alberta to demand that provincial health restrictions and decisions be made by the provincial government and not downloaded onto municipalities.
"I think 'demand' might be a little strong," said Lac La Biche County CAO Ken VanBuul, whose administrative team had put the resolution together.
Others agreed — but still wanted to let the government know their feelings.
"Demand is a little strong — but I think that is what we are doing. We are putting a line in the sand and stamping our feet," said Coun. Charlyn Moore.
"I also see demand as a strong word. I'd rather see it changed to 'worked with'," said L'Heureux.
Tkachuk thought the word 'demand' carried the appropriate weight.
"Our residents are demanding it and we as their leaders should be demanding it. It sends a clear message of where we stand," he said.
Mayor Omer Moghrabi opted for diplomacy over emotion, saying that despite his own frustrations, consideration should be given to the recent provincial government cabinet shuffle that replaced Health Minister Tyler Shandro with former minister of Labour Jason Copping. The cabinet changes only took place on Tuesday.
"Keep in mind, this a new minister who only just came in, we want to engage him. I'd like to give a new opportunity to the new minister," said Moghrabi. "We want to send our message, and not beat up the new minister."
The wording of the resolution to be sent to the RMA, AUMA and ASB organizations will read: Be it resolved that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta contact the Premier and the Minister of Health of the Government of Alberta to advocate that provincial health restrictions and decisions be made by the provincial government and not downloaded onto municipalities.
The wording of the resolution needed a special meeting of council because the RMA Zone meeting takes place Friday and council wanted to be sure it was a discussion point. Resolutions approved at the zone meetings are included in the resolutions brought to the RMA fall convention in November. Resolutions passed at the fall convention become action items for the association.